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Steeped in History: Tea Auctions Around the World

Discover the journey of tea leaves as they are tested, bought and sold through the world’s largest auction houses before they reach your cup.

Much has been said about the intense tuna auctions at Tsukiji Market or the truffle auctions in Italy where, infamously, food is worth more than its weight in gold. Tourists line up for tickets to witness the theatrical performance; observing with bated breath the sale of the finest catch or harvest of the day. By comparison, despite its role in bringing the world’s most popular drink from field to cup, tea auctions seem to have been given considerably less attention.

Historically, the London Tea Auction pioneered the gathering and sale of teas to merchants. Opened in 1679, the auction predominately offered teas from the Crown’s colonies. Interestingly, the auctions were conducted “by the candle”, which meant that bids for a lot of tea could only continue until the candle of a fixed length stopped burning. The practice of giving bidders only a short window of time to offer their price was continued after the London Tea Auctions closed down in 1988, leading to tea auctions emerging in tea producing regions across the world.

A woman picking tea tips on a mountain (Image courtesy of The Wellness Group)

In the largest tea auctions held in Coimbatore (India), Guangzhou (China), Mombasa (Kenya), Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Limbe (Malawi), everyone who attends knows what they will be bidding for. This is a factor of time, as tea bids happen at an incredible rate of a few minutes per lot, as well as experience.

In the Coimbatore, Mombasa and Colombo auctions, only trusted members of the tea associations, brokers, highly regarded purchasers and critics, are permitted at auction events. They would have also been given a sample of all available teas pre-auction. The lot price of each tea is then a negotiated position between the opinions of the industries’ best who would have determined on matters of taste, presentation and fragrance. Whilst, the complexities in flavour notes such as bright citrus, bitter astringency and mellow sweetness is considered, testers are also concerned with the tea’s appearance, i.e. how dark or golden it is.

On auction day, purchasers gather seated in an auction hall to bid for their teas. The procedure is composed and each final bid is arrived at swiftly and accepted with a pound of the gavel. An average auction can turn through several million kilograms of tea.

Group of Japanese tea purchasers sampling batches of tea (Image Courtesy of Simona Zavadckyte, Global Japanese Tea Association)

Whereas in Japan or Guangzhou, whilst tea auctions are still closed to the public, they tend to be lively events with samples of picked, fresh or roasted tea leaves displayed from each tea producing region. Purchasers would make rounds to roll the leaves between their palms to feel for moisture, texture and size as well as release the tea oils for fragrance.

Fascinating types of tea may be found in such auctions such as leaf vein tea which are collected only from the veins of matured Camellia sinensis leaves or purple tea that have high anthocyanins due to its colour pigments. The bids for lots are sent in secretly by each potential purchaser and the highest bid wins.

In recent times, tea auctions have begun to move online partly pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic. With technologies such as online bidding platforms entering the market, one can only hope that the practice of tea auction houses are preserved.

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