Why did the Georgian tea industry collapse?
With its subtropical climate, western Georgia is an ideal place to grow tea. Chilly nights and cold winter months prevent disease and therefore there is no need to use pesticides which makes the conditions great to produce organic tea. The cool climate together with acidic soil gives also a special taste and aroma to the tea – the leaves mature more slowly and result in a smooth and soft taste. The higher its grown, the more exquisite the taste. Although the conditions are superb for tea, the history of Georgian tea is very diverse with many ups and downs. Glorious moments have constantly been gloomed by war or economic problems.
The history of Georgian tea dates back to 1845 when first tea bushes were planted in western Georgia. Though it got going only at the end of the 19th century when the Russian Empire, where Georgia belonged at the time, got interested in developing the tea industry. The best scientists were put in charge to develop tea plantations in Georgia. An expedition was sent to China to learn how to grow and produce tea and therefore the cultivars in Georgia are mostly from China. Cultivars from India and Japan were also introduced but were later replaced due to productivity issues and intolerance of cold winters. Georgian tea was first introduced to the world also by the help of a Chinese tea grower, Lao Jin Lao. He was invited to Georgia to help develop the industry. 7 years later, in 1900, his tea won the gold medal at the Paris World Expo.
Chinese Foreman at the Chakva tea plantation north of Batumi in the early 1900s – picture by Sergeii Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.
Initially, the tea industry developed slowly, and the first World War put an end to it all together for some time. Many of the plantations were on the frontline of war and were ruined. Other plantations were destroyed to grow corn to minimize the shortage of food. The industry got back its life only when Georgia was affiliated to the Soviet Union and tea production was organized by orders from Moscow. Measures were taken to popularize the industry again – tea was named as “green gold” and tens of millions of Rubles were spent to develop tea plantations, tea farmers got favourable conditions from the government regarding food and other supplies. Soon the amounts of harvest grew to higher levels than ever. There was a constant push to produce more and more. At one point every worker harvested 40-60 kg of tea leaves per day and harvesters strived constantly to beat the previous records. The best pickers were awarded by the government. As a comparison, today a person harvests ca 20 kg of high-quality tea leaves (2 leaves and a bud) per day.
The industry had another decline during the Second World War but recovered quickly. Tea factories thrived again towards maximum production and moved from hand-picking to mechanical harvesting. All kinds of shortcuts were made to maximize the produce, for example, harvesting in wet conditions, shortening the production phases etc. This of course came at the expense of quality.
At peak, in 1985, ca 70, 000 hectares of land was under tea plantations and 150 ,000 tons of tea was produced in Georgia, compared to the 2000-3000 tons made today. Georgia provided 95% of the whole Soviet Union’s tea consumption. Huge factories were built, villages together with it, whole communities were engaged in producing tea and life was blooming. Men at the villages still tell the stories, how one could buy a new car with the salary earned during one season. You could see and smell tea whenever you went out of the house – this is how locals describe the time. It was a time of glory, people had jobs, new buildings were built, everything was going upwards. The heyday was abruptly ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The industry crashed in only 5 short years. Big factories were closed and whole regions lost their employment as Georgia dealt with the aftershocks that the fall of the Soviet Union sent through the region. The tea industry lost its main export market – unable to compete with Sri Lanka and China on the newly opened market of former Soviet Republics. The shortage of knowledge on how to operate a company in a market economy became fatal for most of the factories and cooperatives.
Opurchkheti tea factory.
Opurchkheti tea factory.
Abandoned plantations were slowly taken over by weeds and over the years many of them were eventually uprooted and replaced with corn or nuts. However, almost 30 years later hundreds of plantations are still there – overgrown with ferns, blackberries and small trees – and are still waiting for someone to give them a second lease of life.
The sudden and almost complete demise of the huge industry seemed almost unbelievable at first. Seeing the abandoned plantations everywhere when driving around in western Georgia was convincing enough for us. It was initially just the surprise and our curiosity that motivated us to dig deeper, but we ended up by understanding that Georgian tea deserves to be revived as it will bring value to two essential communities — tea lovers around the world and the local people in Georgia:
Georgia has excellent conditions to produce the highest quality organic teas due to its climate of warm summers and chilly winters with occasional snow. Due to the cool winters, there is no need to use any pesticides or other chemicals to keep the bushes safe from pests or illnesses.
The northern region of western Georgia was heavily focused on tea production and has never fully recovered from its decline. The damage cannot be undone but restarting even a small part of the industry would help to bring life back to many smaller towns and villages in the region.