Nika being interviewed, with tea plants (photo shared by him)
We've met with Nika Sioridze in an online meeting with that circle of friends, the producer of this tea, which will help frame a review of two teas he sent earlier (many thanks for those).
The general theme may be familiar to many: Georgia was a main tea producer under the Soviet Union, with their tea industry crashing during the dissolution of that. Some tea production continued but not on the same scale. According to Nika that earlier phase related to producing relatively modest quality tea at the largest scale possible, essentially the broad current perspective on Kenyan and Turkish tea production (for the most part; there would be exceptions). Now smaller producers and co-operative organizations are pushing forward to try to change that paradigm and create better tea versions, and scale up demand by improving local and international awareness of new options.
I've heard a few accounts of others on a similar page in Georgia; over the past few years that story has been getting out. The Renegade Tea producer might be the most active on social media (which may correspond to mature forms of tea production too, although it wouldn't have to connect). If you Google search Georgian teas themed resellers like What Cha list other similar sources, or a blogger like Geoffrey of Steep Stories has probably written about plenty of others (like in this post, from awhile back).
The proof is always in the pudding (or put in the more sensible original British form: the proof of the pudding is in the eating). Reclaimed old plantations making new styles of tea based on updated processing steps is a great theme, but it has to translate into a positive beverage experience to work. Adding a review here goes a long way towards assessing results, with the limitation that this only covers two of a set of a number of samples, with more to follow later.
This story line reminds me of lots of places, but I suppose especially Assam. Or Nepal isn't so different, or Indonesia, maybe with that latter country all the closer since earlier Dutch plantations are still there, still producing older higher-volume and lower-quality teas, while new forms of plantations draw on new processing and plant types. Assam seems similar because the history of doing things the older standard way is so entrenched there, with such a clear and recent time period cut-off between the possibility for new approaches not existing and then coming to life. Per my understanding restrictions in place on types of businesses and agricultural practices in Assam only changed within the last half dozen years or so. Other parts are a close match: mixed use of varying cultivars and mixed backgrounds in experimenting with processing, and drawing on foreign influence as much as prior mass-production themes.
So one might wonder what Nika has added that's unique to Georgia in that discussion. One novel difference is that a lot of plants were there, growing untended from that earlier era, which ended within the time-frame of 30 or so years back. The "feral tea plantation" theme is different in Georgia than elsewhere in relation to that time-frame being so well-defined, so recent in the past but still removed (relatively), and for a larger scale of plants still being there to work from. Nika talked about how along with moving as quickly as possible on the path to making really good tea they could ramp up production to a certain number of tons. This isn't like starting from a bunch of seedlings.
again all onsite photos were contributed by Nika
It's obvious to ask about tea plant types: what's growing? Nika passed on that they are growing a local strain, a type of Kolchida cultivar, and also Qimen (/ Keemun), a Chinese plant type used to make black tea. A distinctive flavor aspect made me wonder if that's not common among that set of Georgian types (I've seen a number listed beside a Kolchida cultivar elsewhere, so apparently there are variations). I'll get back to that idea in the review.
Nika's personal story was interesting. He's from an agriculture background, so expansion into tea was from that side, which is probably a great background to draw on. He explained how input from one person in particular, with ties to tea production in Nepal, helped speed up that difficult processing learning curve. Obviously processing equipment import relates too. We didn't get too far into any one side of the entire range, for starting with general background. The talk about local awareness, preference, and expectations being on the basic side related to black tea styles and quality is so common to what I've written about other countries I'll skip going into it. Nika sees foreign markets as the best early consumer for what they make, which will scale up over the next few years, since a lot of that awareness shift has already occurred elsewhere.
So it really comes down to just how good the tea is so far; how far along have they come with processing skill, and how suitable are the plants that are growing to compete with higher quality and more distinctive black teas from elsewhere? In particular, one might wonder where they stand in relation to a region like Assam, if style and quality could be compared across varying origins like that. I'm not going to take that last step all the way to conclusions, but maybe I'll go further with it in subsequent reviews. I've tried revised form high quality orthodox Assam from a number of small producers, and from a co-op and a large plantation also on that page. For a starting point describing two versions of these teas will be enough.
mixed and OP (mixed left, still mostly whole leaf)
He sent samples divided by type, including OP and mixed input categories. It would've been most sensible and effective to compare two from one category (leaf wholeness set), then to re-review two from another. Of course I didn't do that; I tried one of each to start. Why, why!? I have to go by intuition. I was curious how results would work for mixed forms, and the samples are large enough I can re-taste a version if it seems in order.
