Chai

I don’t drink coffee.  Turkish coffee – or, to Sean’s dismay, instant coffee – is always offered to guests here.  Therefore, one of the first sentences I managed to say in Georgian when we first arrived was “Sorry, I don’t drink coffee.”  So as to not insult our hosts’ hospitality, I started drinking tea (chai – ჩაი), which in my mind was the lesser of two evils.

Slowly but surely I started to enjoy, and yes, even crave black tea.  I only drink it here, and enjoying a weak cup of tea brings back happy memories of chatting away an afternoon with my co-workers or sitting in the kitchen with my host mom.

I was thrilled, then, when our new friend and neighbor told me that she “knows good tea.”  She invited us to her family home in Guria, Georgia’s tea growing region, to help pick tea leaves and learn how natural, small-batch tea is made.

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We arrived, ate (of course – this is Georgia, after all!) and got to work.

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I admit that, upon arriving, I didn’t know a thing about tea.  Our host had to point out the tea bushes or I would have missed them all together.

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There is an art to picking tea leaves.  We were told to look for groupings of three leaves that were soft and fresh.  While large factories use machines, they inevitably end up picking the harder, older leaves along with the new.  Hand-picked tea is the only way to ensure that the right leaves are picked.

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Guria was a huge tea growing region during the Soviet Union, but the focus was about quantity over quality.  They produced staggering amounts and sent it to Azerbaijan to be packaged.  Gurians continued to grow their own tea bushes for private use, picking leaves up to 12 times a season, using the same methods we learned during our stay.

We barely finished before a storm came in, rushing inside to lay our leaves out to dry in a spare bedroom.

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The leaves need a day or two to dry, depending on the humidity in the air.  We spent this downtime reading, relaxing, helping in the garden and exploring the farm.

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Once the tea is dried, it is ready for the next step, a cross between rolling, grinding and kneading.  Our hosts had a machine built for them to speed up this process, and neighbors dropped by to use it for their own small batches of leaves.

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This can also be done by hand, although it takes quite a bit of time and muscle.  For experience’s sake, we held some of our tea back and tried rolling by hand.  After 15 minutes, we were left with a wet, squishy bowl of tea leaves.

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This was left to ferment under a wet rag for six hours.  The next morning, we set it on a sheet in the sunshine until it was completely dried.

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As you can see in this up close photo, we weren’t trying to grind or pulverize the tea leaves.  Rather, we wanted to roll them.  Once they are submerged in hot water, they unroll and release their flavor.

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We drank our host’s tea all week and, while we are not tea connoisseurs by any stretch, they do grow fantastic tea.  Hand-picking the right leaves and rolling properly makes an incredible difference in taste.  This tea was strong, smooth and flavorful.

We were sent back to Tbilisi with a bag of “our” tea – the stuff we made from start to finish – as well as another bag of the family’s stash.  What a lovely few days in the village!  We learned so much:  about tea, about Guria and about village life.  I’m so glad I didn’t give in to coffee.

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