Georgian Tea Experience
by Thomas Tomporowski
Tea came to Georgia from China, when the former was part of the Russian Empire in the XIX century. It was selected for tea cultivation due to its geography – a combination of hilly terrain and subtropical climate. The tea growing got more serious under the Soviets following the foundation of Anaseuli Tea Institute in the late 1920s, set up to increase yields of the teafields, experimenting with new cultivars and growing methods. The entire Caucasian region spanning the current territories of Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan was soon tea growing, with the centre of tea activity being in Georgia. In the 1960s, the region was supplying over 90% of tea to the former USSR. In other words, tea became big business.
Those days are long gone. The collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s brought about independence for the country. While most Eastern European nations' transition to market economies was turbulent, the geographical proximity to Western Europe’s markets has cushioned the impact somewhat. Georgia, located as far from the UK as it is from India, was largely left to its own devices. We were soon to discover what the tea industry looked like today.
The Tea Journey Begins
Our journey started in Tbilisi, a hilly capital city of 1.1 million inhabitants, with a gorgeous, if slightly dilapidated old town. The friendliness of Georgians was obvious from day one, and their desire to go the extra mile to help a pair of lost travelers came very useful several times. There isn’t a great deal of information about the tea industry in Georgia on the internet, which means our pre-trip research was limited. We thought that driving to what used to be a tea growing region would be enough to find information. This has proven to be much more difficult than we initially assumed.
The first point on our itinerary was the central region of Imereti. Our host in the region’s biggest city Kutaisi, Ika, did not know much about tea in the area. This turned out to be the case for all young Georgians we have spoken to during the trip; enquiring about tea inevitably meant doing a search in the country’s past. “Let me call my dad and ask”, we heard many times. However, Ika’s cross-generational searches have soon yielded results: we learnt that of all the former tea factories in the area, one was still producing. We received driving instructions, and took a winding mountain road to the town of Tqibuli.
Imereti Black Tea
The Tqibuli tea factory produces black tea only. Like many other sites we visited, the factory’s output is a fraction of what it used to be in the old Soviet times. This has direct repercussions for the local economy – where there were previously jobs in tea processing, these jobs have now disappeared, and were not necessarily replaced by others. The 1970s high rise buildings surrounding the town, so proliferate around cities of Eastern Europe, looked partially abandoned and in need of repair. Tqibuli as a town was still functioning, but the opportunities were elsewhere, it seemed. We were given a quick tour by the factory’s manager, Sergo, and were given a sample of their highest grade tea. No tasting was performed during this unannounced visit, as we arrived in the middle of their production, but the reception was warm nevertheless. The tea produced by the Tqibuli factory caters for the internal Georgian market. However, our tea research trip wasn’t yet over.
Tea Fields of Batumi
It took most of the day to drive to the western region of Guria. This is where the centre of the Georgian tea research and production was back in the day, so we expected to see multiple signs of this. We soon encountered tea in the food markets, sold by friendly looking, black-clad ladies. These markets were an attraction in itself, with a wide range of locally grown fruit and vegetable on offer. Unfortunately, none of the tea we encountered in this way was worth writing about. Growing and processing premium quality tea requires investment, which these back of the house producers did not have.
We stopped in the town of Ozurgeti, some 50km short of the Black Sea resort of Batumi. We visited two large producers, including one making the fantastically named 'Prince of Guria' black tea, but didn't make a connection with the tea. We continued to pester the locals in the town we found ourselves in, and a few hours later were introduced to Davit. Davit picked up tea farming in the early 00s, recovering the tea overgrown tea bushes abandoned in the fields for at least a decade, and starting his 4ha tea farm from scratch. His engineering skills allowed him to built his own tea machinery, made entirely out of wood. He told us that this was an old Indian method, meaning that the tea would only be in contact with wood throughout the production process. Whether it was this personal touch that allowed his tea to sway our tea buds we don't know, the fact is that we have soon decided to buy his black, green and cranberry leaf tea (link at the bottom of the article).
Georgian Tea – Mission Accomplished
We were also given a tour of the Institute, or its empty shell. We drove through the tree lined streets of the still impressive complex and were explained the function of each of the buildings within, and how the tea research was undertaken by the staff at the time. We could just imagine it, teeming with scientists, researching, growing, tasting, continually improving the quality of the tea. Today the complex is abandonded, the nature slowly creeps back in. The tea growing is mostly gone, and will not come back. And while most of the region has moved on, a few hardy souls continue the tradition. Let’s raise a cup for their success.