Of course I didn't "cup" these using a standard Western brewing plantation-output evaluation form either, that thing with the sets that look like lidded mugs, tasting from a bowl with a spoon, etc. I prefer teas prepared Gongfu style, and I see that as presenting just as valid a result as Western brewing.
A Western brewing approach can give very different results, and those might even be slightly more positive, for brewing very broken leaf material (so not these). Not overbrewed per the ISO standard format, where the idea is to use a consistent approach well suited to identifying flaws. That must be quite functional, it's just not the page I'm on.
Mixed left, OP right (for non-regular readers I'm not into straining)
Mixed sample (less whole leaf, but mostly that): it's nice. There's more astringency edge than I'm used to from drinking the softest Chinese and American grown teas lately, but this is a really pleasant level of astringency, and quite moderate compared with most black tea produced. There seems to be a cocoa edge to this, and some degree of fruit. It's really far from any version I would consider adding milk and sugar to, at other end of the quality and astringency level scale.
There is a touch of malt but it's not strong at all compared to Assam. It seems to have a pleasant mintiness to it, not really strong and towards eucalyptus like for Ruby / Red Jade / #18 from Taiwan, more a touch of light and sweet mint, like light and sweet spearmint instead of peppermint. It will be interesting to see if that develops or gets harder to notice. It's great; hopefully the first.
OP: this brewed a lot slower for not being as broken, so where the other could be backed off a little for infusion time this version is just getting started. It's much milder, seemingly not developed to where it's headed just yet. Character is nice. It's a little more woody, but light cocoa and mild spice range fills that in. It must be similar to the other version, more than I am noticing, but it's still developing. I'll need to adjust brewing to go faster on the first version, with the timing I used ok for this one (out towards 20 seconds, but probably not that long, even counting the pours). I'll leave off and add more description next round.
interesting how much faster the "mixed" version extracts, but not unusual
Mixed, second infusion: really nice, coming in well even for that infusion being quite fast, under 10 seconds. 12-15 might be optimum for now but it's nice trying teas slightly weaker and stronger to see how that changes things. That touch of mint hangs in there. It would be easy to not identify that flavor at all, to see it as mixing in along with other wood, fruit, cocoa, and spice range. It's complex, and not easier for me to break apart into a list for me not drinking as much black tea these days.
OP: still on the light side, even though this did brew twice as long as the other version. Whole leaf teas are like that; brewing time changes, and outcome in relation to experienced aspects and flavor proportions. It's hard describing that one mineral intensive, towards woody aspect that many would see as just tasting like black tea. I would've expected to like this version more than the first, for being more whole-leaf, but it doesn't include some of the same flavor range as the other, and the astringency in the more broken version balances really well.
I'll try to get infusion times relatively close to an optimum next round and focus in on a flavor list more.
Mix, third infusion: pleasant, not so different. I think that mint really is something exceptional I'm "getting," not just interpretation or imagination. Mild astringency edge is nice, one of the next things that stands out, but at a positive level. I suppose related to taste it seems to connect to a warm mineral tone. As to the remainder cocoa does seem to be part of it, and from there what I interpreted as fruit earlier could just as easily be floral, along the line of rose, or something such. Earthier flavor, not so far off the warm mineral taste range, is towards tree bark, an earthy version of it, but still like a dry hardwood version. A very slight resinous edge could seem like pine to someone, but at that level of trying to identify ever more faint aspects interpretation is probably more of a factor than what one is actually tasting.
OP: this is pleasant too, it just suffers in comparison for having less going on. It's odd saying that, since really the softer, full, rich character should be exactly what I prefer, based on liking Chinese black teas the best (Dian Hong, I suppose, Yunnan blacks, but other black teas are nice too). If a smooth woody tone here shifted to include just a bit more cocoa or that fruit / floral range it would be better, changing an overall interpretation a lot.
It's a lot harder to derive a flavor list from this version. It's woody, with root spice beyond that, or maybe with those two switched in order, and beyond that traces of what occurred in the other do seem to be present. A warm mineral edge is much lighter, and the cocoa and the rest is hard to clearly identify for mixing together beyond the main flavors. I can't tell if there is any mint tone to this or not, so I guess that's saying that there's not. Other range adds complexity without flavors standing out as identifiable.
