“Tea, though ridiculed by those
who are naturally coarse in their nervouse sensibilities…
will always be the favored beverage of the intellectual.”
in “Confession of an English Opium Eater”
Every tea drinker has a favorite label of tea. There is a lot of thought that goes into choosing the brand that carries the perfect blend of exotic flavors for your taste palate. I decided to look a bit deeper into my favorite brand, Kusmi Tea, which produces delightful Russian-style teas and tea blends. With their headquarters in Paris, France and a history spanning over 110 years, it is no wonder the story of Kusmi Tea is as interesting as their tea flavors.
In 1897, Pavel Michailovitch Kousmichoff left his peasant family’s home at the age of 14, searching for employment in St. Petersburg, Russia. There he began working as a delivery boy for a local tea merchant. The shop manager soon realized that the boy had enormous potential and taught him the ancient art of blending tea.
Pavel continued to work for the tea merchant until his marriage to Alexandra in 1867. His new wife was the daughter of a successful paper merchant. The tea shop owner was so happy to see him marry into such a good family that he gave Pavel a small teahouse on Sadovaïa Street to run on his own. This marked the beginning of the P. M. Kousmichoff teahouse. Alexandra and Pavel had six children, including his son Viatcheslav (born in 1878) and his daughter Elisabeth (born in 1880) for whom he created a special blend that soon became the tsar’s tea: Bouquet of Flowers.
By 1901 Mr. Kousmichoff owned 11 teahouses as well as a large building big enough for his entire family. He soon became very wealthy and his company was one of the three largest tea companies in Russia.
In 1907, Pavel sent his eldest son, Viatcheslav, to London to learn more about tea. Viatcheslav began by opening the company’s British subsidiary: P.M. Kousmichoff & Sons at 11 Queen Victoria Street. At the time, London was the world capital of the tea trade and this helped Viatcheslav become a master tea blender. Viatcheslav returned to Russia and, after the death of his father in 1908, took over the family business. He successfully built up the company to a total of 51 teahouses in all of Russia’s largest cities.
In 1916, sensing disaster, Viatcheslav transferred part of his fortune to the company’s London office and in 1917 opened a workshop in Paris – the Maison Kusmi-Thé. While he spent most of his time in Paris, his family remained in Saint Petersburg. On the eve of the Revolution, without realizing just how right his instincts were, Viatcheslav decided to send them to spend the summer in the Caucasus – just as the Revolution broke out. As the “Reds” moved south, Viatcheslav organized his family’s escape: first to Constantinople and then to Paris in 1920. In Paris, Viatcheslav and his wife lived the life of the wealthy with their three children: Constantin, Nadia and Vera. The children had tutors and enjoyed sport and music; Constantin and Nadia playing the violin and Vera the piano. Vera later attended the Paris Conservatory where she met Rachmaninov and went on to become a famous opera singer.
The family prospered by opening offices in New York, Hamburg, and Constantinople during the interwar years. Viatcheslav decided to settle his main business in Berlin as it had a large Russian community. Viatcheslav Kousmichoff died just after World War II in 1946, leaving his son Constantin to take over a family business much weakened by the war years. Unfortunately, Constantin did not have the same business sense that his father and grandfather shared. He was a man who loved life and burned the candle at both ends. While Constain was a wonderful artist and avid tea lover, he could not keep up the numbers for such a large company. On the brink of bankruptcy in 1972 he sold the business for a next to nothing. In the years that followed, the Kousmichoff company continued to sell Kusmi teas with uneven success. Like Constantin, the people who had bought the company were artistic and had a certain understanding of flavors, but their management skills were not up to par.
In 2003, Kousmichoff was bought by the Orebi brothers who came from a long line of commodity merchants. Having traded cotton in the 19th century, and metals in the first part of the 20th century, the Orebi family decided in 1962 to focus on cocoa and coffee. This move that naturally led them to tea. The Orebi family took up the challenge to carry on the traditions of Pavel, Viatcheslav, and Constantin Kousmichoff and to develop an international reputation for the Kusmi Tea brand.
In their own words, Kusmi shares on their website what makes this tea so special:
When Pavel started out in business, all he knew about tea was that it was something that his family drank all day long around the samovar. This bitter liquid was sweetened by a lump of sugar or fresh fruit placed in the mouth before taking a sip of tea.
In Russia, where tea had for centuries been a national beverage, the tea merchants had attained such perfection in the blending and flavoring that their blends became known as Russian teas.
Pavel learned about the tea that was imported into Russia at the time. A rarity in Europe, Russian tea was of excellent quality as it was imported overland and so saved from the ravages of damp caused by sea transport. The young man learned to enjoy teas from Yunnan with their taste of damp earth, and low caffeine Keemun tea. He discovered strong Assam teas and fine Darjeeling gardens gradually learning to make blends that satisfied every type of customer. Pavel created a number of blends for all tastes and times of day. Most of these blends still exist today and contribute to the richness of the Kusmi tea range.
In true peasant style, he numbered his creations so that today we can easily date the various blends. In chronological order, we have the Grand Yunnan N°12 and 21; the Polish Blend N°18; the Russian Morning N°24 in its red packaging, N°27 for the English taste, now called the English Breakfast, and Darjeeling N°37. “Caravan”, the Russian Evening tea, N°50, was named after the caravans of camels that brought the tea from China before the Trans-Siberian Railway opened in 1900. These teas were the first sold by Kousmichoff between 1867 and 1880. Then came N°108, Bouquet of Flowers in 1880, this was the tea drunk by the tsar right up to the Revolution. Then the Souchong Imperial N°110 in a black box, the Jasmine tea N°155, and the smoked China tea N°210.
In addition to these classic blends, Pavel also created a number of fruity teas using fruits, flowers and spices. Every Russian New Year he treated his customers to a special blend called Prince Vladimir, a happy blend of citrus fruit, vanilla, and spices. He created this blend in 1888 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Holy Russia by Vladimir the Great. The very same recipe is still used today to produce the most popular of Kusmi teas.
Around 1910 Viatcheslav made his own contribution to the company’s blends with the Windsor and Victoria teas created in London that are still sold today. Viatcheslav’s arrival in Paris marked a turning point in the history of Kusmi teas, raising them to the heights of haute cuisine. He created a whole new range of perfumed teas based on the available flavors to perfect his blends. Viatcheslav, and after him, Constantin, created a multitude of aromatic teas. The most famous is Anastasia, created in memory of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of tsar Nicholas, who was rumored to have survived the massacre that engulfed the rest of her family.
My personal favorites are the Thé du Matin N° 24 (or Russian Morning) and the ever-classic Earl Grey Tea. Each tea bag is made of muslin and has a lovely cotton string attached to a beautiful tag. I never want to throw mine out because I love how detailed the tea bag is! Kusmi Tea is available through their website (link below), Dean and Deluca, and at local gourmet shops. Their website has a link to where you can find it near you. Pour yourself a nice cup of tea tonight and let it help unwind the troubles of your day!
“Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you.
Now tell me about hundreds of things.”