How much do you know about Georgian tea? What happens when a group of your people dedicates their time to saving abandoned tea plantations? In this modern age of technology when nature is losing its value in the eyes of young people, Renegade Tea Estate is a bright example how not everything is lost. I talked to Kristiina Mehik, one of five young renegades that found joy in tea farming.
Tea Chronicles: Kristiina, thank you for agreeing to share your story. Your project idea is amazing and so is your passion. Could you tell us a bit more about Renegade Tea Estate and what exactly you are doing? What was your main driving force in starting this journey?
Kristiina: We see a true mission and greater good in helping to revive the Georgian tea industry. Seeing the bushy, abandoned tea fields scattered around on the beautiful hills of western Georgia and the dwindling small towns, which are slowly emptying due to the lack of employment and prospects, gave us the strong impulse and motivation to do something about it. We want to give our part in order to put the Georgian tea back on the map.
We believe, that we can bring something different and unique to the tea scene.
The tea industry is dominated by middlemen and big corporations. There is more tea produced in the world than is consumed and there are hundreds of companies branding and selling it. Yet it is hard to find even a handful of true next-door tea farmers who are growing, making and selling their high quality natural products under their own brand names. There is a general lack of authenticity as the profits are reaped by middlemen and distributors, leaving the farmers and producers in the shadows. Therefore, our goal is to be the most transparent tea company with the most personal customer experience, from planting the new seedlings until sending you a box of our teas.
There are three main things about business that we all share in our team — we don’t like politics and corporate games, we have always wanted to challenge the status quo and we share a passion for really good, authentic customer experiences. Therefore, starting a small tea estate in Georgia felt like a pretty good match with our personal goals and ambitions.
Tea Chronicles: Who are the „Renegade tea farmers“? What was your knowledge on tea prior to starting this journey?
Kristiina: We are a bunch of corporate renegades from Estonia and Lithuania. For the past few years we have worked in one team and therefore we have good practice working together towards joint goals. We have a variety of knowledge starting from sales and marketing, business management and ending with bus operations, but we don’t have any professional experience with tea. We are eager learners and we have found a few tea specialists who will teach and guide us on this journey, we have already learned a lot. The deeper we get into tea, the more interesting it gets!
Tea Chronicles: Georgia used to have a much more important place in the world’s tea production. However, it still has some of the most amazing teas in the world. Why did Georgian tea production decreased?
Kristiina: Indeed, 30 years ago, Georgia was one of the biggest tea producers in the world, but in the beginning of the 1990s, the whole industry collapsed in just 5 short years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia had to deal with the aftershocks that went through the region – civil war and economic collapse of the country. Georgia also failed to compete with China and Sri Lanka in the newly opened market, and the lack of knowledge of how to operate in a market economy became fatal for most companies and cooperatives. Large factories and plantations were left behind, and villages, whose main part of income came from the tea industry, were gradually deserted. With ca 150,000 tons of tea produced in the heydays, today’s production is only 2000-3000 tons per year. There was altogether ca 70,000 hectares of land under the plantations which have now been largely abandoned or rooted up.
Tea Chronicles: You are actually working on rehabilitating three Georgian plantations – Genegade, Mandikori and Rioni. Why them and how many plantations do you plan to revitalize?
Kristiina: We actually went through ca 50 plantation in total, we also applied to some which we did not get due to the division of lands etc. The current plantations have been chosen to be somewhat close to each other and with different altitudes for the diversity of plants. Renegade Estate was one of the last which we found, it was not mentioned to us by the state nor anybody else, so we kind of found it ourselves. But the plants were healthy, and the location was very good, so we decided to take it. Mandikori has a very diverse landscape and we fell in love with it immediately, although the landscape in parts is very difficult and the plucking will be complicated as well, the difference in landscape and soil gives a very good variety to the plants as well. Mandikori is also the highest, located at 400-500 m. At the moment we have started to rehabilitate 2 plantations – Renegade Tea Estate and Mandikori Tea Estate.
Rioni Estate we found by chance, we had no intentions to take a third plantation this year, but as we chose a building for our future factory, we discovered that it is in the middle of another old plantation and we realized that taken our goals we just can’t leave the overgrown fields like that. So, with the help of fellow minded renegades, who supported us on our crowdfunding campaign, we can now rehabilitate also the Rioni Estate.
Tea Chronicles: What is the perception of tea in Georgia now?
Kristiina: Tea is mainly connected to the „good old times“. As the locals tell it – you could see and smell tea whenever you went out of the house and everybody had jobs. So, when talking about tea with locals, it always has a nostalgic, even romantic vibe. Nowadays 80% of the tea consumed in Georgia is imported.
Tea Chronicles: Is it possible to join Renegade Tea Estate and become one of the farmers?
Kristiina: Sure, we gladly welcome fellow renegades, if our cause is meaningful for the person and if our mindsets match on how to build the most personal tea estate in the world 😊
Tea Chronicles: When can we expect your first tea results? What types of tea will you be making? What cultivars are you using?
Kristiina: Our plantations have a mixture of cultivars – there is the Chinese cultivar, Assamica and Cambodian and a lot of mixtures as well. Although it makes it difficult to process the tea, it also gives an interesting taste experience. We have already plucked some leaves from Renegade Estate, not for commercial use, but for shaping the bushes. And we have also made some tests and can understand what kind of character our tea will have. We plan to make our initial batch for sale in autumn this year. We plan to make black, green and white, perhaps also some oolong for testing.
Tea Chronicles: How can tea lovers contribute to your tea journey?
Kristiina: Fellow tea lovers can contribute to help us to save the Georgian tea industry by following our story and spreading it around, so more people would learn about the Georgian tea. And of course trying out our very first tea that comes to sale 🙂
Tea Chronicles: Kristiina, thank you very much for sharing your story. I hope to hear updates from Renegade Tea Estate this year with some amazing new Georgian teas.
Learn more about Renegade Tea Estate and follow their story here.