When you think of tea production, Europe isn’t the first place to spring to mind. But slowly, more and more tea plantations are springing up! Georgia and Portugal have had tea farms for quite some time already, but now you can also find tea in the Netherlands, France, Scotland and elsewhere!
The history of European tea plantations
Exactly where the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, originated from is a debated topic, although it’s presumed that tea comes from an area south-east of the Tibetan plateau, between China, Myanmar, Thailand and north-eastern India.
Tea was cultivated for the first time in ancient China and tea production intensified during the Tang Dynasty. It wasn't until the beginning of the 17th century that Dutch merchants introduced tea to Europe.
Around 100 years later, packed onto ships with other exotic plants, the tea bush sailed to Europe for the first time. However, most European countries set up big plantations in their colonies rather than growing tea at home. Not much of a surprise, since the climate in India is much more suited to tea than Wales!
The Dutch grew tea from seed on Java and Sumatra in Indonesia and the British set up plantations in India, Kenya and Uganda. It was these plantations that cemented black tea as a favourite drink on European shores.
If you're interested to learn more about the history of tea, this video is great!
Growing tea in European tea plantations
So, we know that Europe played an important role in developing the tea industry, but did they grow much tea? Well, it turns out, yes! Tea cultivation began at the end of the 19th century in Georgia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Azores Islands in Portugal.
Azores came first in 1874, with a little help from a Chinese tea expert from Macau. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were 14 tea gardens in the North of São Miguel island. Today, only two remain – totalling around 40 hectares.
A tea plantation on the Azores:
Production in Georgia started a few years later in 1893, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. At first, 150 hectares of tea seeds from China, Ceylon and India were planted. In 1900, an initiative was set up to give land owners tea seedlings free of charge which increased the number of tea plantations very quickly. By 1913, Georgia had 960 hectares of tea plantations.
From 1923, tea production in Georgia boomed under the Soviet Union. Only a decade later, there were some 34,000 hectares of tea bushes! The photo below shows a Georgian tea factory packing station in Chakvi in the early 20th century.
Georgia became the world’s fourth largest producer of tea and the biggest European tea region. The neighbouring regions of Sochi in Russia and Rize in Turkey developed their tea plantations with the help of Georgian expertise. You can read more about the rise and fall of the Georgian tea industry here.
Tea plantations in Europe today
In recent years, European tea plantations have sprung up in surprising locations. You can now find tea bushes growing from Holland to Switzerland and the Scottish highlands. Many of the European tea plantations have been grown from Georgian seed.
Growing tea in Europe comes with its problems. Although the climate in some countries such as Georgia is ideal for growing tea, the same cannot be said for Holland or Wales. Nonetheless, growing tea in Europe is possible and the industry will probably continue to grow. Currently, European tea plantations are generally small.
What does tea from European tea plantations taste like?
There are many factors that affect the taste of tea – the terroir, the cultivar, the tea making process… Because of this, it’s impossible to generalise the taste of tea from Europe. Tea grown in Georgia is generally sweet and soft thanks to the cold winters and high altitudes.
How can you taste European-grown tea?
You can order tea from our farm in Georgia, one of the leading European tea producers here. Most European tea plantations offer online delivery so you can conveniently taste teas from different farms.