Thursday, August 22, 2019

Interview: The Renegade Tea Estate

Georgian white teas, photo courtesy of Renegade Tea Estate

I love learning about the many passionate tea growers and producers around the world, and today I'm excited to present an interview with a fairly new tea company, Renegade Tea Estate. Western Georgia (the country, not the state) used to be a large tea producing region before the industry collapsed in the 1990s. But the passionate young tea growers of Renegade Tea Estate are trying to rehabilitate Georgian tea. Read all about this new tea venture, the challenges they faced in rehabilitating a tea farm while learning how to grow and process tea in our interview below.

Leaves of Renegade's 'Berry Breeze' black tea

How did the Renegade team come together?
All of us had good corporate careers in the same mid-sized transportation company, but what united us was that there was always this itch to do something more than excel tables and quarterly meetings. It may sound idealistic, but we all wanted to do something that would at the same time fulfill our personal dream of doing things with our hands, being free to challenge the status quo and to offer people something genuine and unique…While maybe making a world a little bit better place while doing it.

How the Renegade team ended up in Georgia and with tea was just a row of different coincidences - we were more drawn to the idea in general, Georgia and tea were in a way just the small pieces of the puzzle that helped to put it all together.

How did you decide which tea plantations to rehabilitate? How long did it take to get them up and running?
When we had found out about the history of Georgian tea and also got the information that the Georgian government had a project going on at the time to help to rehabilitate abandoned tea plantations, we started to look for the right plantations. Since there was no database of possible plantations we met with few of the representatives of local municipalities and they showed us a few options. None of them felt right though, so Hannes started to go over Georgia in Google maps satellite view- even if the tea plantations have been abandoned for a long time the rows are still quite clearly visible from the air. So a few weeks of going around Google satellite view and then a few more of driving to the dots marked on the map in Georgia and we ended up with two plantations that we really liked- they had quite different landscapes, were logistically in a good (kinda) accessible place and just felt right. So that’s how we ended up with our two first plantations- Renegade Estate and Mandikori Estate.

We started with the paperwork in the middle of 2017 and finished the rehabilitation of the first plantation in February 2018. This means that by that time it was an empty field without bushes and fern that were covering the plantation for the last 30 years and also tea. Everything above the ground was cleaned and then new tea plants started to grow from the old roots. By now most of them are around 30-50 cm tall, but the plantation will need about 4-5 more years to get to the full productivity.

Please tell us a bit about the challenges of re-starting the tea plantations, and how you learned what to do.
Since none of us actually had any previous experience in agriculture and especially in tea farming, everything was a challenge in a sense. We did a lot of Googling, reading books and consulting with some specialists around the world via the internet. In July of 2018, we also had a teacher from Nepal who helped us a lot- Sonam Paljor Lama. He was the first specialist who was actually on the place, and we learned so much during our time with him. Every hour taught us as much as we had learned previously within weeks. When he came to visit we were kind of afraid that he will turn right around and say that we have messed it all up and the whole project is crazy… Luckily our fears were not met and with the help of the Internet, books and out gut feeling we had managed to do everything more or less right.

Are the leaves processed at the plantation, and are they all from your gardens or also from surrounding gardens? How did you all learn how to process your tea?
Our factory is located about 4 km away from our biggest and first plantation Renegade Estate. Mandikori is about 40 minutes drive away and the third plantation that we are just starting to work with is just next to the factory. We also collaborate with the villagers nearby, since some of them have their own small tea gardens and our own plantations are just gaining strength and don’t give enough leaves nor work for the local people.

Processing tea is a continuous row of experiments for us. Sonam, who I mentioned before, helped us with some basics, but we soon understood that there is no fixed recipe. Our leaves are different from the ones in Nepal, China or Africa. Not even to start about the fact that every tea master has their own style of doing things… So we just test. A lot. Last year we ended up with 42 different teas (from just 100 kg of ready-made tea). This year we have tried to redo some basics that we liked from last year, but we are also still experimenting a lot to find new tastes. It’s actually incredible how many different tastes you can get from the same plant, without adding anything to it and just changing the way of processing!

