Why Is Turkey So Obsessed With Tea

It’s a glorious day in Turkey, the kind you’d hoped would greet you when you arrived after travelling thousands of miles to get here, as we’re doing next September. In the distance, the luminously blue Mediterranean is glittering in the sunshine, and around you, one of the most spectacular cities in the world awaits: former center of the other Roman Empire, a timeless bridge between two continents, and a destination for many an obsessive travel writer

The sunset of the Mediterranean Sea
The sunset of the Mediterranean Sea

But honestly, that’s an awful lot to think about. You’re tired, dehydrated and a bit hot & bothered, and what you really want is something to drink.

If I was in this situation, I’d probably chug back a litre of water and then ask for a coffee. I mean – this is Turkey, formerly the home of the Ottoman Empire, which famously tried to ban the stuff four times before intense public pressure (and, no doubt, the healthy economics of coffee culture) defeated the restrictions for good. Coffee-drinking in modern Turkey is a thing of legend – not just the powerful variety known as Turkish Coffee where the grounds are left to settle at the bottom of your cup, but also all the other varieties you can find elsewhere, the high-street chains and their trendy cappuccinos.  

So why is everyone around you right now drinking tea?

As I wrote about in 2020, we Brits pride ourselves on our tea-guzzling capacities. It’s a source of national pride that we knock back 165 million cups a day of it. So it’s a bit of a shock to learn just how completely that modern Turkey has us beat in tea-drinking terms: each of Turkey’s 84 million inhabitants drink around 4 cups of tea a day, on average. It means that every year, each Turkish citizens consumes a whopping 3.5kg of tea – almost double the average Brit. In fact, per capita, nobody else on the planet drinks more tea than the coffee-loving Turks.

This looks like a baffling puzzle until you understand the history at work here.  

The Silk Road enhanced the trade between Asia and Europe
The Silk Road enhanced the trade between Asia and Europe

Tea certainly isn’t new in this part of the world: in the 5th Century, Silk road traders brought it from the east, mainly as a medicinal drink (Turks now call it “çay”, from the Chinese cha). But it wasn’t until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century that its popularity really started to soar, for a number of reasons. Firstly, coffee was getting increasingly expensive – and secondly (and relatedly), the major coffee-growing region of Turkey, Yemen Vilayet, lying along the banks of the Red Sea, was lost to Imam Yahya when he took advantage of waning Ottoman control by forming the Kingdom of Yemen.

The founding father of the new Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, soon realised that tea could become a sign of his new way forward, while also helping stimulate the economy both by being drank and being grown & traded. In 1924, the first large-scale tea plantations were laid down in Rize province, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. It would take decades of agricultural improvements before they’d become viable – but from 1939 onwards, tea crops stabilized. 

Today, Turkish tea (almost all from Rize) makes up 4% of all the world’s tea production, and it’s become the 5th-largest exporter of tea on the planet (most of it going to Germany). At the same time, the tea-drinking commercial sector in Turkey is protected with an eye-watering 145% import tax, meaning that drinking Rize tea isn’t just a source of national pride, it’s also pretty much the only way to run a tea-house without risking bankrupting yourself or pricing yourself out of the high street.

Then there’s the ritual of it all. The reason you can see everyone’s drinking tea is because they’re not using cups – they’re drinking from beautiful tulip-shaped glasses. These are called ince belli (“slim-waisted”), and the national glassblowing industry produces 400 million of them a year to keep citizens and tourists happy. 

These glasses don’t usually have handles, and the bare glass gets too hot to hold – so you’ll see that everyone’s delicately holding them by the flared upper rim. There’s no milk, and certainl;y no lemon – you just sweeten it with sugar (ideally using sugar cubes). 

The unique glass for Turkish tea
The unique glass for Turkish tea

But you also get the chance to choose the tea’s strength: it’s brewed in two big teapots called Çaydanlık, one stacked on top of the other, and water boiled in the lower pot is used to dilute the tea brewing in the upper one. Your tea is a bit too strong for your tastes? Simple: you dilute with the hot water put aside for that exact purpose. (If that sounds a bit heretical, it’s worth remembering that dilution has always been the classy, cultured thing to do in many parts of the world: take the ancient Greeks and Romans, who regularly watered down their wine to render it drinkable in polite company.)

This is a good reminder! As you order that tea, and maybe a pastry to go with it – yes, you should probably order a bottle of water for yourself as well. No beverage will rehydrate you as well as that will.

But while it may seem that a cold drink is the best way to cool off on a hot day in Turkey (even in September, the average temperature will be around 26 C / 79 F), it seems a hot drink is actually the way to go if you want to cool down. In 2012 Ollie Jay, a researcher at the University of Ottawa, modelled the effect of drinking hot beverages on warm days, and found that by increasingly your tendency to sweat which led to increased evaporative cooling on your skin, they actually bring your core temperature down faster than a cold drink does… 

So hey, that second, third and fourth tea – they’re not an unnecessary indulgence, it’s about staying cool like the locals do. So what else could Turkey teach you? Only one way to find out.

Yachting the Turkish Mediterranean
Yachting the Turkish Mediterranean

Join Wheel & Anchor in September 2024 to explore the crossroads of culture and civilizations in Istanbul, followed by a trip overland down the Aegean Coast of Turkey on our way to a 7 night yachting adventure on a luxurious Turkish gulet. More details here

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