The Story of Caspian Tea
by Thomas Tomporowski
Just like its westerly neighbour Georgia, Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet tea growing project, which peaked sometime in the 1960s. Central planners of that era made tea the source of regional pride, as well as the main employer of tens of thousands of people. At its heyday, tea plantations stretched from Black Sea in the West, to Caspian Sea in the East, covering a multitude of disparate locations. Not all of them are accessible today, given the current political map of the region; we will just need to leave tea grown in Abkhazia or Dagestan for another day.
There were reasons to be optimistic about Azerbaijani tea. Unlike wine-loving Georgia, Azerbaijan is an Islamic republic, meaning that tea is the beverage of choice, and the fuel of social interactions. While we didn’t expect to find more than black tea, bearing in mind the former tea prowess of the region, we hoped for something more refined, or at least interesting.
Azerbaijani tea houses
The central point of Azerbaijani tea experience is the teahouse. These can vary in style and décor, but most are rudimentary working class joints, filled exclusively with men, discussing regional and world politics (your correspondent was certainly brought up to speed). The tea drinking follows the familiar Turkish method, with a sugar cube placed in the mouth followed by good slurp from an hourglass shaped glass. The tea is boiled to death in large samovars, which makes a tannic, yet uneventful brew, constantly topped up by attentive waiters. Not that the taste would matter with all the shisha smoke in the air or sugar in the mouth.
Azerbaijani tea ceremony.
Where a venue caters for a mixed audience, the tea experience gets more interesting. Cups become prettier, teapot appears on the table, along with a mini samovar for a more personal service. More importantly, the tea ceremony isn’t complete without a small cup of jam, served alongside the tea. For the avoidance of doubt, no toast or butter are served; the jam goes in the tea. While putting jam into tea may seem like heresy for just about any tea drinking country that isn’t Azerbaijan, there is a time and place for everything, and a warm spring evening in Baku is the acceptable answer.
So this is what the demand looks like, what about supply? The tea industry still exists, although the geography has shifted somewhat. The country’s tea standards used to be set by the town of Lankaran, but these days most plantations are further down south in Aslana, very close to the Iranian border. Today’s plantations are efficient and appear well maintained. The vibe is distinctly official – of the two factories we visited, both were adorned by photos of the former leader and the source of national pride, Heydar Alijev, visiting the farms, in the same style communist leaders posed for photos 50 years ago. There are visitor offices, small museums, and tea cultivar displays showing an interested visitor the types of plants grown by the plantations. The border between private enterprise and the state may be blurred, but this does not matter to us - as long as the tea is good.
A lot of the tea still appears to be plucked by hand and we were in luck to arrive in the picking season. The second plantation we visited, the largest in the area, sells six grades of black tea, depending on the number of leaves picked in the mix. The chirpy female pickers work around the bushes relatively efficiently, but the picking of new leaves is indiscriminate. We were advised that the factory then spends the time sorting the leaves to work out the grades, but we were not privy to this process. Again, it’s the tea that matters, and the location, in the narrow stretch of lowlands between the mysterious Talesh mountains and mineral-rich Caspian Sea makes for an inspiring setting.
The tea is as good as you would expect from a robust and invigorating black, certainly worth the four hour taxi ride from Baku in a rickety Lada blaring Chechen music. Higher grades demonstrated beautiful chocolate / citrus notes, and we could certainly see Azeri teas being a hit with any breakfast tea drinkers. We won’t be selling any for the time being though. While each country we source the tea from has its own little administrative quirks of the export process, we are perfectly happy to support them as long as it doesn’t extend to facilitation payments to government officials. Until Azerbaijan works this out, the flavours of Caspian tea will remain at the Caspian.