After a few minutes of research, we find them in the bottom of our wardrobe.. A little wrinkled, with a musty smell, our Tea Travelers jackets have been quietly put aside for a year. It is now time to give them life again for a new stage of our tea trip: We are going to Georgia!

When we first mentioned it, our interlocutors were a bit stunned and confused. Georgia … Certainly there is the US state but there is also a small country that has this name … But where exactly is it located?Country bordered by the black sea, Georgia has 3 vast neighbors (Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan) and much smaller one, Armenia. A large part of its territory is occupied by the Caucasus, a mountain range with breathtaking beauty.

The idea of this destination comes from Russia, our last country visited in 2017 during our world tea tour. We learned that Georgia was the official supplier of teas for the USSR. Since then, we always wanted to better know the “Soviet tea granary”.

The first surprise during our preliminary researchs was to note the few plantations that remain in Georgia today. For a country that has been one of the world’s leading tea exporters (see article on the history of Georgia), this is quite surprising. Finally we got in touch with Miina Saak from Renegade Tea Estate located in western Georgia in the region called Imureti (one of the main tea producing regions). We got a meeting with her to visit this tea estate created just one year ago!

Renegade Tea Estate is the result of a project a little crazy, which highlight the questions of the urban population of “white-collar workers” and the questioning of a certain societal model. 5 former colleagues from an Estonian transport company decided to leave their home land and their corporate life to come back to manual work, countryside life style and local/organic activities. During a trip to New Zealand, Hannes Saarpuu (former CEO of the transport company), had the idea of exploring the possibilities offered by tea. He first went prospecting in Rwanda before finally creating his company in Georgia. Renegade Tea Estate was born and got its first outside financing through an effective crowdfunding campaign … Gradually some of his former coworkers joined him in this crazy adventure: Kristiina Mehik (Estonia), Priit Lavits (Estonia), Miina Saak (Estonia), Tomas Kaziliunas (Lithuania). They are 5 to be firmly convinced of this project and the plantation created in 2017 should begin to bear fruit this year.
The name they chose, Renegade, carries with it the soul of this project.Indeed Renegade means rebellion. Rebellion to the conformist statement “Metro-work-sleep”, to the urban way of life and to the corporate life. Rebellion also compared to the current tea vision. The team wants to get involved in the whole process from the plucking to the sale with fair trade practices.
We meet Miina during a rainy day of our trip, in Kutaissi, a town in western Georgia in the heart of the Imuretie region. We drive to the factory in 4x4 through bumby roads. She explains us that the Georgian government is now promoting investment in the tea industry. Formerly it was an important economic sector with full employment but at the end of the USSR, the tea industry collapsed. The factories have been destroyed to use the materials, thousands of farmers became unemployed and the fields get back to their wild life. Today tea plantations are still largely abandoned, farmers live thanks to their garden and became seasonnal workers during plucking season in Turkey. Therefore, the government proposes to sell or to rent at very low prices hectares of tea fields where wild grasses and especially ferns have covered the old tea plants during the past 30 years.

But the most surprising? Near the factory, Miina shows us some tea plants well hidden under monumental ferns. The original tea plants are still there, some dating from 60 years ago. Surely, they are small and a little stunted but the advantage is that the Renegade team can keep these plants and do not need to replant hundreds of plants and wait 3 or 4 years before the first harvest.

The Estonian and Lithuanian entrepreneurs decided to rent 40 hectares divided into 3 plantations: Renegade, Mandikori and Rioni. The one we saw next to the factory is still under construction is Rioni. Miina told us about the complexity of Georgian plantations: even if most of the bushes are Camelia Sinensis cultivar (from China), they also found Camelia Assamica and Camelia Cambodia. Indeed, during the Soviet era, pushed by the USSR to produce always more, the owners have planted next to the original Camelia Sinensis new plants to increase the productivity. And it did not matter if the cultivars were not the same!

