Tea auctions are one of those behind-the-scenes things that most tea drinkers shopping for their favorite brands are not even aware of. Yet, they are a vital part of the process of going from tea bush (Camellia Sinensis) to tea cup. And they are part of the traditions and culture of tea.
Tea Auction History and Traditions
The history and traditions of tea auctions are intertwined. The granddaddy tea auction was the London Tea Auction, first held in 1679 and ending in 1998. There have also been auctions in former British Colonies, such asIndiaandKenya, for over a century. Today, the place to be to bid on tea are the weekly auctions in Calcutta, India, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Mombasa, Kenya. (Kenya, a country that does not usually come to mind for many tea drinkers when asked where tea is grown, recently went through quite a brouhaha and even had to postpone the main tea auction inMombasadue to a new levy on exports.)
Auctions in general have, in addition to general rules of the auction house, an etiquette. When you go to a horse auction, things are fairly casual when it comes to attire. When you go to Sotheby’s to bid on objets d’arte, you can dress to the nines. At tea auctions in India, Kenya, and other tea growing countries, such niceties as saying “Yes, sir” and wearing neckties and Oxford shirts combine with more modern day concerns such as making sure your cell phone is turned off during the event.
The Bidding Process
Buyers at a tea auction have usually done their homework weeks in advance, sampling the teas being offered, and have already sized up the crop on which they are bidding. High quality teas are often sold along with low and medium quality teas to the same company for blending. Bidders at some tea auctions can actually back away from a bid, which is unusual for auctions where once you bid, you bid, and if you are the high bid and the auctioneer bangs his gavel and declares the item sold, you have bought. Period. (Been there.)
Technology’s Effect on the Tea Auction Houses
Tea auctions changed the relationship between grower and seller where direct contact between them was minimized and where the price was not fixed but determined by bidders. Now, e-auctions are changing how the tea auctions are conducted and thus again impacting growers vs processors and sellers. The entire process from the creation of invoices to the delivery of tea from warehouses to buyers is all handled through the e-auction system. The bidders still have to sample the teas and determine what is worth their efforts. Some things just cannot be programmed into a computer.
The Effect on Your Cuppa Tea
The first effect of a tea auction on your tea consumption is price. Tea growers want the highest price possible. The bidders naturally want the lowest price possible. The result is usually somewhere in-between. If the final bid price is generally up from previous auctions, this could get passed on to you, the consumer. (Of course, there are other factors affecting price, such as labor costs.)
Demand trends can become apparent. Market reports are usually divided by leaf form and other factors: CTC vs orthodox; whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust; and high grown vs medium and low grown. The demand by blenders is also an indicator, since these companies watch consumer demand trends pretty closely.
All of this can seem like pretty dry stuff to read through, but it can be important for keeping your teacup and your palate from drying out!
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