Ups and Downs
If asked to list the countries that produce the world’s best teas, Georgia probably doesn’t cross most people’s minds. In fact, many of us probably haven’t had Georgian tea—or even realized that tea is produced there.
Now I’m not referring to the sweet tea that’s popular in our southern states, such as Georgia, but rather the tea that is grown and produced in the Georgia that nestles between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
This small country edging the eastern shore of the Black Sea was part of the USSR until its independence in 1991. During the USSR years, tea gardens covered over 150,000 acres, supplying the USSR with 95% of its tea—but the tea was produced for volume rather than quality.When the USSR collapsed, the gardens were abandoned and the industry was decimated. Tea growers migrated to Turkey or found other work.
The plants, however, kept growing, and today Georgia produces tea harvested from these wild plants as well as from newly tended gardens—this time with an eye for quality.
So now, will they reclaim their position as producing some of the best teas in the world?
And if you don’t think of Georgia as a top contender, know this—they actually won the gold medal in the Paris World Expo in the year 1900, just seven years after Chinese tea farmer Lao Jin Jao was brought to Georgia to ramp up the tea industry (Giorgadze and Kochlamazashvili 2015)!
Granted, China didn’t go to the 1900 Expo, but still, it’s impressive because every other tea-producing country was there.
Today, although some terrific teas are coming out of Georgia, reviving the tea industry remains a struggle.
After decades of neglect, the gardens take tremendous work—along with financing and knowledge—to rehabilitate. Banks don’t accept tea gardens as collateral, people don’t have the money required, and the outcome is a gamble.
However, there is some incentive to persevere.
Georgia’s climate has a lot going for it, particularly for green teas. This is the northernmost environment that tea plants will accept, but that same environment has benefits (Giorgadze and Kochlamazashvili 2015):
- those cool nights and cold winters mean pesticides aren’t really required, meaning that
- the tea is “ecologically clean,” plus
- those cool nights and cold winters, along with acidic soil, slow down plant growth,
- which reduces bitterness in the final product.
Unfortunately for us, much of Georgia’s high-quality tea is still grown on a small scale, with much of the finished product remaining in the village of the farmer.
Some, however, is exported to Germany (Giorgadze and Kochlamazashvili 2015), which supplies TeaHaus, which is where I obtained my Georgian tea.
This green tea, Georgian Black Sea, boosts gorgeous dark sage-green leaves. It seems as if each leaf has been carefully and individually processed!
The pretty infusion has a subtle and sweet aroma.Lisa, tea sommelier and owner of TeaHaus, notes that this tea wonderfully combines characteristics of Chinese and Japanese tea, with the “light, sweet umami of a classic Japanese tea followed by the toastiness of a classic Chinese tea.”
The Georgian Black Sea was cultivated close to the Black Sea, and as promised by the climate, contains no bitterness whatsoever.
Looking at the brewed leaves, you can see how they are largely or entirely intact.Moving to a black tea, this Wild Caucasus Mountain Tea was plucked from wild-growing shrubs. The matte black leaves are long and wiry.
Brewed, the sweet and hardy yeast-like aroma accompanies the dark and bold yet surprisingly smooth liquor. As with the green tea, there is no bitterness.These teas will hold up to meals, but are wonderful on their own!
Having tasted these stellar teas, I hope that the tea industry continues to make progress and thrive. Georgia is working to ensure this by several tactics:
- the Georgian Tea program, begun in 2016, helps farmers rehabilitate tea gardens
- tourism is being promoted
- tea cooperatives are being established
- a Tea Route has been created, “meant to help visitors learn about Georgia’s tradition of tea production and better access some of the best quality tea currently being grown” (Guthrie 2019)
Meanwhile, have a little taste of Georgia!
With these solid teas, you just might find a new favorite—or at the very least you’ll be helping to drive some demand for Georgian teas.