Georgia is bordered on the west by the Black Sea; on the east by Azerbajian; on the north by the Caucasus Mountain Range, and on the south by Armenia, Iran and Turkey. With its subtropical climate, many crops flourish here: from livestock to wheat; hazelnuts to citrus fruit; wine grapes to tea.
The tea grown here is unique, as the combination of latitude and altitude provides extraordinary climate conditions, requiring little in the way of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Georgia’s tea plantations once claimed more than 50,000 hectares with a yearly output of 500,000 tons of tea. Most of this tea was consumed in the USSR.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the quality of the tea produced fell dramatically. The Soviet value of high production over high quality hastened the decline. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came civil unrest, political instability and poor trade relations with the rest of Russia. For the tea industry, these factors were a nearly fatal blow. According to “The Messenger,” “the overgrown tea bushes [became] a depressing metaphor for a once-blooming industry neglected and in need of attention.” It wasn’t long before foreign investors moved in, buying up unusable tea plantations and converting them to blueberry production.
Thanks to help from USaid, Georgian tea is making a comeback. Proper maintenance and new machinery provide many full and part time jobs in a region hard-pressed for employment. From an all-time low of just 2000 tons of tea produced in 2005, mini-factories are springing up, growing and producing high-quality green and black teas. The tea does not have to travel far from farm to market: 95% of the tea currently produced is snapped up by local consumers, yet some 98 percent of tea consumed in Georgia is
imported. The math is simple . . . Georgia produces only 3 percent of the tea it consumes, a situation that can be remedied.
Bad news for tea drinkers, though, as the remedy will have to wait.
Just last Friday, on the eve of the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games in Bejing, Russia began an aggressive military action against Georgia, the lone democracy in the region. Georgia declared its independence from USSR in the early 1990s, and South Ossetia, a small province in northern Georgia, declared its independence from Georgia at the same time. South Ossetia, a tiny country of 60,000 ethnically and religiously diverse inhabitants, has been at odds with both Russia and Georgia, taking potshots at both from time to time. Russia has many interests at stake, not the least of which is Georgia’s year-round port on the Black Sea, at Poti, which is also a major terminus and distribution point, linking and the west with oil production in the Caspian Sea area. While Europe and the United States are clearly on the side of Georgia in this unfortunate action, how and what to do is a matter for debate. It might be a little late in the game to sit the principals down for a thoughtful cup of tea.