The Turks are the biggest tea drinkers in the world. The average Turkish citizen drinks seven pounds of black cay, per person, per year. This comes as no surprise to me; since moving here nearly two years ago, I have been offered tea in every possible circumstance: the local butcher presents it as I wait for my lamb chops to be packaged, the fishmonger offers a hot brew while he fillets a local sea bream and last week I even enjoyed several hot sugary cuppas while waiting for a lamp to be rewired in the local electric shop.
A typical Turkish retail experience doesn’t involve standing in long queues but sitting comfortably on a counterside stool, sipping the national drink from a shapely glass. (Turks hardly ever drink from disposable cups – their tulip-shaped tea vessel is a design classic.)
Last week I found myself in Turkish tea country. Most of the country’s black cay is grown in the highlands of the eastern Black Sea region; here, in the provinces of Trabzon and Rize, tea plantations cling to steep slopes surrounded by hazelnut groves. It’s one of the only places in the world where tea grows in snowy climes. Here is Turkey’s alpine territory, complete with a local fondue-like melted cheese dish, which is served, predictably, with a hot cup of you-know-what.
It seems odd that this incredible and unique setting – and the handpicked product it yields - is little known outside Turkey. The country’s tea exports are negligible.
Turkey is missing a trick here. Tea exports are not just good for revenue; exporting a nation’s tea-drinking culture and etiquette has powerful soft-power cache. Emerging markets are thirsty for a premium brew: last year, British tea exports to China saw a 30 per cent increase.
Part of Turkey’s problem stems from the fact that much of its production is government-owned. The industry lacks the competition needed to innovate and refine its offering.
This could soon change. During my trip to the Black Sea I met several entrepreneurs with ambitions to cultivate and export a premium product. Murat Üstün, who runs the Sürçaysan Tea Factory with his father, has been busy turning his traditional family operation into a high-end brand. Murat’s Solen tea line offers several exclusive products including the first picked tea leaves of the May harvest. Murat is already touring international trade fairs and plans to take aim at the British tea-drinking community. “The English love their tea almost as much as we do,” he tells me. “I just have to persuade them to stop using milk.”
A hurdle too far, perhaps? An ambitious sentiment from Turkey’s tea-producing highlands, nevertheless.
Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.