Tea, Disrupted

After 150 years of physical transactions in auction houses, the sale of world-renowned Darjeeling has moved online. But will the move save it from its modern woes?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
After 150 years of physical transactions in auction houses, the sale of world-renowned Darjeeling has moved online. But will the move save it from its modern woes?
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For 150 years, men in tailored suits or elegant kurta pyjamas would take their seats in a hall in Kolkata, India, to outbid one another for some of the world’s finest tea. This tea – grown in the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling, an elevated region of lush green forests, waterfalls and mountain mists – has, since the days of the British Raj, been famed for its exquisite delicacy. But last year, the final knock of the gavel rang out at 11 RN Mukherjee Road, Kolkata, the headquarters of the world’s oldest and biggest tea auction house. J Thomas & Co’s Darjeeling tea has embraced the 21st century: This world-famous product is now bought and sold online.

Sales of other varieties of Indian tea moved online almost a decade ago, but Darjeeling tea, because of its relative rarity and cost, remained largely available only through the customary auctions. While some may mourn the end of a century-and-a-half of tradition, many of those in the business of growing and selling India’s most expensive tea believe the time is right for the “champagne of teas” to modernise.

“It’s a welcome move,” says Anil Jha, superintendent of Jay Shree Tea, one of India’s biggest tea companies, which owns estates across India, including a number of gardens in Darjeeling. “Buyers from all corners of the world can now register and bid in the online auctions. While in the physical auctions, groups of buyers would try to work together to reduce prices, the competition has now improved. Someone who knows their tea, and is looking for tea from one special garden, will bid properly.” Several months on from the first online auction, it seems that the future of Darjeeling tea looks sweet. Prices have gone up, on average by about US$1.50 (S$2.10) per kg for the more affordable varieties of Darjeeling tea. The most sought-after varieties can sell for up to US$900 per kg. In 2014, Makaibari sold its estate’s tea for a record US$1,850 per kg.

Other factors may also be at play influencing sales of Darjeeling tea, and those in the tea industry say that it’s too early for certainty, but the outlook is upbeat.

“It’s been a better year for Darjeeling,” says a spokesman at J Thomas. “E-auctions appear to have fared well as they bring into play many more smaller players who would have otherwise been reticent about competing against the ‘big boys’. We were all worried that electronic sales might dampen prices. In my opinion, it’s more about demand – if a market is stronger, the picture looks brighter!” Things have not always seemed so rosy. In fact, Jha describes the state of tea overall in India as “gloomy”.

“Darjeeling is struggling, even though retailer end prices have not gone down,” he says.

“The cost of production has increased, wages have increased, although worker productivity is low and absenteeism rife. Then there’s the global recession and now India’s demonetisation woes. We have been waiting for a miracle.” Because of the hilly terrain, the plucking of Darjeeling tea cannot be mechanised,

as it has in other countries, such as Kenya, where huge, flat gardens measuring up to 1,400ha are common. The 87 Darjeeling tea gardens are boutique in comparison: the biggest Darjeeling tea estate is 350ha, with some gardens as small as 60ha.

All tea is picked by hand, almost entirely by descendants of the Nepalese workers brought to Darjeeling by the British in the 1850s to work in their newly planted tea gardens. The workers are born, go to school and often live their entire lives on the tea estates. The treatment of tea workers, including salary, subsidised rations, maternity leave, medical provisions, protective clothing, and so on, is governed by the Plantation Labour Act of 1951. But today, as education levels on the estates improve, fewer worker are inclined to work in tea.

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Another major issue in recent years is the challenge posed by the tea produced in the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. Tea grown there, at similar altitudes in a similar climate, and often using know-how provided by retired Indian tea estate managers, has lower productivity costs and so a lower price tag.

Darjeeling tea is protected by Geographical Indication status, but while only 8 million kg of Darjeeling tea is produced every year, 40 million kg of tea is sold around the word labelled as Darjeeling. The Tea Board of India has promised to be more thorough in its policing of Darjeeling tea in the future.

Darjeeling is adapting to these pressures. “Traditionally, Darjeeling is black tea, but now there are many different kinds of Darjeeling tea on the market,” says Parveez Arshad Hussain, tea estate manager of the 285ha Glenburn Tea Estate.

“It’s a competitive market.

Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Taylors of Harrogate in the UK, and Harney & Sons in the US, often approach us, tea estate managers, to come up with new types of designer tea. I don’t see it as breaking tradition, but complementing it.”

Glenburn produces awardwinning black, green, and white tea, along with a new range of tea flavoured with natural spices, flowers and fruit. The manager’s bungalow on the estate dating from colonial times was also turned into a hotel about 15 years ago. The hotel now has eight rooms and is rated as one of India’s top luxury boutique hotels.

Rohini Tea Estate is also experimenting with tea varieties. It produces tea “pearls”, tea leaves rolled by hand into balls that unfurl in hot water, and flower tea – buds that are made into flower shapes. The garden is also experimenting with different clones of the tea bush, including some varieties from Japan.

But while Darjeeling has always looked beyond its borders and the online auctions make the tea even more accessible to international buyers than ever, one market that has always remained elusive is its own.

“The Indian market for Darjeeling tea is tiny. Tea drinkers here drink massproduced CTC (cut, tear, curl) tea in masala chai with plenty of milk, sugar and spices,” says Hussain.

“Price is also a big factor here. Darjeeling tea is a connoisseur’s item. But it’s part of our heritage. I hope more Indians will drink Darjeeling tea in the years to come.”