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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drink of the Elephants

By the 19th century, Russia was second only to England in per capita tea consumption. The drink became so popular that tipping a waiter or a carriage driver was termed "giving tea money."

Food historian William Pohklebkin writes of an unofficial rivalry between Russia's two national drinks, vodka and tea. Apparently, where tea was especially popular, vodka receded to second place. Some of Russia's most notable thinkers, including Leo Tolstoy and Dmitry Mendeleyev, even developed a national plan to fight alcoholism by introducing cheap, quality tea to the masses.

Stiffly brewed tea is called chifir and is the poison of choice in Russian prisons. A cup of chifir involves a matchstick box of tea in boiling water, with the optional addition of baking soda. The cup is then sent around, with each mate taking strictly two sips.

To make the Soviet Union a self-sufficient tea producer, plantations were developed in southern regions like Krasnodar and Georgia. These teas never became popular, however, even as tea imports from China ceased almost completely during the 1980s. Georgian tea had the reputation of a tea of last resort, while the most desired kind came from India and had an elephant on the package. "Tea with an elephant" was a symbol of the Soviet good life.

The elephant tea was recently resurrected as a brand again by the Moscow Tea Company. The company sells Indian and Ceylon black teas in a familiar-looking package, on which a blue elephant is carrying an Indian raja against a yellow background.