STiR coffee and tea magazine

Volume 5, Number 4

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64 STiR coffee and tea / Issue 4, 2016 (August/September) Story and photos by Larry Luxner T GEORGIAN TEA RETURNS A tea plantation near the Black Sea resort of Chakvi, birthplace of the Georgian tea industry Tins of Prince Gurieli tea, produced by Geoplant Ltd., on display in the lobby bar of the Batumi Hilton, a resort hotel along the Black Sea Ex-Soviet republic intends to bring its struggling tea industry back to life wenty years ago, few Westerners had any clue that Georgia, a former Soviet re- public in the Caucasus, boasts a winemaking tradition dating back 8,000 years. These days, Georgian vintners — cultivating an astonishing 525 indigenous va- rieties of grapes in a country half the size and population of the US state that shares its name — sell their reds and whites in upscale wine shops from New York to London. Georgia now hopes to replicate that success with its moribund tea industry. Despite the obvious differences between wine grapes and tea leaves, comparing the two crops isn't as farfetched as it seems. Until the USSR's collapse in 1991, Georgia provided 95% of the tea consumed by Russia, Ukraine, and the other 12 republics. Thanks to mass mechanical harvesting, production peaked at 152,000 metric tons in 1985, with 60,000 hectares of tea under cultivation. That would have made Georgia the world's fourth-largest tea exporter, had it been an independent country at the time. But this was all about quantity, not quality — and as was the case with wine, that's precisely what Georgian entrepreneurs and government officials now want to change. Unlike wine, tea cultivation in Georgia dates back only to 1847, when the first tea bushes appeared in western Georgia. Decades later, a wealthy merchant named Kon- stantin Popov decided to grow tea for export along the Black Sea coast in Chakvi, a small town in Adjara province just north of the Turkish border. Following an 1892 trip to China to study large-scale tea production, Popov came back with a team of Chinese workers led by Lao Junzhou of Guangdong. Lao spent years researching the crop and how to improve it. He eventually became the manager of a factory in 1901, and in 1924 the Soviet government awarded him the Red Ban- ner Order of Labor for his efforts. In 1930, the USSR Tea and Subtropical Cultures Research Institute — to this day the only entity of its kind in Europe — was founded in Anaseuli. Despite a decline during the Khrushchev years in the 1960s, tea exports remained an important source of revenue for Georgia — especially the low-quality "Stalin tea" sold in two-kilogram bricks for the equivalent of 60 cents each to consumers in Mongolia.

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