Zavarka tea is a tradition in Russia going back to the beginning of the 20th century. While tea hasn’t always been associated with every class of Russian life, it is as synonymous with the social culture of Russia as tea is in the United Kingdom now.
Zavarka is a concentrated tea brewed for long periods of time in a kettle known as a samovar. Zavarka plays an important role in Russian culture and is iconic for the upper and working classes. Zavarka can be brewed with many types of tea.
So how can you brew up an authentic pot of this delicious tea at home? Keep reading to learn more about zavarka and how to serve it in authentic Russian style.
What Is Zavarka Tea?
Zavarka tea is a method for brewing tea invented by the Russians during the Russian Civil War of 1917. Before this time, drinking tea was restricted to only the upper classes of Russian society. During the civil war, the Red Army captured several large warehouses full of tea, giving the working class access to the same tea as the aristocracy.
In Russian, “zavarka” means “to brew” or “to cook.” This reflects the method used to brew the tea, a long brewing of concentrated tea in a samovar over the course of the day. This results in a strong brew typically diluted before serving.
This post may contain affiliate links. My full disclosure policy is sort of boring, but you can find it here.
What Types of Tea Are Used in Zavarka?
Both black and fruit-based or herbal tisanes are commonly brewed in samovars for zavarka tea. In rural Russia, local herbs and fruits are often included to soften the zavarka’s more bitter flavors. Herbal teas are also popular in low-income areas where they can be foraged rather than purchased.
Black tea is a popular zavarka choice among the upper class. Both Indian and Chinese varieties of tea are used.
What Does Zavarka Taste Like?
The taste of zavarka depends on the type of tea used and how diluted it is when it’s served. Since zavarka is a tea concentrate, it can have a bitter, smokey flavor unless balanced out with a sweetener. However, zavarka tea is not typically served with milk or cream.
How to Brew Zavarka Tea
The process of brewing zavarka tea is relatively simple. Here is a simple zavarka recipe to try:
- To use a samovar, place one heaping tablespoon of loose tea per serving in the samovar, then pour just enough water over the tea to cover it.
- Allow the tea to steep for at least 15 minutes. Longer is better, up to several hours.
- To serve zavarka tea, a quarter cup of this concentrated tea should be poured into each teacup before the rest of the cup is filled with boiling water from a teapot.
- Once the tea has been diluted, it can be sweetened and served.
What Is a Samovar?
A samovar is either a traditional tea kettle or an electric kettle meant to heat tea concentrate for long periods. Generally, tea is placed in the samovar and allowed to brew for several hours before serving in the afternoon. Aside from afternoon tea, zavarka tea is traditionally served at the following times:
- To finish multi-course meals
- As a treat throughout the day
Traditional samovars were passed down from generation to generation, especially those that were highly decorated or valuable. Some samovars from upper class families are intricately engraved, and may even include settings of precious gems.
Do You Need a Samovar to Make Russian Tea?
You don’t necessarily need a samovar to make Russian style tea. You can also use an electric kettle, a microwave, or even an automatic coffeemaker. All you need is a method of keeping your tea pot continually hot.
Having your steeping tea sit on the stove on a burner set to warm works fine too. Just make sure your tea doesn’t get hot enough to boil, or it will all evaporate away before you have a chance to drink it.
Why Doesn’t Zavarka Taste Over Brewed?
Since tea becomes more bitter the longer it is brewed, many people wonder how Russians can brew tea in a samovar all day without the tea becoming too strong to drink. Here are a few explanations (via Reddit) for why zavarka doesn’t taste over brewed despite its long brewing time:
- Controlled temperature: While samovars keep zavarka tea warm all day, these kettles are designed not to overheat tea to the point that its more bitter compounds are released.
- Tea type: Russian tea is typically brewed with loose tea. While tea bags may become bitter, less processed tea like whole loose tea has less surface area to expose these compounds during brewing. This way, the loose tea maintains a more mellow taste.
- Dilution: Russian tea is often heavily diluted, which means that there are less tannins per cup than in other types of tea. Even a concentrated pull of Russian tea won’t taste too bitter once it has been diluted with boiling water and sweetened.
One of the major advantages of brewing zavarka tea is that it can be customized to the drinker’s preferences. Those that want a weaker brew can add more water and sweetener, while those who prefer their tea more bitter and strong can add less.
What Is Used to Sweeten Zavarka?
Both sugar and jam are traditionally used to sweeten zavarka tea, depending on the drinker’s preferences and what sort of tea is being served. Many Russians drink tea by taking a large white or brown sugar cube between their teeth and sucking the hot tea through the sugar.
Jam is also a popular addition to tisanes and herbal teas.
Zavarka Is a Russian Treasure
Even though most people think of The United Kingdom or India when they think of tea culture, Russia has incorporated this tasty beverage into their social culture for decades. Try brewing up a pot of this strong concentrated tea today and try it for yourself!