Wednesday, April 18, 2018

An East Berlin early Cold War tea mystery

Someone contacted me about a tea mystery, about tracking down a childhood tea for an acquaintance of theirs, with the details as follows:

He is seeking a tea he remembers from his childhood in Berlin after the war. It is likely to be Russian, or perhaps, Georgian. He does not know the name or type. It is very, very strong, sort of ‘oily’ but not exactly oily, smokey but not Lapsang. The family housekeeper would bring it from the Russian-held part of Berlin.

So the time frame is late 1940's, with that tea from East Berlin. A Russian tea vendor contact told me what is now being sold as "Russian caravan blend" is a made-up designation, just modern marketing spin, but if it had existed 70 years ago that would be a possibility. A blend including some Lapsang Souchong would account for the limited smokiness. Or tea processing style or preparation methods could be other critical factors.

The "oily" designation may be a clue; not many teas come across in that way, and black teas in general tend not to. Maybe it's a black tea but mixed with an herb, which is not unheard of in Russia. I have willow herb at home, also called "Ivan chay," and it has been described that way, and per recently trying it I could see the connection.

I posted this as a request for more input in a few related online groups.  I'll include a combined review of the best input here.  I'd asked in the International Tea Talk Facebook group that I'm an admin for, in the Gong Fu Cha group, in a St. Petersburg FB expat group, on Quora, and in the Trip Advisor travel forum section, and in a couple of other similar groups.

me with a mural in the St. Petersburg metro system

That last group mentioned might seem a little out of place; tea history isn't travel.  Back when I was asking around about tea in Russia before I went there over the last New Years people active in that group / discussion area were most helpful.  They were a little touchy about people not reading the entire FAQ section too (who does that?), but beyond that very nice and informative.  I'm a fan of Russian culture now, after that trip, and that kind sums up how Russians seem in general:  a little gruff, and plain-spoken, but nice and helpful as could be once you get past all that.

I'm a member of that St. Petersburg expat group for the same reason.  St. Petersburg is fantastic, by the way, almost worth it to visit just to see the metro system and the buildings.

Let's go right to what turned up.

Groups and forums input

One person in the St. Petersburg forum mentioned this great article on the old "elephant" brand Russian commercial tea.  It seems pretty unlikely that's what it was but maybe it could've been.  Per that article it seems more likely that product was developed in the 1960's, with the question about a tea experienced in the late 1940's.

Russian "elephant" tea (credit that reference article page)

I'll cite some of that article, since it's fascinating, if not a likely lead:

Initially, there was only Russian Georgian tea in the USSR . This was a real breakthrough in the industrial industry, and the drink was even exported to other countries, where it became popular... In the seventies the tea industry in the USSR fell, the state suffered losses and began to decide what to do about it. 

Many people, who came to the USSR, sadly remember those times when both "the grass was greener and the sky was cleaner", and the products were of the highest quality, in comparison with them, even the imported ones were useless. But many did not even suspect at the time that they drank tea, collected not in the territory of their beloved homeland, but far beyond its borders. It so happened that the Georgian tea had become unusable, so the USSR concluded a contract for the supply of tea with countries such as Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanzania, India and Vietnam. With our previous importer, China, which could also supply tea, our state quarreled and therefore did not use its services... Initially, this scam went well, but still "domestic" tea replaced the same Indian tea "with an elephant". 

This tea was distinguished not only by its bright and strong taste, but also by packaging, which was specially developed in 1967, and Indian tea "with an elephant" was sold in 1972... Tea "with an elephant" was divided into higher and first grade... The first grade packaging contained only 15% of tea from India, 5% from Ceylon, 25% from Madagascar, and as many as 55% of sheets from Georgia. 

It's a little rough (automatic translation) but all that seems clear enough.  The earliest time-line isn't really stated but if the earliest date mentioned is the initial origin the products were made since the 1960s.

A link mentioned in the Trip Advisor forum responses shows the modern version of the tea for sale (which had been discontinued at one point), with that person's input that the modern version of the tea didn't seem very good to him.

