Although it lacks the abundance of chaykhanas (tea houses) found in Azerbaijan, cafes and tea-drinking in general have long been a part of Georgian culture. It is unclear whether the drink was popularized in Georgia via Russian or Persian influence, but domestic tea cultivation did not begin until the 19th century. With an increasing amount produced locally (including Gurieli, Kolkha, and the hilariously-named Elitist Georgian Tea), the curious history of Georgian tea culture merits some attention.
The first attempt at tea cultivation occurred after Prince Miha of the aristocratic Eristavi clan traveled across China in the 1820s, became quite taken with the various infusions of tea, and postulated that his home region had a climate similarly conducive to its production. In order to circumvent laws against the export of Chinese tea plants and seeds, Eristavi smuggled seeds out of the country in lengths of bamboo. The earliest plantations were established in the 1830s, but the resulting product was not popularized for several decades.
In a roundabout way, the Crimean War had perhaps the biggest hand in developing a Georgian tea industry. In 1854, an English military ship was wrecked off the Black Sea port of Poti, and its crew was taken hostage by the local garrison. One of the hostages, a Scottish officer named Jacob McNamara, married into the Georgian gentry and remained in the country. A true Scotsman, he missed the availability of tea and proposed increased production on the Eristavi estate in Ozurgeti and Chakvi. By 1864, “Caucasian tea” was presented at an international exhibition in St. Petersburg.
In 1892, he traveled to China in order to study large-scale tea production. Popov hired a team of experienced workers from a factory in Guangdong, including an ambitious director named Lao Junzhou. After a three-year term, all of the specialists returned home except for Lao, who was determined to see the project achieve its full potential.
After several more years of hard work and research, Lao’s tea was awarded a gold medal at the 1900
Georgian tea increased in economic importance, the Tea and Subtropical Cultures Research Institute was founded in Anaseuli, where more new varieties of tea were grown, focusing on aromatic varieties.
Tea growers in Chakvi lament that Georgian tea went into decline under Khrushchev, when the factories were worked mercilessly to meet planned production figures. The resulting low-quality tea was often sold to the military, while higher-quality Krasnodar tea (from plantations near Sochi) was sold to the general public. “Brick tea” remains the lowest quality product of all: it consists of tea leaves of any grade, steamed and pressed into two-kilogram bricks sold for about .60 USD. This unusual product is almost entirely exported to Mongolia, where it is known as “Stalin tea” for its trademark sickle-and-hammer stamp, and is customarily brewed with milk and drunk with salt and butter.