Renegade Tea Estate’s story started in early 2017, when Hannes and Kristiina stumbled on the fascinating story of tea growing in Georgia. 40 years ago, all of Western Georgia was covered by thousands of big and small tea plantations, and there were 150’000 people in villages and smaller cities directly employed by the industry. Everything changed with the collapse of Soviet Union in 1990-s. As the whole industry crashed in just 5 short years (1990-1995) with the production volumes dropping by 95%, all those people were suddenly unemployed and the region has never fully recovered from the shock. Decades later, hundreds of tea fields are still there – waiting for someone to give them a second lease of life. This was the moment when our story as Renegade farmers started. Soon Hannes and Kristiina were joined by Priit, Tomas, Hanna, Mario and Miina to form our current team.
What we also learned was that Georgia is actually one of the best places to grow high quality organic tea, because the long and cold winters give the tea its specific sweet and mellow flavor and at the same time eliminate all the bugs and illnesses, that are a huge challenge in most tea growing regions.
It didn’t take us long to make up our mind, that this is a call we can’t ignore. Soon we had left our careers in our home countries behind and found ourselves in Georgia, looking for a plantation to rehabilitate. It took us months to visit more than 50 abandoned plantations in far corners of Western Georgia, before we settled on the 3 plantations we are operating now.
We named our farm Renegade Tea Estate. We felt that this was the right name because we feel ourselves as rebels and renegades in the tea industry. The tea world is heavily dominated by mass market commodity teas, huge corporations exploiting the workers and countless middlemen, each promising to provide you with the most unique and tasty teas.
Our idea was different, not centered around tea itself, but around the people - people in the Georgian villages, ourselves and our customers. We wanted to provide work for the people in the villages and offer our customers the opportunity to grow tea together with us, even if in reality they are thousands of kilometers away. We want to be the next-door tea farmers - transparent, honest and in daily communication with our community.
All our 3 plantations are located on the mountainous hillsides just 10-20 kilometers north of Kutaisi and they are still very much “work in progress”. After almost 30 years without human interventions, they were heavily overgrown with weeds (mainly fern and blackberries) and partly with trees. In addition to this, you can find on our lands mulberry trees, wild plums and lemons, Bilberry bushes and a lot of rhododendrons and other flowery bushes. Wildlife is represented by numerous lizards and birds, occasional snakes, deers, half-wild horses and of course - the roaming cows from nearby villages that will happily eat our tea, whenever they manage to break into our fields.
We see that the ecosystem is changing every year and diversity of different plants on our fields is increasing, as we suppress the dominating fast-growing weed like fern. Still, weed-fighting remains a major challenge even 3 years after the initial clean-up. We use regular mechanical removal with hoes as the main weeding practice in our plantations. On the positive side, the removed fern gives us an abundance of mulch to use as a natural fertilizer.
We have kept many trees and planting even more because they provide shade to the tea bushes.
Now that we have given the tea plants room to grow in freedom again, we can see many bees and birds returning, using the bushes as food or shelter. During the winter period our plantations are visited by herds of wild horses, who stroll around the quiet plantation and therefore also fertilize it.
Another focus area has been the overall infrastructure, everything from access roads to drainage systems and other basic facilities was in ruins when we started. Luckily it rains a lot in Western Georgia, so at least the irrigation is not a priority at this point. But in general, it still takes years to bring our plantations up to the modern standards in every aspect.
As we are still building up our operations our local workers team is also under constant change. Already today we employ more than 50 people from nearby villages during the season, but most of them work only part-time. So far the main priority has been weed control, but as the tea bushes grow and mature, the focus will gradually shift towards harvesting, which we do only manually, to ensure the highest quality of the leaf. We expect that once our plantations are fully mature in 4 years, we can provide stable income for at least 50 households.
To ensure the quality of our teas, we put a special focus on the harvesting and selecting the best leaves for the processing. As the tea bush is growing, the bud and 1-2 fresh leaves have the highest concentration of amino-acids, essential oils and antioxidants. Amino acids and essential oils give tea its flavor and taste. To make sure that we deliver high quality products, we only use hand-harvesting and only pluck shoots, that include bud and up to 2 fresh leaves.