Do you know the cultivars of your tea plants? Does this impact how you process them?
As I mentioned before nobody amongst us has very deep knowledge about agriculture and tea cultivars were something that we just learned about when Sonam came to visit us. Thanks to him we know that we have quite a mixture of cultivars in our plantations- there are Chinese, Assamica and Cambodian varieties that we know of, probably some other ones also that we have not detected yet. Way back in the day, these plantations were all planted from the seeds and now it’s a mixture of everything.

Processing those different leaves is of course somewhat challenging, because the leaves mature at a different pace and also act differently during the processing, but this also gives us a very unique combination of tastes. Also as we don’t have any previous experience about working with only one cultivar, we don’t really have a comparison moment - we do just what feels right with the leaves when they arrive in the factory. When our Nepalese teacher came, one of the first things he told us was that if you want to do it the artisan way as we do, then the tea making is always improvisation, there are no fixed operations. It’s especially true with this mixture of cultivars. It’s different every time and you just have to feel the leaf and hear what it wants you to do with it...

What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about starting a tea farm?
You have to have time and patience. In agriculture, you can not rush things. Plants are growing in their own pace and you just have to arrange your doings accordingly. Sometimes it means that tea grows slower than you’d like and fern grows 10 times as fast, but this is just the reality you have to accept and work with.

Also that there are no strict rules or easy answers. When asked for advice from different people we quite soon understood that everyone is very eager to help and has a very clear understanding of what should be done, the only thing is that their answers don’t usually match with the advice from some other person on the same topic. So all we really can do is just test a lot and see what works out for us the best.

What is something that surprised you about running a tea farm?
I think that the most memorable surprises are connected with Georgia and the cultural differences here. I am from Estonia and their people are very career-oriented and practical. Many Georgians, on the other hand, seem to value their community relationships and having a good time a lot more than money or making a career. This was hard to understand for us at first but now has actually taught us all a lot. We are more relaxed about things now, stress less and can enjoy life more I think. Georgians have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, even though their diet, alcohol intake and love for cigarettes would point to the whole other direction - I am pretty sure that this is just because they value their quality time with close ones and have lower stress levels due to that.

How does the Georgian terroir have an effect on the flavour of the tea?
Georgia is one of the most Northen places where it is possible to grow tea in such quantities. The plants have about 6-7 months of growth time during the year and then 5-6 months of resting time. This gives the plant time to gather it’s strength during the winter and the cold (December and January usually have some light snow and around 0*C) keeps all the diseases away as well, so there is no need to use different pesticides and it is quite easy to keep the plantations 100% organic as we do.

As a combination of the cultivars, soil and outside temperatures, the tea from Georgia usually has a naturally sweet and floral taste- all of us were actually very surprised about the black teas for example. Instead of the astringency and even bitterness that we all associated with black tea previously we found silky sweetness and this really changed my mind about black tea. That’s why we always advise trying the blacks from here even for the people who usually don’t go for black tea.

I love the detailed information on your packaging. How did you decide on all the information to include?
Thank you! Our idea has always been to be the personal tea farmers for all of our tea-drinkers. Like when you buy milk, eggs or potatoes from a farmer you know, we wanted people to have the possibility to do the same with tea and sharing as much information as possible about the process behind teas seemed like a good way to bring the tea closer to the consumer.

Also, we found that we previously didn’t really think what are those crumbles in the tea package, and how did they get there. We hope and believe that sharing this information will help people to connect more with the products that they are consuming.

What makes your teas stand out from the many other teas available for consumers to purchase?
Our aim is definitely not to become some next big corporation of tea sellers. We really would like to keep it small enough that we, with our 7 person main team and with the help of the local community could run it. No customer service centre, no row of resellers. We’d like to make the teas we enjoy ourselves, have an honest relationship with our customers and to build a community of co-Renegades so that the relationship between us and people who drink our teas is less of a company-client relationship, but more of a farmer-friend type.

And of course, we do always try to make the best teas possible and we’ll probably never stop testing with different options and sharing our successes (and failures) with our community.
Thank you so much to Miina and everyone at Renegade Tea Farm for taking the time to answer all of my questions! I loved learning so much about your tea gardens and the company. For more information on the tea gardens and all things Georgian tea, visit their website. You can also visit my Instagram page for more photos and info on the Renegade teas I've tried.

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