RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the cool hills high above Nairobi, Kenya, where the people live among the clouds, there are giant tea trees more than a hundred years old. They include the first tea trees ever planted in Kenya, back when it was called British East Africa.
Today, Kenya exports more black tea than any other country in the world. And as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, the Mombasa Tea Auction may be one of the last places on earth where Old World manners prevail.
(Soundbite of gavel hitting)
GWEN THOMPKINS: Listen closely, because at some point I might have to whisper. Here, in the Mombasa Tea Center, roughly a hundred traders and nearly a dozen brokers come together on Mondays and Tuesdays and, ever so politely, move an enormous amount of black tea around the world. East Africa, led by Kenya, sells hundreds of millions of kilograms of tea every year. And lately the price has been at an all-time high. As the traders in Mombasa say, yes, sir.
Unidentified Man: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
THOMPKINS: That's what traders actually say when they bid on an offering of tea. It's all part of the tea-trading vernacular in this former British territory, where black, white and Indian traders compete for the best of what's around.
The scene unfolds the same way week after week in this cozy, wood-trimmed amphitheater. Everyone sits in assigned seats. The auctioneer stands at a lectern below. Brewed tea in glistening white mugs and saucers is served promptly at ten o'clock. The women wear spectacles and comfortable shoes; the men wear Oxford shirts and ties. It's warm in Mombasa, so their waistcoats are implied.
Michael Chemweno knows his way around the scene.
Mr. MICHAEL CHEMWENO (Tea Broker): The system is well understood by everybody. That you come in; your cell phone should be off. The only person allowed to talk when the auction is on is the broker and the buyer who is buying. (unintelligible) to keep quiet too. You see, I'm not allowed to be talking to you.
THOMPKINS: Chemweno is a broker, but in his short-sleeved oxford he looks more like a NASA engineer circa 1971. Chemweno says everyone samples the tea weeks in advance. So, by auction day, they already know what's brisk, what's bright and what's bad.
Mr. CHEMWENO: Like, if the tea has a problem, a manufacturing fault, like if it's burnt - instead of being dried it's called burnt, the process of transport, it took out some water or it mixes with grease in there. That tea most likely will be rejected. Nobody would bid it.
THOMPKINS: The really good stuff sells on Tuesdays. A trader who wants to raise a bid can simply say up.
Unidentified Man #2: Up.
THOMPKINS: Or the trader can retreat by saying out. Someone who wants to claim the highest bid tells the auctioneer to knock it, sir.
Unidentified Man #3: Knock it, sir.
THOMPKINS: And the gavel falls. Afterwards, they all go back to their offices and report to the clients.
Tom Muchura is a broker. He's been at this for nearly 40 years.
Mr. TOM MUCHURA (Broker): The producer would like to maximize on every production that he makes. But you know, it is also true that the exporter comes into the auction, he will try and get that tea as cheap as he can. That competition in the marketplace is what makes the auction interesting. This one is a lot more kinder, it's much more quieter, but there is still competition.
THOMPKINS: Muchura's office is across the street from the auction house and it looks like an old detective agency, someplace where Sam Spade could put his feet up while mulling the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon. Muchura says in the tea business, you've got to keep tabs on anything that can affect tea sales worldwide - weather, roads, political instability, lifestyle changes.
Once you understand what's happening in the wider world, then the sales at the big auctions in Mombasa, Sri Lanka and India begin to make sense. For instance, who has the time anymore, to brew tea the old-fashioned way? Muchura says Egypt and Pakistan do. They've eclipsed Britain as Mombasa's top buyers.
Mr. MUCHURA: Traditionally we make tea and it takes time to make a cup of tea. And I believe this is how the Pakistani's drinking his tea and the Egyptians is drinking tea. But the most important thing here, these are very much Muslim countries, because they stay away from other beverages. I believe this is why they have continued to drink more tea.
THOMPKINS: Companies blend the teas they buy according to elaborate recipes. Indian teas provide heft, Sri Lankan teas bring flavor, and African teas bring color and strength. But the only way to know that is by tasting manufactured tea in its purest grades — and that means high-volume slurping.
(Soundbite of slurping)
THOMPKINS: Muchura's taste buds are among the finest. Here, in his tasting room is a line of no less than 75 cups of different teas in different grades. Muchura looks like old money, wearing a white chef's apron over understated blue trousers and a beautifully laundered shirt. But he's kicking around the biggest spittoon you ever saw.
(Soundbite of slurping)
Mr. MUCHURA: The concept of tasting is you're sucking in this juice. By pulling it in, you're breathing it in, so you smell it through the mouth by sucking it in. You also then swirl it around your mouth and then spit it out. Now, that exercise sometimes is not very attractive.
THOMPKINS: No, sir.
Aside from the taste, Muchura must also report on what the tea looks like in a white cup. An orangey hue is good; a greenish ain't so good. Then he's ready to price the tea against what the same grade from the same grower fetched the week before.
(Soundbite of slurping)
Mr. MUCHURA: The first one - total 2.82.
THOMPKINS: Overall, the quality of Kenyan tea remains consistently high. And the combination of higher quality and lower yields due to East Africa's drought has helped push the average world price of a kilo of tea to nearly $2.70. That's unheard of. But Muchura says consumers could probably afford to pay even more, particularly the Americans. Muchura says he was in the U.S. last year and couldn't believe the amount of coffee his friends and family consumed — or the prices they paid.
Mr. MUCHURA: I have never liked coffee, so I don't drink coffee. It's bitter, very bitter, and very thick in the mouth. Tea is light and it's sweet. If it's made properly, and you don't need milk, you don't need sugar.
THOMPKINS: But some people drink their coffee black with no milk, no sugar.
Mr. MUCHURA: Yes, that's when it's even worse.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THOMPKINS: East Africa is also a major coffee producer, but Muchura says he wouldn't know about that.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Mombasa.
(Soundbite of music)
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