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Turks are the world’s biggest tea drinkers. What makes çay so special?

A cup of Turkish tea in a traditional ince belli (which literally translates to "slim-waisted") glass
A cup of Turkish tea in a traditional ince belli (which literally translates to "slim-waisted") glass Copyright Unsplash/Takenori Okada
Copyright Unsplash/Takenori Okada
By euronews
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Tea is big in Türkiye, bigger than in any other country, in fact. We speak to a local tea producer to find out everything you need to know about çay.

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In Türkiye, tea – or çay – is no mere refreshment, it plays a key role in Turkish culture. Drunk throughout the day, though often taken after dinner and at social events, çay is integral to most social interactions. In fact, Türkiye is the biggest per-person consumer of tea in the world. There are even prestigious “tea masters” whose profession it is to produce, promote and consume it as part of their daily lives.

One such expert is Ahmet Albayrak, tea taster and owner of Ceceva Tea Gardens in the village of Haremtepe on the Black Sea coast (the most suitable area in the country for production). Three years ago, after noticing how consumption in Türkiye was on the rise, Ahmet and his partner Esra Albayrak opened the gardens in a bid to allow visitors a taste of the local leaf. Ahmet sat down with us to give an insight into all things çay.

Why is tea so significant in Türkiye?

Popular consumption of tea in Türkiye is believed to date back to the Silk Road, when roadside inns –  caravanserai - offered tea to tired travellers. It then became a staple for travellers on long journeys. Its proliferation today, however, is attributed to deliberate efforts in the 20th century, when the Turkish parliament began encouraging citizens to grow leaves in the tea-friendly terroir along the Black Sea coast.

For Ahmet, and Turks all over the country, it has become a part of daily life. “Tea is a timeless drink for Turks,” he says. “We’re a society that schedules our meetings by saying: ‘Let's drink tea.’ In workplaces, breaks are called ‘tea breaks’ and the fact that the tea produced in Türkiye suits the Turkish palate is a reason why it’s loved so much.”

Ahmet goes on to explain that the reason Turkish tea is so special is because the colder climate along the coast sees plants covered in snow in the winter. This frosting acts as a natural barrier to diseases, meaning the plants don’t need chemical protection, lending the leaves a natural, strong flavour.

Where is çay produced?

Rize is a hub for tea production in Türkiye
Rize is a hub for tea production in TürkiyeUnsplash/Youssef Mohamed

Around 60% of Turkish tea is grown in Rize, a misty, mountainous region along the Black Sea. The microclimate here makes it the most suitable place in the country to grow the plants, possessing a humid, rainy atmosphere ideal for fostering tea leaf development. While much of the tea is made here, the vast majority of it doesn’t leave Türkiye, as it is so in demand domestically.

How do you make the perfect cup of Turkish çay?

Turkish çay is brewed differently than in other countries. Ahmet explains: “Brewing tea in Türkiye is done in a two-piece kitchen utensil called a ‘caydanlik’ (teapot). There is boiled water in the lower part and a certain amount of the hot water and tea leaves are added to the upper part. It’s then served by diluting it with water in a glass specific to the Turks.”

Caydanlik - traditional Turkish teapots - are somewhat of a spectacle themselves. Many are large and ornate and made from a variety of materials such as porcelain, steel and copper. Tea takes longer to prepare in these than it would in other countries, adding to the sense of ceremony associated with its consumption. Drinking glasses are short, narrow-necked (sometimes made from copper or steel) and designed to retain heat. Though traditionally enjoyed unsweetened, many tea lovers add sugar or honey to soften its bitter edge.

Where are the best places to enjoy a cup of çay?

There’s no bad place to enjoy a cup of çay and Ahmet's suggestions are wide-ranging, beginning with his tea gardens. Additionally, he recommends drinking tea in Bosphorus, Izmir Cordon and Hellespont. For çay with a view, Istanbul’s Camlica Hill is the place to be. On the Asian side of Istanbul, this near-300-metre-high hill offers views all across the Bosporus. A number of Ottoman tea houses and eateries dot the public park making sipping a cup of çay here truly idyllic.

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