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The Colombo Tea Auction 1883-2007

Off the chest

Born from the ruins Sri Lanka’s former staple beverage, coffee, in the 19th century, tea is more than a key player within the economic fabric of the island, its ‘romance’ widespread beyond the local shores. Speaking to the Deputy Chairman, Ceylon Tea Brokers Ltd. Bryan Baptist, The Nation had an insight into the evolution and expansion of the Colombo Tea Auction, a colourful event interwoven around this ‘magical beverage’

By Randima Attygalle
“The first public sale of tea in Colombo- This came off at the offices of Messers Somerville & Co. The result shows that there are Buyers but, there is still a considerable difference between seller’s and buyer’s idea of prices, which will rectify itself, by and by. We congratulate Messers. Somerville on being the first to start a local sale and trust there will be a long and prosperous succession.” (Ceylon Observer reporting on the maiden tea auction on July 30, 1883, at the offices of Somerville & Co, Queen Street, Fort)

Acknowledged as the father of the Sri Lankan tea industry, ‘remaining single, yet married to tea’ was James Taylor, who assumed duties at 17, as an Assistant Superintendent at Loolecondera in 1851. Initially, he made his tea in the bungalow’s verandah with the leaf being hand-rolled on tables. Clay stoves and charcoal fires were used for firing. Sixteen years after James Taylor planted 20 acres of tea at Loolecondera Estate in Deltota, the first tea auction was held in Colombo by Somervilles.

“When the first tea auction was held at Somervilles, the firm was only five-years-old, and Queen’s Street in 1883, where the company was housed, was quite a far cry from the Queen Street of today. Flanked by katu imbul trees, the street was quite a beauty,” words of the Deputy Chairman, Ceylon Tea Brokers Ltd., Bryan Baptist, with over 40-years of experience in the tea trade, seemed to bring ‘Ceylon’ in a colonial milieu alive. “Although there are no records of the buyers at the maiden auction, it is evident that a few established tea firms were already operating then,” explained Baptist, adding that the tea estates which offered teas at this first auction in 1883, are still in existence today. “These estates, namely Kabaragalla, Agar’s Land and Oodwarra are found in a spread-out area of the island, in Maturata, Balangoda and Badulla respectively. This proves that teas of all varieties, High-grown, Medium-grown and Low-grown were on offer at the first auction in Colombo,” said he. The five lots on offer, comprising 140 chests of tea (6,629 pounds), at the inaugural tea auction, has today spiraled up to between 8,000 lots and 11,000 lots (6 million and 8 million kilos of tea or 13 million to 17 million pounds respectively) per week - almost 125-years later, making Colombo one of the world’s largest tea auction centres in the world.

British ‘masters’ of the colonial era, accustomed to an assortment of auctions at ‘home’, from priceless antiques, books, paintings to sheep, would have, no doubt, devised an auction for ‘Ceylon tea’, as a marketing tool to facilitate competition among producers and buyers alike. “Probably, they looked very much ahead, knowing that local tea production would increase by leaps and bounds, which in fact has proven to be,” said Baptist, adding that the weekly Colombo tea auction held at the Chamber of Commerce, attracts an incredibly large number of buyers and exporters.

“In Sri Lanka, the tea auction is necessarily a one-stop shop, where buyers have access to an assortment of teas under one roof. This not only excites the buyers and the sellers but, also enhances the quality of tea on offer, owing to the competition among its manufacturers,” explained Baptist, saying that, this, in itself, is an incentive to the seller, to obtain premium prices for his quality teas. “The Colombo auctions offer a variety of teas. From each elevation, be it High, Medium or Low Grown, 20 different leafy grades are offered, making 60 different teas available. In the CTC category, six grades per category is offered, making available 18 different types of teas. Pure Orthodox teas are also available in commercially large quantities. Hence, we have 80 different teas to choose from,” he explained further.

According to Baptist, The Colombo Tea Auction is the ‘lifeblood’ of the industry. “As a tea-producing nation, it plays a pivotal role in enabling our teas get the best possible price in the international market. Among the many auction centres in the world (Kenya, Malavi, India (six auction centres), Bangladesh, Indonesia), we are in the forefront. However, it is imperative that we market our tea abreast with international trends. For instance, the health aspect of this beverage, which is a topic of the day, must be promoted. The therapeutic properties of tea has been researched throughout the ages and today, it is firmly established that tea possesses many health benefits. Tea can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, antioxidants present in green tea, could retard the onset and incidence of illnesses including arthritis, reduce the risk of stroke, good for one’s complexion and acts against hypertension,” explained Baptist.

Despite the significant increase in buyers at the tea auction, it has undergone very little change over time, according to Baptist. “There is a certain tradition prevalent at the Colombo Tea Auction. Contrary to other noisy auctions, the tea auction is, generally, a quiet affair. Of course, the buyers are more vociferous today but, overall, it still adheres to its traditions,” explained Baptist, revealing that it would be beneficial, if selling-brokers are provided with a microphone, as in some other large auction centres.

Automating of the auction is currently under review and much debated, according to Baptist. “An automated tea auction which was operative in India, has been done away with, as it was not a success. We, Sri Lankans too, have to give it serious thought,” said Baptist who views automated or, ‘E-auction’, as a ‘silent medium’ with no power to excite the demand and create momentum, as the open outcry system does. “Tea auctioneering is an art. Juniors are trained in the art of marketing and auctioneering, to mature into fine marketers. The momentum, speed and voice-pitch are vital attributes of a successful auctioneer. His marketing knowledge gives him the insight to know who buys what type of teas. He could also bargain with buyers and ‘coax’ the buyers into paying a little more on certain teas. A tea auctioneer could also assess the market demand and the market trend. He could also refer to producers/sellers present at the auctions- whether to sell or not. An e-auction, however, cannot do this. An automated auction may expedite the process but, it cannot be left to systems and robots. The human element is of utmost importance in selling tea,” elaborated Baptist, emphasising on the necessity to fuse tradition with technology. “We must move ahead with Information Technology but, not too fast. It should be done phase by phase. Our Tea Industry is too precious to tamper with. Producers must be remunerated for the teas they produce. Buyers are the pulse of the auction and the most important segment. Thus it is important that they feel comfortable with the changes,” said Baptist.
(The Colombo Tea Auction will mark its 124th year this month)

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