That Quora question turned up some interesting input, not cited for sourcing, but worth considering:

The three main general kinds of black tea available for the Soviets at that time were: Chinese, Georgian and Azerbaijanian. Of those, the Chinese tea would be the least probable, given the state of matters in China at that time (civil war followed by the Japanese invasion).

The Georgian black tea of lesser quality (it’s highly doubtable that the elite kind would be available to the troops) is described as “smelling like tobacco and having a terrible taste.” The Azerbaijanian tea was quite similar.

As for the herbs, the Russians were often adding all kinds of those to the tea, the main limitations being the fantasy of the cook and the availability of the herbs around. Therefore it would be almost impossible to know what exactly was added back then (if it was). The Ivan Chay, aka Fireweed (US), aka Rosebay Willowherb (UK), was not only used as an additive, but also as a cheap surrogate when the real tea was unavailable.

Another comment (hard to keep track of where) claimed Indian tea was also available in Russia at that time.  Indian and Sri Lankan teas were definitely around then, so it might come down to a matter of what really were "main" imports, per that answer input framing.  That overall import source proportion may not determine if teas from those nationalities really would have been sold in East Berlin then.  It would be impossible to remember a taste from 70 years ago in enough detail to trace that back to a foreign tea style back then, never mind linking it to a blend.  The aim here is to see how far review might be able to get.

dog sledding at 5 PM; it had been night for a couple of hours

I just had black tea mixed with herbs (which ones wasn't described) in a visit to a sled dog camp outside of Murmansk, Russia, back during the last week of 2017.  It was a bit hard to place; it's easier for mixes of different things to be non-distinct.  That was actually made in a samovar too, the only time that came up in the Russia trip.

In kind of a typical theme for me I was taking my daughter to use the restroom when they actually talked about that part, that brewing device, and what teas were typical, and what it was we drank then.  My son just became a Thai novice monk monk recently, and after waiting around for two days of training and build-up my daughter absolutely needed to use the restroom at a few moments before he took the vows (with more on how all that worked out here).  I really don't mind at all; they are the priority, and the rest comes and goes as it will.

samovars brewing tea at the dogsled camp

that tea break, just before they brought out crepes

with tea break company like this the other details don't matter so much

To make a longish story short I reported back to the person posing the question that I thought the tea probably would have been one of three things:

1.  an earlier version of a Russian caravan blend, mixing Lapsang Souchong and other tea versions.

2.  a Georgian or Azerbaijanian black tea.

3.  black tea mixed with willow herb (Ivan Chay) or other tisanes.

It probably never would be possible to narrow down which it was.  It would be possible to try modern Georgian tea, and that tisane, willow herb (with both sold through this Moychay site), and to try out mixing the two.  Maybe something would seem really familiar, a likely match.  I reviewed two Georgian black teas from Moychay here and they just seemed like normal black teas, maybe slightly different in character as teas from different regions or teas processed differently tend to.

Review of willow herb

I bought willow herb in the Perlov shop in Moscow (where I also bought the only Russian tea I found on that trip), and this prompted me to try out that tisane, reviewed as follows.

the exterior of that shop is beautiful

friendly Russian guy who translated tea labels for me there

The "tea" tastes nice rich and malty, just in a different sense than in the two other ways I tend to use malt as a description.  The main way I use that description is for Assam, related to that strong near-mineral flavor range.  A second is for sweeter, richer, smoother teas with a version of malt that reminds me more of Ovaltine.  A mid-roasted rolled oolong can also taste malty (like a Dong Ding), which can be really pronounced in a winter harvest tea version, but it's malt in a different sense, a bit closer to how Ovaltine comes across, or a malted milkshake.

When I first smelled this tea a warm, sweet, complex scent was familiar from long ago:  it smelled like animal feed.  That sounds like an insult, but processed malted grains used as animal feed smell nice.  I won't get too far into details but I raised pigs when I was younger, growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania.  There are more stories about how that went but none that help the context make any more sense than it already does.  It was kind of a normal thing to do there.

