RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Join us now as we mark the passing of one of India's great institutions, the Darjeeling Tea Auction because beginning today the weekly bidding for one of the world's most prized teas will take place exclusively online. Commentator Sandip Roy got to check out one of the last live auctions in Kolkata.
SANDIP ROY, BYLINE: I must admit, I have dunked a teabag into hot water and called it tea. I have even made Darjeeling tea, sometimes called the champagne of teas, from a tea bag. This is sacrilege to tea gurus like Anindyo Choudhury.
ANINDYO CHOUDHURY: That's more of a make believe kind of a thing, you know? I wouldn't even touch it.
CHOUDHURY: The best Darjeeling tea is loose leaf, steeped for a couple of minutes - light and bright. Choudhury drinks a lot of it. It's part of his job at J. Thomas, one of the oldest and largest tea brokers in the world. He samples everything he sells.
CHOUDHURY: The month of June, July, you know, I could be seeing anything to about 2,000 cups a week.
ROY: Every Tuesday, he would auction those teas. These days most teas are auctioned online. But Darjeeling, a specialty tea, was an exception. That made Choudhury among the last manual auctioneers standing. Now in an effort to attract more buyers and fetch higher prices, Darjeeling is going digital. Choudhury took it hard.
CHOUDHURY: Personally. Completely. It seemed like the sky had fallen, you know?
ROY: Before the sky actually fell, I decided to check out an auction. The venue looks like a whitewashed college classroom with middle-aged men scouring printouts with details of the day's lots. Choudhury proceeds at a brisk clip, fueled not by a delicate Darjeeling tea but coffee.
ROY: Every now and then somebody makes a strange noise, a whoop or an ow. Joy Majumdar, who has been coming to these auctions for 30 years, tells me that's to attract the auctioneer's attention and up the bid.
JOY MAJUMDAR: One sound means the next bid, like 350, then 355. Then I say that oh, then he says ooh, like that it goes on. It's a nice fun, actually, I must say.
ROY: He says all that will fall silent when the computers come in.
MAJUMDAR: This is stopped. It's a sort of a crematorium. Everybody's wired and looking into the computers.
ROY: E-auctions are hardly the biggest challenge facing this tea, says Choudhury.
CHOUDHURY: Issues of yields, chemicals, pesticides, absenteeism, living conditions - these are more viable challenges.
CHOUDHURY: And later this year, something called a protective geographical indication for Darjeeling tea will kick in. Like Scotch whiskey or Parmigiano cheese, only 100 percent Darjeeling tea will be called Darjeeling - not a 51 percent blend. Jeff Koehler, author of the book "Darjeeling: The Colorful History And Precarious Fate Of The World's Greatest Tea," says that's going to mean less Darjeeling tea on the market.
JEFF KOEHLER: Part of its greatness is absolutely the same reason why there's so little of it because it's so selectively hand plucked. It's so hands-on. It's so manual. It can never be automated. And they can't really increase plantings, either.
ROY: The live auction was part of that mystique, along with the Himalayan mists and the gardens where women picked the leaves wearing baskets on their backs. In an age that fetishizes the artisanal, Darjeeling fit right in. Again, Koehler.
KOEHLER: It takes 22,000 individual plucks of the - of two leaves and a bud to make a single kilo of Darjeeling tea.
ROY: Darjeeling tea will still be hand-plucked, but Anindyo Choudhury, the auctioneer at J. Thomas, won't need his gavel anymore. He says he has other plans for it.
CHOUDHURY: I'll take it home, display it on my table.
ROY: I hope he does. A piece of tradition from a tea that's steeped in it.
MARTIN: That is commentator Sandip Roy.
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