Tea and the Soviets, an Azerbaijani heritage!
As the conflict in the caucus area of Nagorno-Karabakh reaches, what we all hope will be, a longer lasting peace, I suspect that this is the only time most people think of Azerbaijan. I certainly gave it scant attention; I knew where it was and it's reputation as a breeder of fine horses, fine Caspian caviar and indeed oil. I know, of course, that, as an ex Soviet republic that it has a strong tea culture but that's it.
Azerbaijan and it's tea industry, is a little known but seriously heavy weight tea drinking nation with a production industry that is half in and half out of a time capsule, dating back to the 1950's.
To put the tea drinking habit into perspective, they drink over 2Kg/person per year which puts it in the top 5 or 6 globally. Yet, much of this is imported, from India, Sri Lanka and other well known producing nations and one has to ask why.
Despite tea being first grown in 1912, it was not until the Soviet era (1950's on)that the areas of Lankaran, Astara and Masalla, in the south, and Zagalata in the north produced real quantities of tea. At it's peak in 1988 an impressive 34500 MT of green leaf a year was processed in 14 huge factories, satiating most of the country's population and 10% of the total USSR too. However, independence and the loss of the empire's demand, saw a dramatic decline in demand and by 2010 only 590Ha remained in production.
In 2019 I was fortunate to visit the southern rayons of Lankaran and Astara, a beautiful gently undulating , "Tintin-esque" (you have to be a fan!), landscape sandwiched between the Talysh mountains and the Caspian sea, lush and obviously home to smallholder farming, with only the odd plantation in site.
This area, responsible for over 90% of tea production is in total juxtaposition to the modern and busy capital Baku with not a supermarket, reflective glass panel or ubiquitous global coffee shop in sight.
Here, small villages, fresh produce and loose tea shops, staffed by delightfully friendly and knowledgeable families, are the norm.
This is where you will find micro batches of "Lankaran Cay" with it's sweet honey and slight malt characteristics but, beware, as I speak to the best teas to be found. Fresh, well tended and produced orthodox teas, lightly but beautifully rolled and worthy of the national pride bestowed on them.
But for the most part, the crazy crop distribution over a 5 month season, beginning in May, and the imbalance between this and factory capacities means poor quality leaf and management for the majority, leading to thin, weedy liquor profiles which are still astounding, given the natural and manufacturing impediments under which they work.
Despite a welcome government revitalization programme, which sees new plantings and factories sprouting up in the south, there are still woefully mismatched giant and ancient tea factories being serviced by very small parcels of tea which results in infrequent harvesting and consequential poor quality leaf and/or management.
The ancient Soviet factories, for any tea buff, are a pleasure to walk through, a complete history lesson in Soviet era tea production but not such a delight should you wish to pursue relevant tea production conditions and practices.
So, what of the future, if indeed there is one?
For me, it's all about natural capital and Azerbaijan has that in spades, a bush stock that is in production and growing, a population that consumes tea without bounds and a history with tea that has been religiously passed down to affect a living compendium, harnessed for the revival of the sector.
Added to this, investment in new (and appropriate) factories, the continued pursuit of the best planting material (through an excellent Tropical research institute) and an (slightly grudging) acceptance that management and production style needs to change (labour costs lead to a very high COP for current quality) and all the conditions are there for Azerbaijan's tea sector to live up to the sector's ambitions.
I would encourage everyone to visit this startlingly beautiful country and invest time with the delightful peoples of this land but, if you are a tea lover and want to witness tea history do so quickly before time, ambition and a driven population changes this forever and for the better.