Issue 2, 2018. April-May

   

GEORGIAN TEA GETS A REBOOT FROM LOCAL ENTREPRENEURS

Georgian tea was once a major export, with local plantations producing tea for consumers around the Soviet Union and beyond. In the 1990s, local production faltered and exports dwindled. Today, however, Georgian investors are slowly reclaiming the brand and cultivating a new, niche market for premium tea.

Paul Rimple

Shota Bitadze sifting dried Kvanchkara grapes at his Tabidze St. shop


When we first arrived in Georgia in 2001, it wasn't easy finding a good cup of coffee. While there is definitely something to be said about a good cup of Turkish-style coffee, the truth is much of what was served back then was little more than sweet mud. Yet we persevered with our coffee dust brewed in little electric plastic kettles while a growing coffee culture emerged throughout the country. Now, you can grab an espresso at any number of joints along the highway in Zestafoni, of all places.

The same can be said about tea. There wasn't a home without a box of Lipton; and let's face it, with three or four heaping spoons of sugar and a slice of lemon, it's not the tea you're really tasting. Yet only several decades ago, Georgia was one of the leading exporters of tea in the world. And as Mother Nature takes over western Georgia's Soviet-era plantations, most of us sit in our kitchens and steep bags of black or green that come from every other tea-producing country but ours. This trend, however, is changing.

In 2010, Gurieli Tea, a Georgian company, put its green tea on the shelves of local markets and has become the dominant name in domestically produced quality loose-leaf and bagged tea today. Meanwhile, individual enthusiasts are producing and packaging premium organic tea and finding a niche market, much like Georgia's natural winemakers are doing.

Natalia Partskhaladze got her inspiration to cultivate tea on a trip in the south of France where she saw gorgeous fields of lavender. In 2014, she started growing aromatic herbs and flowers in a modest garden at her family cottage in Lavriskhevi, located in Shida Kartli. That is how Kona Tea was born. It took two and a half years of research, study and brand building for Kona to reach the market, Partskhaladze explains.

'The first year we sold mostly on the local market. Now we sell to the Netherlands and Latvia,' she adds.

Kona, which means 'bouquet' in Georgian, presently offers twelve teas divided into four collections: Epicurean, Herbal Zen, Wellness and Guria Grand Cru. The herbs for these come from the Lavriskhevi garden and are collected from different parts of the country. The black, green and bilberry teas come from organic growers in Guria. Other ingredients, like lemongrass and rooibos, are imported from organically certified growers.

Kona's motto is Pauca Sed Bona-quality over quantity-and it is a motto the owners take seriously. The small company differs from other Georgian tea producers in that their ingredients are carefully sourced and selected from the entire country and packaged into a wide range of selections, like 'Anana-Gunda - Goddess of Fertility.' Partskhaladze created this blend of rooibos, raspberry leaves, chamomile and anise for new mothers.

'Kona is a global brand with a local twist. The tastes and flavors come from everywhere,' she insists.

Kona Tea can be found online at www.kona.bio and at Chaimania tea shop in Badagi, at Gemorcheuli and Cafe Leila.

Shota Bitadze has been involved with tea since 2000 and founded the Georgian Organic Tea Producers Association in 2006, which is a group of 16 families committed to the growing and production of first-rate, organic tea. One of their main objectives is to rekindle domestic tea production and to provide guidance to farmers to produce high-quality organic tea.

In 2009, Bitadze began a four-year study process in China on all things tea with his son Giorgi, who helps run the business. Their personal specialty is wild black tea, which is found among the jungle-like overgrowth in old plantations. This picked up awards at the prestigious 2016 Tea Masters Cup International in Seoul for best aroma, best taste, and best aftertaste.

In addition to wild tea, the Bitadzes also package black, green, white and wild quince and blueberry leaves grown and picked by association members. They have also been dabbling in the cultivation of purple tea, a delicious new strain developed in China in 1985, well-suited to Georgia's northerly, sub-tropical climate. For fruit tea lovers, there is additionally an exclusive Kvanchkara grape tea.

Bitadze operates from a cozy 19th-century cellar on Tabidze Street in Sololaki, which is part museum, part shop, and packed with the wholesome scent of dried tea. He exports to Ukraine and sells tea at the duty-free shop at the Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport and online at https://6040-ge.all.biz.

Nana Kirmelashvili, an art director by profession, took advantage of a National Bank of Redevelopment (NBRD) grant three years ago to buy 12 hectares of land in Nagomari, a village in western Georgia's Guria region, which at one time was all planted with tea. Today, its plantations are all overgrown. Most locals actually travel to Turkey to pick tea instead of exploiting the assets that are literally growing under their feet. Yet at a cost of approximately 17,000 lari to rehabilitate each hectare of tea, it takes a considerable amount of chutzpah to invest in domestic production that can't really compete with the volume of big companies. Kirmelashvili sees a 'growing respect' for tea and points to the government's efforts to promote organic tea at various functions. 'I think Georgian tea will become famous,' she asserts.

Nagomari packages four teas: Caucasian Blueberry, Green, 'Intensive Black,' which she compares to Earl Gray, and a Delicate Black, which she suggests is good before bedtime and is suitable for children. It is indeed smooth and lightly smoky without a hint of bitterness. A member of the Georgian Organic Tea Producers Association, Nagomari is not yet ready for export but can be found at many of Tbilisi's major hotels in addition to Goodwill, Georgita and Ekomonix supermarkets, and also at the Georgian Food and Cheese Houses. The gift shops Aristeus on Freedom Square and Kartuli Kalata on Kote Abkhazi Street also stock Nagomari teas.

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