When speaking of tea production, Georgia might not cross your mind, but this small country in the Caucasus region has cultivated tea since the mid-19th century and was the world’s fourth-largest tea exporter for many decades. Unfortunately, Georgia’s political and social environment has changed the landscape of tea production over the last thirty years. Today, small and large entrepreneurs are working to revive the lost Georgian tea tradition in the west of the country..
A brief history of Georgian tea
The history of tea here starts in Guria, a western region bordering the Black Sea. Prince of Guria, Mamia V Gurieli, planted the first tea bushes in his royal garden in 1809. However, they served only as a garden decoration.
At this time, Georgia was part of the Russian Empire where Crimea was the first region to plant Chinese tea seeds in 1814. But the weather conditions of the region didn’t quite fit the plant. Imperial Russia decided instead to try the subtropical climate of the Black Sea area, planting the first tea bushes in 1847 in the town of Ozurgeti in Guria.
However, the industrial production of the Georgian tea starts quite late, in particular around 46 years later, when Russian tea merchant, Alexander Popov, invites 23-years-old Chinese tea master Lao Dzhen Dzhao to help with the farming of tea in Georgia.
As it turns out, the country’s warm climate in the plains of Guria and its adjoining Adjara and Samegrelo regions are fantastic for tea cultivation.
This discovery allowed the Russian Empire to circumvent the costly import of Chinese tea through Siberia, and Georgia became the base of the thriving tea business in the whole region. The tea cultivated here even wins a gold medal at the Paris World Expo in 1899.
In the 1920s, the Georgian tea industry increased rapidly and became the world’s fourth-largest tea exporter.
However, when Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922, the government collectivized the plantations and started mass production where the main axiom is quantity over quality. Big machinery replaced the hand-plucked system and the whole USSR became reliant on Georgia to supply to its massive market.
By the 1950s tea plantations in Georgia covered around 160,000 hectares of land, making it the biggest supplier to the USSR, and held the position of the world’s fourth-leading tea exporter.
Under this severe industrialization, Georgian tea loses its flavor. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Georgian tea industry lost its markets too, leaving plantations untouched and factories abandoned for years.
Reviving Georgian tea culture
For the last several decades, Georgian tea production has seen a comeback thanks to a few artisanal tea growers, SMEs, and big-scale factories. The shelves of Georgian shops now have local tea on display alongside international giant brands.
Regional authorities of the once-famous tea cultivation regions, do their best to revive traditional tea culture with the support of international financial institutions with the aim to create a new attraction for tourists and an income for local families.
One such initiative comes from Aleko Mameshvili, the Head of Economy Department in Ozurgeti City Hall who launched the Tea Route program to help restore the tradition of the region and attract tourists to the less traveled Guria.
The project kicked-off at the end of 2018 and involves individual tea farmers who host guests in their plantations, give them a chance to handpick tea leaves, indulge in authentic local cuisine, enjoy tea tasting, and learn the history of Georgia’s tea production.
Despite the fact that Ozurgeti has around 25 small and medium-sized farms, only four passed the criteria to be part of the new program. However, with the immediate success of Tea Route which saw 2,000 tourists interested in Georgian tea, the City Hall plans on expanding the new tourist attraction to the nearby regions.
The Tea Route project comprises Lika Megreladze’s small tea plantation nestled in her ancestral house called Komli in the village of Tsitelmta who rolls tea leaves by hand. The family-owned small enterprise of David Teneishvili in the village of Bakhvi who uses machinery for production. Anaseuli company, the first and biggest mass-production tea factory with its Soviet-era machinery, and lastly Natura Tea Company with the modern factory in the village of Gurianta.
How to visit these farms
Ozurgeti City Hall plans on creating a website to help travelers book their appointments. However, until the launch of the portal, the easiest way to visit one of these farms is to join an organized tour of Karavanly travel agency with a lunch stop at Lika’s 150-years-old house. Those who love doing their own travel planning can either follow the Tea Route green signs, contact the farmers directly, or ask the City Hall for assistance.