The largest and the oldest tea auctioneers in the world, J. Thomas and Co Pvt. Ltd, is celebrating 150 years of the first public auction of tea in India

On a mild wintry afternoon on December 27, 1861 the first public sale of East Indian teas was held at 2, Mission Row, Calcutta. 250 chests Pekoe of East India Tea Company were offered along with 100 chests Pekoe of The Bengal Tea Company. There was also some produce of other plantations.

Truly, much tea has been traded and enjoyed since that exciting afternoon when the first Indian tea auction took place.

Today the oldest and the largest tea auctioneers in the world, J. Thomas and Co Pvt. Ltd, which conducted the sale (as R. Thomas and Co), is celebrating 150 years of the historic auction that changed the way tea business was hitherto done. To mark the occasion the company has been hosting events at all their offices across the country with the finale in Kochi and Coonoor.

Transparency

An excited trade insider wishes them, “a 1,000 more years” of business. He continues with fervour, “tea auction is the most transparent system and quite unparalleled.”

Vijay Shankar, vice chairman and managing director of the company, smiles at the remark and reaffirms the goodness of the system that has become synonymous with the160- year- old company. He says, “Tea auction is still the channel that gives you the widest exposure. It gives you concentration of demand and supply all at one point and tea tasting even today remains the single most reliable method of evaluating a tea.”

Tea that finds its way from the remotest gardens into teapots and kettles around the world takes a mindboggling route. Drawn as samples, tasted, graded, valued, sent to clients, auctioned in lots, dispersed to respective buyers all over the world, is an exercise based completely on trust and transparency. Known as the gentleman's trade, tea in India comes with the romance of colonial hangover, yet tea companies have been quick to change and meet the demands of the day.

Tea broking comprises both auctioning and tasting of tea and is about getting the best deal for the producer. As a conduit in the transaction it is imperative that integrity be the guiding principle of brokers, says Vijay Shankar.

Hence recruitment to the profession is based on sound background, schooling and sportsman-like qualities. The job is generally learnt hands-on.

Today, as the company relives the years, the management takes pride in the fact that it has shouldered the very principles on which the trade was based to almost the same degree of precision as its predecessors.

From the noisy auction room of 2 Mission Row to the present scenario where tea auction has gone online tradition and history have been their cup of tea, much like the romantic tradition of scratching the initials of company directors on the board room table which exists till date.

Moving South

In 1964, J. Thomas and Co. moved southward establishing their operations in Kochi, under T. C. Satyanath. The present Bernard Bungalow in Fort Kochi, which was formerly a Dutch armoury, was their first office.

Much has changed since and yet much remains the same in the trade.

The excitement of the open outcry auction and the banging of the gavel have given way to the clinical perfection of a click of the mouse and transactions completing in real time. The auctions seem to have lost some of the charm of yore. Yet business has increased and the future holds good hope.

T.K. Madhav, former MD of the company, who is known to have enlivened the auction room in his days with his inimitable style, says that the pan-Indian connect of the company helped them popularise South Indian teas in the Northern markets.

A commemoration like the present one is as much a time to introspect as it is to look ahead.

Vijay Shankar is optimistic about the future of tea in India and even globally. “Tea is being looked at as a health beverage. The need of the hour is to make it the choice of youngsters and penetrate that market,” he asserts.

Fluctuating prices of bulk tea, unavailability of labour, rising labour costs, and the global economic gloom are some of the current issues that face the industry.

But the company has weathered many a storm in its tea cupand looks ahead with confidence, ready to face the vicissitudes that will shape the future of the two leaves and a bud. They will continue to reach out and provide consumers with the cup that cheers, for “a 1000 more years”, as the well-wisher said.