Fortunately for the Renegade Tea Estate team, they are accompanied by a Nepali tea master who gives them his expertise. Novices in tea, the 5 renegades are learning every day. They are plucking, pulling up weeds, discovering the oxidation process and tasting! Then, we visited the factory which is still under construction. The machines are brand new and coming directly from China. Among the 3 plantations, only one (Renegade, 17 hectares) is ready for plucking. This should take place in the coming weeks. The first production will be first dedicated to all the contributors of the project. Renegade wants to produce black tea, green tea, oolong and white tea.

We went through the two rooms of the new factory, rebuilt from an old factory which had been abandoned. We imagine in our head the different stages of  the tea production process while walking through the factory. First, the room to store the leaves right after plucking and then the machine for rolling in order to break enzymes and activate oxidation.

The weather can be stuffy in Georgia, so the oxidation is done in a special machine and not in the open air as we have seen in India, China or Indonesia. At the end, we stop in front of the machine for desiccation which serves to expose the leaves to a high temperature to stop oxidation.

We continue our way through the factory. Storage spaces are still under construction and we can only try to imagine the future office between piles of rubble and construction materials.

However, we can contemplate the beautiful view that is offered to us. Dozens and dozens of hectares of lush vegetation are in front of us.

After a small 4x4 drive into the countryside, we finally reached out the Renegade plantation, the one that is about to bea ready for the first harvest.

The plantation is surrounded by fences. Miina tells us that they have to protect the whole plantation against the ravages caused by cows. In Georgia, cows are free and can go everywhere! When we arrive, workers are at work. Renegade Tea Estate employs for the moment about 10 workers in charge of the maintenance of the plantation. Some of his workers were working almost 30 years ago in the same plantation which was led by the Soviets at that time. Without pesticides and with heavy rain, ferns and grass still grew. Even after serious weeding, it comes back after couple of days…Endless story. Several ecological solutions were imagined such as the use of white vinegar. This can slow down the growth of ferns but hardly eradicate them.

Walking through the plantation, we saw that the first sprouts were here. And indeed, the next day, the team plucked their first production of green tea.

The rain got heavier and we sheltered in the car. Passionate about the project, Miina has joined the Renegade adventure in April. Each member of the team is dedicated of one particular area of the project. Miina manages marketing and communication. Rather successful when we see the quality of the website and the dynamism on the social media!

2019 will be for Renegade Tea Estate a pivot year with the first major production…We can only wish them good luck and we are still exciting by testing their teas!

Back to Kutaissi and the rain is still quite heavy. Only solution: stay in a tea house downtown which was actually a good excuse to test our first Georgian green tea and black tea. We learn that a large indoor market is located next to this tea house. In this market, you can find all sort of  goods produced by local farmers, including tea!

We get lost in the middle of the stalls. The stands are held by women. There is black tea but also a multitude of herbal plants: camomile, verbena, lime… And lot of plants we do not know. We finally bought black tea and also green tea.

After Kutaissi, we are going to hike few days in the impressive Caucasus closed to the Russian border.
We end our journey through the wine region (Georgia has been producing wine for over 8000 years!) and the last day is spent to visit Tbilisi, the capital.

We also went to a tea house recommended by Miina. It is held by the Bitadze family, member of the Georgian Organic Tea Producers Association. The association is composed by 16 producers who represent 50 hectares of land located in Imureti and Guria. The standards of the association are high quality and organic tea. The association produces and sells black tea, green tea and white tea. We are welcomed by the son of the creator of the association, Giorgi. He explains to us that they export mainly tea to China (Chinese are fan of Georgian tea) but also to Japan, to Russia but also to the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Germany. The association choose the premium niche to be above the low-cost competition led by Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.

We understand that far from the mass production and low quality that was the prerogative of Georgian tea during the USSR, the revival of Georgian tea will be compete on quality and organic farming in order to have a specific place in the complex tea world.

Our tea trip is coming to an end and after we celebrated our last day with a last khatchapouri and khinkali (local specialities), it is time for us to go back to France … With once again amazing discoveries and new people, coupled with helpful visits and a new range of tea knowledge. So now, what will be the next step of our project?

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