I don't know what those feeds were made from, although I must have read the bags back then, around 40 years ago.  I don't know how they were processed in order to smell as sweet and rich as they did, or what was blended with what.  I loved the smells related to that farming activity, and truth be told I loved those animals too, perhaps one main reason I spent nearly 20 years as a vegetarian later in life.

The first taste of the tisane was a little like that, just probably much cleaner, more complex, and more pleasant than it sounds.  Tisanes often come across as really one-dimensional compared to actual tea but this had a good bit of aspect complexity going for it.  The flavor was sweet and rich, mostly related to that malted grain taste.  There was other earthy range that gave it more depth, a strange sort of root-spice complexity, not so far off licorice.  It's almost as much an overlapping interpretation versus being a different aspect but it also tastes like bread dough, that one yeast-like flavor that comes up.  The feel was thick, a bit oily, and the tasting experience ended with more trailing aftertaste than usually occurs with tisanes.

Related to this being drank on its own it's fine, a bit richer and more complex than infused herbs tend to be.  I'd probably rather drink a mid-roasted rolled oolong, which seems closest to this in profile, but those are more complex.  It might work really well combined with black tea, since it is smooth and complex but a bit thin related to that broader aspect range.  It lacks all of the edge that standard black teas typically have, the astringency, and also the flavor range that is more typical of what people call malt when reviewing teas, and the other mineral or fruit range that different black teas can express.

As chance has it someone just gave me what looks like a pretty standard plain Kenyan tea (Williamson Tea "Traditional Afternoon" blend), so I tried it mixed with that.  I tasted that black tea alone first:  it's CTC tea-bag black tea, not great, not awful, not surprising in any way.

The blend of the two was a little unusual.  I'm just not accustomed to drinking black tea mixed with much, although I did buy a floral and Ceylon black tea commercial blend in Russia for the office staff here.  That was ok, those inputs matched.  It didn't help that I don't really love CTC black tea, that malty, mineral-tone, rust-like edge those have.  This mix might've been what he had been drinking as a child but it would take some getting used to.  That's especially if someone had already been on the page of drinking better Chinese black teas, deviating to drink a better orthodox Assam or Ceylon when those come up.

I think I liked the tisane better alone since it didn't run counter to my expectations for black tea in the same way.  That malted grain and licorice range sweetness and flavor depth just seems odd paired up with it.  Towards the end it started to make more sense and I'd bet if I had it a few times I'd like it a lot better.

Back to the search

I drifted just a little further towards tracking down willow herb (Ivan chay) and other Georgian tea options in NYC but didn't get far with that.  I asked about options in a NYC tea group and heard nothing back.  I had tried a reasonable Russian caravan blend from Sun's Organic in the NYC Chinatown but it wasn't really close to that initial flavor description.  It seemed highly unlikely that even a tea based on the same mix of tea type inputs (from the same regions) would be similar when made from modern versions.

I asked around a little about Russian markets in NYC but mail order was probably going to be an easier path to follow, unless the person checking wanted to spend a couple hours on Google search and a half a day walking around that related neighborhood.

Of course Google does turn up options fairly quickly, so it wouldn't take much to try finding that one tisane.  After a few clicks an online option turned up locally (there), associated with a local physical store, and some of the same search options I'd checked in this investigation turned up other promising leads.

As mentioned it really could've just been plain, unusual character Georgian or Azerbaijanian black tea, and it may not be possible to find an identically processed tea version today, 70 years later.  If someone had dried teas indoors using heat from a wood fire back then that could have contributed that smoke aspect, and what might well be seen as updated processing improvements might drop that smoke aspect out.  Ordinary black tea shouldn't seem oily, a plain tea or a blend, so maybe that was from an herb, or it could've just been from a processing flaw, or atypical result.  At one point I considered whether it may have even been a Liu Bao instead (a hei cha, not black tea at all), but I've not been discussing that since I rejected it as unlikely.

If anyone reading this thinks "I know what that probably was" it would be interesting to hear more input, probably best communicated through this blog's related Facebook page.

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