There are no flaws; I've not really done much with describing that, but it makes a lot of difference. Feel is full and flavors are clean. Sweetness could bump a little but what is present balances the rest. I would be guessing to cite any causes (guessing based on so little it's of limited value or likelihood), but the material used to make the first might have been better, leading to results I like a little more, versus the broken leaf form somehow making it more positive. It would be interesting to let Nika fill in more about the backstory for tea plant types and growing conditions, in case they would explain that [from earlier notes; he did, but it's hard to map to type].
Mix, fourth infusion: I'll probably stop taking notes here, since I've got things to do. It's interesting how the color is so much darker in this version, even for being brewed a lot faster. Different compounds would extract for broken leaf tea, or at least in a much different proportion, but the idea is one thing, and then seeing and experiencing it is interesting. The intensity is backing off a little but it's not so different than the last round. For stretching it from here results would probably be less positive, with that edge picking up while other positive flavors keep fading, but this is surely fine for giving another few very nice rounds.
OP: if someone valued moving away from that astringency edge as much as possible this would clearly be a better tea version. In terms of other flavor aspects present it might give up a little to the other version. It's good though, and very positive. It's not fading or losing appeal in terms of aspect range; if anything it's the best it has been. It's interesting for being complex, with a broad range of flavors contributing, but a lot of it isn't distinct. Cocoa seems noteworthy to me, just less pronounced than wood and root spice. The more subdued warm floral range really could be interpreted as dried fruit instead, towards raisin but maybe lighter, more like a dried pear or apricot. Or it could be both, accounting for why it's hard to place. Interpretation varies how one might take that quite a bit. To one person this might seem like straight wood, to another very complex across a broader range than I've just described.
Both are nice, both overlapping in nature but different. It's strange I kind of did like the broken version better, in those notes, but it seemed likely that the whole leaf version would be much more positive across the next 3 to 4 infusions. It definitely did work out like that.
The second whole-leaf version kept on improving further after those first four rounds, while the other tapered off. It picked up a cool brandy-like character, along the line of dried fruit like raisin, but really extending into that liqueur like taste, maybe even towards red wine. Even for whole leaf versions it's a little odd for a black tea to change or improve that much after the first four rounds like that. I suppose it could be partly about that positive character always having been present earlier, at lower levels, then with most of the wood-tone flavor effect dropping out to let it show through. Both teas made a number of additional positive rounds though.
All in all this tea is much better than I expected. It's hard to place it in general terms against a general Chinese black tea character, aspect profile, or quality level, or against Assam orthodox versions. I will return to that idea as I try other versions. Tea from everywhere varies in character quite a bit, beyond some very consistent flavor profile themes emerging (first and second flush Darjeeling, Nepal whites, Taiwanese "honey black" teas, some types of Chinese black teas). Those profiles vary with plant types used, micro-climate and other terroir inputs, the weather that year, processing approaches, and so on. I get it why people tend to make blanket, sweeping comparisons or cite typical aspects, as I sometimes do, but to an extent that just doesn't work, especially to make general quality level assessments.
These are good teas. It's absolutely not what you would expect for a plantation a few years into being recovered from inactivity (3 or 4, maybe Nika had said). That leapfrog step of drawing on Nepal originated processing methods and skill comes to mind as a likely factor. Probably the people growing this tea drawing on an agricultural background didn't hurt, leading to creating good material to work with. The maturity of the plants was probably a factor, not needing to rush seedlings through a fast growth process just to get enough to experiment with earlier on, and stretching production to have some volume to sell after that few years.
For this being the work in progress phase, versus some final end point, they're on track to make some really exceptional teas. Or really they're kind of already there. That mint edge and the late-round transition to a unique red wine like character were really something. I've only tried a few Georgian tea versions prior to this and they were nothing like this, much more "rustic" in nature, not even close to this refined.
I've only ever tried one black tea version with a mint aspect remotely like that one, since it's nothing like the heavier eucalyptus range version in Red Jade / Ruby / # 18. One wild cultivar version from Laos that Anna of Kinnari Tea shared was like this; perhaps one of the best black teas I've ever tried, if one highly values novelty in tea experience, as I tend to. Maybe it's not novel in Georgia; maybe it's just normal for that one local cultivar. I've heard that a mint aspect typical in Russian teas but I've never noticed it, but then I've tried relatively few teas from there.
All in all a cool back story and fantastic start. It will be interesting seeing what range the other samples cover.