My first visit to Georgian tea region (or instruction how to find abandoned tea plantations)
I will always remember my first visit to the Georgian tea region because it started with one of the biggest embarrassments of my professional life. But we will get to this a bit later 😊
Chkhorotsku, Georgia. Abandoned tea plantation.
It was at the end of April, 3 months after the idea of our Tea Estate had first surfaced. For the past month or so my communication with different Georgian agencies had been quite frequent. I had been making phone calls and sending emails. Everyone was positive and helpful, but overall, I felt that we were not taken very seriously, and could I really blame them? Repeated questions like "Sorry, where are you from?" and "What tea company are you representing?" left the impression, that our interest to revive some Georgian tea plantations was maybe a bit too "renegade" for most people in Georgia.
Our first trip had, therefore, two goals – first, to get a more realistic picture of the situation ourselves and second, to demonstrate, that our intentions are real and tangible. By the time my plane touched down in Tbilisi, I had quite a decent understanding of how the process should go and what needs to be done in order to participate in the program "Georgian Tea". We could rent a government-owned abandoned plantations for 25 years for a largely symbolic fee and then we had a number of obligations, like building a factory and reaching some production targets over the years.
This was all OK, but the main question (that nobody seemed to be able to answer) was – how do we find those abandoned tea plantations? I was confused. The agency, who was coordinating the program from the Georgian side, said that they don’t have any list of available plantations. Also, from the Ministry of Agriculture, we didn’t get much more specific feedback, apart from the vague reference to the regions where tea was once grown – Samegrelo, Guria and Adjara. When trying to contact those regional governments I hit a language barrier, so I wasn’t really sure, what to do next. Luckily, I got the idea to contact the Georgian Embassy in Estonia (who has actually helped us a lot during the last year) and this got our process moving again. By the time of our visit, I had a bunch of contacts and a few agreed meetings, both in Tbilisi and counties.
It was clear, that at least in Tbilisi nobody had any sufficiently specific information or a list of the plantations. Ok, fair enough. I assumed that in the tea regions we will surely find what we were looking for. We had scheduled a visit to Samegrelo region in Western Georgia and our hopes were high. And then the embarrassment came...
A typical site in Georgia, cows roaming around.
I had actually no specific idea, whom exactly we are going to meet there... I understood that it’s somebody from the Agricultural Department, who is going to give us more specific information about the possible plantations and show us around. I checked the expected driving time (provided by Google Maps) and in the morning we hit the road. Well, unfortunately, it didn’t go as quickly as I expected. Stray cows walking on the road, unknown roads and an encounter with the police, who stopped us for some minor offence... As we were approaching the regional capital Zugdidi, it was clear that we will be late by 1 hour. Though I am usually on time and expect it also from others, I had no other option than to call the contact number. I informed about our delay and thought it's not a huge deal.
On arrival, we were lead to a big meeting room and there were 10 people around the table. I was puzzled. Then more people started to come in, after which I was informed that the meeting will start when the Governor will join us. Governor...?! I was confused. After 5 more minutes, I realized, that it was indeed the Governor of the Samegrelo that I was going to meet and the other people in the room where the heads of all 6 municipalities, where tea was once grown... Ouch... Well, I tried to keep myself composed and blamed the police for the delay... Well, at least we had solved the credibility problem...
The second part of the day we toured the region and visited the first old tea plantations. We saw also the amazing nature and landscape in Western Georgia, a lot of cows and pigs wandering around on the roads and somewhat rundown villages and townships. But by the end of the day, it still turned out to be vaguer than I had expected... We were shown some places here and there, but where were those thousands of hectares, we read about? After few more days and several tours around the Georgian countryside, it was clear that there were, in fact, old tea fields around everywhere, but if we wanted to make some next steps and find a specific plantation, we needed to find them largely ourselves.
Looking for tea plants.
But, HOW??? As we drove around between the plantations, I saved some coordinates on my mobile. I opened them in my computer and zoomed in. And then I realized. Despite the 30 years of abandonment, those plantations still had a clear footprint on the satellite photos... Clear rows were still visible, even as the place looked like random bushland or jungle on the spot. Wow! The next few weeks I spent my every free moment browsing Western Georgia in Google Maps and marking the likely locations for the tea plantations. There were more than 40 locations I marked on the map over the next month and I never missed. It later took several weeks for separate groups of us to visit all those locations. I know some regions in Western Georgia better than I know most of Estonia. Funny, that while Google Maps failed on us in Georgia for the first time, it still turned out to be our saviour in the end.
Screenshot of Renegade Estate from Google Maps (before cleaning).
It was actually a bit ironic that the plantations, that we finally selected as the most interesting ones, were all in Imereti, the region around the city of Kutaisi, which was never even mentioned to us in the beginning. The first plantation, that we have cleaned from weed is located in Tskaltubo municipality and it was one of the last places we visited, as we expanded our search to a wider and wider area. It seems, that we saved the best for the last. In Tskaltubo there was once more than 500 ha of tea fields and just 5 km from our Estate are the ruins of the huge Ophurchkheti tea factory, that processed few thousand tons of tea leaves every year. Unfortunately, apart from a few families, who produce tea at their households and sell it on the local market in Kutaisi, we will be the first company, starting to produce tea again in this region.
The very first tea leaves I picked myself.