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(CNN) — Atop a terrifyingly steep mountain in northeastern Turkey, the village of Haremtepe resembles an island surrounded by a vast ocean of green: verdant, bushy rows of tea plantations continue as far as the misty skies fleetingly allow to be seen.
Dozens of local tea pickers, almost entirely hidden among the hillside's deep green vegetation, quickly and efficiently pluck the glistening leaves and deposit them into large fabric sacks slung over their shoulders before the next deluge begins.
"This place is special," says Kenan Çiftçi, the owner of a tea plantation and cafe in the vertiginously placed village. "Normally, tea can only be grown in equatorial areas. But the microclimate of the area, lots of sun and rain, means that tea can thrive."
Here and all across Rize -- a fertile province bordering the Black Sea that is known for its humid climate, monsoon-like rains and breathtaking vistas -- is where the majority of tea is cultivated in what is the world's biggest nation of tea-drinkers.
The Brits and Chinese, steeped in tea history, may get more attention, but Turkey (or Türkiye as it now call itself) has by some estimates the highest consumption per capita in the world -- the average Turk consumes four kilograms of the leaf a year, according to the International Tea Committee, the equivalent of its 85 million people drinking four glasses a day.
Much of Turkey's tea comes from the lush plantations of Rize province.
Ruslan Kalnitsky/Adobe Stock
Brewed in a samovar-style utensil called a çaydanlık, the potent loose-leaf black tea is usually sipped from small, tulip-shaped glasses at very regular occurrences. At the same time, the traditional technique for brewing Turkish tea -- using a particular "double-boiling" system of two kettles stacked atop one another -- can take a long time to prepare, and so goes hand in hand with the often slower pace of Turkish life.
"The consumption of tea is as much a social activity as it is a culinary pleasure," says Hüseyin Karaman, rector of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University in Rize, which earlier this year launched a Tea Library that holds 938 books dedicated to the drink. "It's the glue that holds together all the people in our society."
From the bucolic terrains of the Black Sea to the laid-back Kurdish tea gardens of eastern Turkey and the ultra-hip cafes of Istanbul, tea is used for everything from welcoming strangers to catching up with friends; kicking off the day to relaxing at the end of a meal; or to slurp languorously over a game of backgammon.
The drinking of çay is deeply entwined with Turkish culture, according to Karaman, dating back to the days of the Silk Road -- the centuries-old roadside inns known as caravanserais would often have tea houses to welcome weary traders -- and evidence of tea leaves have been traced back to the 16th century in the Ottoman Empire. During the reign of Abdülhamid II, who was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909, tea was planted all across the empire, explains Karaman, but yields were generally poor due to many places having an unsuitable climate. However, it was soon discovered that the Black Sea region was better suited for tea cultivation, and in 1947 the country's first tea factory was established in Rize.
"Tea production on a large scale here is a relatively modern phenomenon," adds Karaman. "But it grew and spread quickly and became deeply embedded in the culture. Now, it feels as if tea has been around for thousands of years."
Stirring it up
Turkey processed 275,000 tons of tea in 2021.
Yet while according to some estimates Turkey produces up to 10% of the world's tea (275,000 tons were processed last year), most of it is consumed domestically and most of it is still the age-old variety of black tea that is grown on Rize's 767 million square miles of tea plantations, which is then harvested during a six-month period from May to October, before being withered, rolled, fermented and then dried. However, change is brewing for Turkish tea, as producers like Lazika, a Rize-based startup founded in 2016, are beginning to break with tradition.
The company, which works solely with smallholder farmers, produces organic green and white teas, often using local ingredients such as yayla flowers from the nearby Kaçkar Mountains, softening the taste and, some locals claim, providing medicinal benefits.
"Turkish tea is concentrated on the old habits of people," says founder Emre Ercin. "There's no variation. It's always the same flavor. We want to change this."
There's clearly an appetite for turning over a new leaf: In 2021, Lazika processed about seven tonnes of hand-picked tea, but production has ramped up considerably and this year it's set to process 25 tonnes.
The company has also opened up a cafe in Istanbul to sell its wares, with more planned soon. "Our consumers have a new taste. It just requires a little effort," says Ercin. "Their eyes are being opened."
Others are taking different approaches to production. Aytul Turan, who co-runs the women-led Tea Chef company based in Rize, started to make handmade tea after visiting China in 2017.
"I try to make the best tea by processing the fresh tea leaves, which are harvested by hand without damaging the tea plant with great care and precision, while preserving the product structure," she says.
A scientist at ÇAYKUR, Turkey's state-owned tea-producing company.
Along with her friend Yasemin Yazıcı, the pair now harvest high-quality white tea leaves by hand and process it themselves as well as producing handmade green tea, black tea and even Japanese-style matcha.
"I have a very deep love for tea production," adds Turan. "We set out with the awareness that we young people have responsibilities to know, develop and innovate the history of Turkish tea."
But even at Çaykur, Türkiye's state-owned tea company, which employs over 10,000 people across 45 factories, innovation is on the agenda.
At Çaykur's laboratories, scientists in white coats constantly test new technology and techniques to improve the flavor and consistency of the product, monitoring everything from pH levels to color tone. For certain blends, a "2.5 leaf" process is used to take only the bud and two youngest leaves of the tea bush -- considered by some to result in the most refined taste.
"We always try to create new levels of quality," says Muhammet Çomoğlu, who works for the state-run Rize Tea Research and Application Center (ÇAYMER). "For Turks, tea is one of the most important parts of the daily diet."
But as Turkish tea continues to grow and evolve in new directions, its ability to bring people together remains. In a toast to Turkey's national drink, a 30-meter-high building in the shape of a giant Turkish tea glass -- including a bazaar, viewing terrace and, in the future, a museum -- was opened in the city of Rize this year.
"To live without tea is no life at all," says Hasan Önder, the bazaar's manager. "We must celebrate this important part of Turkish life, both among ourselves as well as sharing the delicious story with visitors."