In her old age my mother has little energy for rituals anymore. But tea is one of the last rituals left. She drinks only one cup a day but it’s made with fastidious care. She boils her water in her whistling kettle. The teapot is rinsed with the hot water. The tea is steeped just right – not a minute more, not a minute less. No milk, just a little bit of sugar and the colour has to be just the perfect golden hue – not too dark, not too light. Tea lends itself to that exactitude of ritual. And when it’s Darjeeling tea, that ritual becomes mandatory, almost as important as the tea itself.
But now Darjeeling tea is one ritual poorer. In June the last gavel fell on the live auctions of Darjeeling tea. You did not need to read your tea leaves to know the end was coming. The writing was on the wall. Almost all other teas had long moved over to electronic auctions. Darjeeling was the last hold out.
“Personally it completely seemed like the sky had fallen,” says Anindyo Choudhury Choudhury took it hard. The boy who once wanted to go into medicine is now probably the last manual auctioneer standing. “Very few auctioneers wear ties anymore,” he says. “We ensure we look the way we looked 30 years ago.”
J Thomas, the oldest and largest tea auctioneer and broker in the world has been selling tea since 1861. And Choudhury is their auctioneer. His office in Kolkata is lined with bound volumes of the Cochin Tea Market report and Monthly Tea Reviews dating back to the 1970s. His tie hangs on a hook. There’s a relief map of Darjeeling’s tea estates hanging on the wall.
What most people don’t know is Darjeeling tea comes from only about 87 estates. Together they produce 8 million kilos though some 40 million kilos are sold on the market as Darjeeling. Only about 2.5-3 million of that goes under Choudhury’s gavel. The rest are sold through private deals. “Our company sells about 200 million kilos of tea a year,” says Choudhury. “Only 2.5 million is Darjeeling. But the time it takes to sell that 2.5 million kilos is more than what it takes to sell the other (almost) 200 million. It takes that much nurturing.”
That’s what he had hoped would save Darjeeling tea from losing its live auction. It was a niche product, a heritage corner in a giant industry, almost a showpiece. Much like the famous Toy Train to Darjeeling smiles Choudhury. “Three million kilos only. I personally feel this could have easily been kept as live, a heritage happening,” says Joy Mazumdar, a tea producer and buyer, and auction old hand for the last thirty years.
All of this makes it seem the auctioneer will come with liveried service men in attendance, a great scroll and quill pens. But the mezzanine floor of the Nihlat building in Kolkata, surrounded by stalls selling everything a busy babu might want – rubber stamps, mangos, samosas and Macho boxer briefs – looks more like a college classroom with desks than the last stomping ground of a grand old tradition. Choudhury runs the auctions at a pace as clipped as his trim mustache calling out the lot numbers and the prices, making notes with his pencil, a sharpener always at hand. Two colleagues flank him, spotters keeping an eye out for a stray bid. At 10.30 sharp, a man in white uniform rolls in a tea trolley with ginger biscuits and tea, not Darjeeling, alas.
Choudhury knows most of these men (and a few women) who come every Tuesday to bid. He coaxes the process along, sometimes pausing to gently rib them. “Come on sir, you can do it,” he cajoles a reluctant buyer. “Arre, give me a bid. Make it 700. OK 680 just for you.” “It’s not like fishing in water,” he gently scolds a buyer who throws out a pitiably low bid.
That relationship is part of what made Darjeeling tea special. And that relationship will now become that much more mechanical in the days to come. More efficient, perhaps. Now tea buyers can log in from around the country. They do not have come to Nilhat House to make a bid. But it will also mean J Thomas will have to send out more free samples ahead of time putting a strain on an already tight market. It will also mean the bidders will not bounce off each other’s cues, make squawking and whooping noises to attract the auctioneer’s attention. Now you will just need to press a button. “It’s a sort of crematorium,” says Mazumdar. “Everyone quiet looking at the computer screens.”
Mazumdar says the tea gardens of Darjeeling as the “biggest and best organized gift by the Britishers to India.” But this is not just nostalgia for the dearly departed Raj despite the starched English ambience of these old companies down to the Christmas lunches. Darjeeling tea is not just Raj nostalgia. Jeff Koehler, the author of the award winning book Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, says it really is the finest tea. Darjeeling was meant to be a sanatorium. It was only by luck, he says, that tea found its “perfect home” there thanks to the soil, the climate, the elevation at which the leaves grows slowly, even the crisping effect of the Himalayan wind from the north. It’s produced by methods that are a century old, hand plucked and hand processed. “Part of its greatness is that there’s so little of it. It can never be automated and they cannot increase the plantings either.”
22,000 individual plucks of two leaves and a bud produces a single kilo of Darjeeling tea says Koehler. And the sound of Choudhury’s gavel was in a way the big bang that marked the end of that arduous journey with a ceremonial flourish. To call Choudhury the “last auctioneer” would be to do some injustice to him. Koehler calls Choudhury the “Robert Parker of Darjeeling Tea”. Parker is the wine critic whose ratings on a 100-point scale can make all the difference to the price of a new wine. Choudhury’s job means traveling to tea estates, sampling the teas, telling not just his first flush harvest from his second flush harvest, but evaluating the nuances of one tea garden versus another.
“I am personally very fond of second flush,” he says. “There’s this particular flavour called muscatel – nice fruity floral. It’s very hard to find. Lot of people call their teas muscatel but it’s only a small offering.” During second flush, the peak summer season for Darjeeling tea, Choudhury can taste up to 2,000 cups a week.
Choudhury will still drink his tea. The tea will still sell, the tea board hopes at even higher prices. But somewhere along the line Darjeeling tea will lose a little bit of its mystique now that it’s auctioned digitally just like any other tea. Of course, tea auctions are hardly the biggest worry for tea producers facing chronic 30-35% absenteeism in the labour force, political unrest in the hills, and a workforce that’s increasing moving away from back-breaking agricultural labour.
Yet the auction was part of the allure of this regal tea, light and bright with just that little hint of astringency that lingered so nicely on the palate. But then Darjeeling, the so called champagne of teas, has always found more fans abroad than at home. Partly it was the cost. Partly it was the exclusivity. “Real Darjeeling is a taste that has not been developed in India,” says Majumdar. “You have to drink it pure without milk or sugar to get the full brew aroma. It’s patronised by people from Japan, Germany, America.”
A Nepali taxi driver in the Darjeeling hills pointed to the rolling tea estates we were driving past and laughed “It’s Darjeeling tea, sir. Or so we hear. It just goes to Kolkata. And then abroad. I’ve never tasted it myself.”
It will still taste the same, hand-plucked and hand-processed. It just will not be “hand-gaveled” anymore.