Brewing Bad

Chifir is a potent Russian brew of black tea prized for its narcotic effect in Russian prisons.

This is not a mistake. This is about deliberately brewing a bad cup of tea with an overdose of tea leaves and excessive brew time. In most instances, it’d be undrinkable. But in Russian prison culture, it’s a prized drink for its stimulating and narcotic effect.

I first learned of Chifir when it was described in Nicolai Lilin’s ‘semi’ autobiography, Siberian Education. Raised by his grandfather as his father was frequently imprisoned for robberies, Nicolai was a Russian ex-special forces sniper born in Siberia, and was convicted of attempted murder at aged 12 and sent to prison. The book was made into a movie called Deadly Code starring John Malkovich and a casts of unknowns. It’s semi-autobiographical because Nicolai had combined his own experiences with inspirations from stories recounted by his grandfather’s generation.

It’s easy to find the recipe and method to brewing Chifir online with variations in brew time and tea ingredients. Beyond that, there’s scant information unless you read Russian. Nicolai’s book is the only source I found that offers a glimpse into the ritual and practice of drinking Chifir beyond the notorious prison culture.

Similar to Chifir, Zavarka is a Russian traditional brew with a very strong concentrate of tea, dispense from a samovar containing boiling water at a water-tea ratio of usually 10 to one. The similarities end with the concentrated tea. If Zavarka experience is a five star suite with its overall experience of elegant pots, cutlery, cakes and pleasant social gatherings, Chifir is a rundown motel with no frills utensils, and generally in the company of men not by choice but by circumstances.

The ritual of Chifir
According to Nicolai’s book, Chifir is prepared in a small saucepan, the chifirbak, which is reserved solely for brewing the tea. It’s never washed with detergent, only rinsed in water. The more residues left in the saucepan, the more it will be highly prized as the Chifir brew will be better. I fully get this concept as it’s similar to a BBQ grill in my book. The more carbon charred meat stuck to the grill, the better the next BBQ with extra flavour. Carcinogens be damned.

Whole leaves black tea are used. Half a kilogram with no more than ten minutes of brewing time, else it becomes acidic and unpleasant. Chifir is ready where there are no more floating leaves on the surface, hence the saying, the Chifir has ‘fallen’ to show it’s ready.

Chifir is drunk in a large mug made of iron or silver, called bodyaga (‘flask’ in Siberian criminal language). Pass the mug in clockwise direction, never anticlockwise and take three sips. No more, no less. Do not blow into the mug as it’s considered bad manners. Like a Japanese tea ritual, no one talks, eat or smoke during the process until the brew is finished. The rules vary in different regions. In central Russia for example, take two instead of three sips. And blowing into the mug is an act of kindness as you cool the tea for the next person.

The chemistry of Chifir
People had described the effects of drinking Chifir variously from face melting sensation to jack hammering the heart. The chemistry that exacts the myriad sensations is due to prolonged heating that caused theanine to breakdown into alkaloids like adenine and guanine. Guanine is the chief attribute for the ill effects of Chifir.

There are accounts of students and workers other than prisoners who brew Chifir for the high concentration of caffeine because they need to stay up. Mostly they had added milk or a piece of butter to dilute the brew. The milk or butter also coats the stomach wall to prevent against irritation.

The brewing of Chifir (Try at your own risk)

chifir, black tea, russian tea, russian tea culture

I try making my own Chifir using teabags based on recipes I found online. Boiling a cup and a half water with 12 tea bags. As the water bubbles, I lower the heat to simmer. I cut open the bags and release the loose leaves black tea into the simmering water. After 15 minutes when most of the leaves had ‘fallen’ to the bottom of the pot, I poured the brew with a strainer into a cup.

First impression; the nutty aroma was quite heady and not unpleasant. I took three sips and pass the rest into the drain. Oh. My. God. If this was swamp water, I’d half expect a monster to crawl out of it. It has a bitterness and astringency that are off the charts.

In terms of bitterness, I remember it being on par with the famous bitter herbal tea known as ’24 Ingredients’ that I had in Hong Kong. However, the tartness is absent in ’24 Ingredients’. In Chinese herbal tea, they describe bitterness as having a ‘kum’ sensation (literally translated as ‘gold’). I surmised it was the very subtle tinkling sensation I felt at the back of my throat after downing the herbal tea. For this Chifir, I reckon the only tingling sensation if you get is when you start hallucinating.

I did not feel any physical effects as I took only a few sips. I can imagine a certain perverse appeal as a popular drink in prison beyond its effects. You can’t be more badass than knowingly drink swamp-like water and enjoy it. I’d give it a miss and head straight for the dessert.

Christos Gkosdis is an engineer by profession and a foodie at heart. A connoiseur of chilies, he can take as much heat as the best of asians. In his free time, he likes to relax with a book, especially books on World War 2 and Greek history.