Tea has been planted in the subtropical, Black Sea regions of western Georgia since the mid-19th century, but it was the USSR’s enormous demand for tea, hailed as “green gold,” that spurred the intensive development of tea plantations on this fertile land.
In 1985, more than 150,000 tons (165,346 US tons) of tea were produced in Georgia, making it the Soviet Union’s main producer of the antioxidant-rich, caffeinated drink. Agricultural research institutions were established and new strains of tea developed. The beverage was promoted as an appetite suppressant and a source of energy for workers.
“There were plantations everywhere and the whole village worked in them,” recalls Gvinjilia, who started picking tea leaves at the age of 12.“Factories were open 24 hours a day because there was so much work,” she adds.
“The scent of tea was everywhere” during the summer harvest season, recollects 52-year-old Tsalenjikha physician Maia Maglakelidze. “We would open the window to smell it. You could smell it throughout the whole town.”
“All these big houses . . .” she continues, sweeping her hands across a view of Tsalenjikha, a town of 3,847 people. “They were built thanks to tea.”
That prosperity ended with the Soviet era. The scent of tea is no more.