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  • Writer's picturejohn snell

Georgia, The oldest new tea destination

Ask people where tea is grown and penny to a pound they will not mention Georgia, the republic of not the state! Ask them to point it out on a map and the chances ae they will miss by some wide margin. This despite Georgia having been one of the largest tea producer's in the world under Soviet rule, when it produced over 150000MTs (75 Billion cups of tea to you and me!) per annum.

There was real pride in production, with foreign assistance sought to produce the very best tea that the region could offer. However, the early adoption of mechanical harvesters in the 1960's saw the first imbalance between field output and factory capacity, that saw corners cut, withering and fermentation shortened and dryers overloaded. The result was tea produced of innocuous quality, at best, but decidedly weedy and worse quite often. This short term gain philosophy led to a loss of domestic support for the crop and they soon turned to better quality imports from Ceylon, India and others.

Fast forward to today, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980's followed in 1991 by a bloody civil war (Funny what a declaration of independence can do!) and you have the physical abandonment of much of the agroindustry in Georgia, the loss of supportive institutes and domestic consumption.

So what has been happening in Georgia for the last 30 years? The tea industry has survived in pockets where, astonishingly, the same cheap (and I mean cheap) tea bricks as were being sold to Mongolia ( during Soviet times) is still continuing as well as some production of winey, weedy, underdeveloped black tea from the machinery of a bygone age, bearing all the scars and stamps of their Soviet roots.

None of this sounds very promising; the majority of the 80000Ha under tea in 1990 is now a forlorn 2000, in production, with this shared among a very large number of small farmers (over 200), some vertically integrated but others merely supplying the dinosaurs of tea production as pictured above.

That tea which remains untended is overgrown, fern fronds and thorny rose have engulfed these fields, making rehabilitation a costly, painful and overwhelming task, which once done has to be protected from a multitude of free range livestock.

A revitalization of such an industry sounds all too improbable, in fact some would say insane and, frankly, there are many other better rewarding crops to be grown in Georgia, from blueberries, to Hazelnuts and indeed wine. But hardy people, grown in wild climates with tempestuous histories are unlikely to listen to such logical "guff" and hence we have the rumblings of a revolution in these lands.

Now, new factories spring up, with new purpose, control and an eye to capture not just bulk markets but finished good business and margins too, be that domestically or with the help of the IOT.

There have always been pockets of brilliance within tea production, here, supported so ably by the natural capital of Camellia sinensis, var sinensis and a raft of Georgian clones (developed by a wonderful lady in 1948) my favourite being #8 "Hero of Winter"( for it's ability to withstand extreme temperatures) to create teas as elegant as those from anywhere to be found.

Beautiful malty blacks, verdant subtle greens and mind blowing oolongs are offered at every stop on a visit (prior to the lockdown) and I have nothing to say, sit, sip, enjoy and wonder at what comes next.

This artisanal capability is never going to be a mainstream output for Georgia, I just don't think that the training required for hand plucking, the passion required to beat this unruly landscape of hidden tea trees into submission or the market's ability to pay a sustainable price for the effort makes the juice worth the squeeze, yet!! However, is revitalization possible? Yes, as climate change plays it's part in other origins and as consumers seek out new and exciting sources of food and beverages, I have no doubt that Georgia is relevant and waiting, with one hand on a glorious tea past and an eye to a future, made possible by the "Hero of Winter" and her brothers and sisters.

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