I just can’t seem to get away from “Georgia”. It truly is a name that follows me wherever I go. I have friends that live in that accursedly hot state. My cat bears the name (one I didn’t give her). And women I try to avoid like the plague – but still haunt me – bear the moniker. The word is everywhere…and it all stemmed from a country’s particular love of a particular Saint George. What a way to start a tea entry, eh?
The country of Georgia has a very assorted, sordid, and peculiar history…none of which I’ll cover here due to self-imposed length-constraints and laziness. Suffice to say, it’s unique, its people are unique, and the region has a unique sub-history in the pantheon of tea cultivation. Tea was first grown and produced in the 1890s. The country possessed an ideal climate for Camellia sinensis (the tea plant to you noobs), and modernized farming practices made it a viable crop.
Given that Georgia was part of the greater Russian Empire at the time, it certainly needed to be viable. Russians downed tea as if it were caffeinated vodka. A ready supply from someplace nearby was a necessity. And for awhile, the Georgian tea industry thrived…until a certain neighboring nuclear power plant went critical. You all know which one.
And there went the Georgian tea industry. Okay, that’s a bit of a dramatic generalization. Some of it also had to do with the mass production methods used in the ‘80s that cut back on quality. (Think: Nilgiri CTC-grade, only worse.) However, the meltdown didn’t help.
That didn’t stop individual farmers from continuing the art of handmade tea. Several areas – including the village of Nagobileui in Western Georgia – were upwind of the doomed power plant. Therefore…no radioactive-“tea”. (*Badam-tish*) In 2003, many of these tea families formed into their own collective, dubbed The Tea Producer Famers’ Association. Their goal: The promotion of Caucasus Tea. Their requirement of members: The tea has to be handmade. No machinery.
One of the founders – Natela Gujabidze – first started plucking tea leaves with her mother-in-law at the tender age of 17. She later worked in Soviet tea fields for 15 years. In 1977, she traveled to China to learn more about the nuances of tea production. The way she plucks, withers, and dries the ‘em result in leaves with their own character. They are long, strand-like, gold-tipped, and oozing with aroma. How do I know this? Well…against all odds, I was able to score some.
The Natela-named GOPA was made available exclusively to TeaGeek members courtesy of Michael J. Coffey – probably one of the most resourceful tea educators I’ve e-talked to. Before he mentioned it, Georgian-made tea hadn’t even been on my “Tea WANT” radar. I buried my nose in the in the bag when it arrived in the mail and whiffed grapes, smoke, earth and caramel. This promised to be an interesting cup of somethin’ special. Or so I hoped.
I asked Sir Coffey [He of the Ironic Surnames} the best way to brew this; he said to brew it like any other black tea. A trial run with a unique and rare beverage called for some patience and precision. On my first attempts with it, I went with my Darjeeling-ish approach – 1 heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of water for three minutes.
The liquor I ended up with was far lighter than I expected from a former Russian territory. The tea infused to straight amber. If I was spotting it without context, I would’ve guessed I was looking at a cup of oolong at most. The scent even made it difficult to discern blindly. It was rich with different (yet still subtle) fruit notes. Taste-wise, I detected very little dryness or bitterness; neither were present on forefront or finish. Citrus and a mysterious nuttiness came through in the middle. Interesting, indeed.
Now that I knew that worked, I had to play with it a little. Given how light it turned out at the three-minute mark, I dared an extra one for s**ts-‘n-giggles. At four, the liquor was darker – beige-to-tawny-brown with a gold-trim to it, a very bright cup. The aroma this time matched some high-altitude Ceylons I’ve tried with a floral front and a little kick of astringency. That sensation was followed up with a delicate, slightly fruit-sweet middle and a finish of…malt?
Malt?! Seriously! Sure, there are plenty of black teas that have a malty character to them, but none actually finish on that note. Especially one as light as this.
Epilogue: This was worth the hurdles it took to acquire it. Even if the whole attempt was like a scene out of some drug deal. This fix was totally worth it. I wish Natela another hundred years of success. Someone give the ol’ gal an immortality pill, please?!
Special thanks to Michael J. Coffey of TeaGeek.net for the member sample. For more information on his site…er…just go to it. (Seriously, he has a self-made tea encyclopedia there.) Or follow his musings HERE.