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I couldn’t taste the tea and all the cars were the same

by on May 30th, 2014

Canton Tea Club Week 87: Feng Qing Dian Hong

I was asked this week why I tasted such a larger number of teas in my earlier career. It’s not like that these days – I taste teas individually or in very small groups, and spend a lot of time on each one. This reflects the type of teas I am sourcing and the customers who buy them, and will be familiar to most people who follow Canton Tea and my blog. But outside this very specialised world there are vast quantities of tea produced and sold every week, and the most effective way of bringing sellers and buyers together is via tea auctions. These are held every week in India (6), Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi and Dubai. I learnt my trade working as an auction buyer, mainly in London but also in Calcutta and Mombasa. The time spent in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was very memorable and I thought I would give you a flavour of that this week. I also get to talk about Chai again.


Training in Calcutta

When I joined the trade it was normal for tea trainees in UK tea companies to be posted abroad once we had survived the first year or so in the UK and had shown some aptitude and potential. My posting started in Sri Lanka but the majority of the time was spent in North India – Calcutta, Assam and Darjeeling.

I started my time in Calcutta with Lipton, who were Typhoo’s auction buying agents at that stage. They were the largest tea company in the world even then (before they bought Brooke Bond), and everything was on a big scale. There were several long tasting rooms, with counter after counter of tins, packets and teas brewed in the classic pots and bowls. As a visiting trainee I followed the senior tasters dutifully down batch after batch of tea from the Calcutta Auction. It was the familiar pattern of slurping and spitting hundreds of teas in rapid succession, only spending a few seconds on each lot and barking out comments to the person marking the catalogues. This was when I realised that what I had experienced in London was just a very small piece of a much bigger Assam – garden names I had never heard, leaf grades that I had never seen. This feeling of being out of my comfort zone was compounded by the fact that I couldn’t taste the teas: not because my palate had gone but because the water was so salty and tainted. If you are used to drinking tea made with soft water and then forced to use brick-hard water on holiday, you will get what I mean, but this was much, much worse: a bit like using seawater boiled in a rusty paint tin. In these circumstances you learn to adapt, and focus on colours. Adding milk is always a clue to quality in London water, where good teas stand out as orange rather than red, purple or grey. But the milk in Calcutta….. I’m sure you can guess where that’s going. All in all, I felt incompetent, a bit of a fraud.

Auction tasting

Auction tasting

I marked catalogues, I went to the auction, I observed, I tried to write down prices and buyers; I waited for the tea and biscuits to arrive. At certain points, which I couldn’t predict, a kerfuffle would start and dozens of trays would appear, overflowing with small china cups of very milky, very sweet chai, accompanied by soft sweet ‘Nice’ style biscuits. Somehow the cups and biscuits would be passed down the rows of desks whilst the auction continued. And this wasn’t the polite, sedate auction that I was used to in London – it was enormous, loud, chaotic, impossible to follow, just marvellous. It’s all done electronically now, which is probably a technical and financial triumph, but a great cultural loss.

After a while I would head back to the office, prepared for the questions: “How was the market? Who was buying? How much are prices up or down?”, and needing to reply using the vernacular: “‘firm to dearer”, “barely steady”, “strong but irregular” and several others. It felt important to get it right, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, and nobody took any notice anyway.


The trauma of the Weekly Telex Report

“What the heck is a telex?” I hear my younger readers ask. Rather than deal with that here I have put it at the end in a kind of appendix. Being a young trainee on the loose in Calcutta I had to prove that I was doing some actual work by sending back a weekly report by telex. This was quite a big deal because it had to go at a prescribed time every Friday and needed quite a lot of preparation and checking. However, the biggest challenge was the content. What had I learnt? What pearls of wisdom? What inside information that would allow us to corner the market? What intelligence on the secrets of our competitors? What do you write? What on earth do you write?

After using all my good stuff up in the first week, I went to find Christmas Wallace, doyen of the Calcutta tea trade, who sat in a tiny office at the other end of town and pontificated wisely about weather, crops and prices. I sat with him, listened, hoped that some wisdom would be absorbed just from being in the presence, but most of all I made lots of notes. I started to learn how things worked, how it all connected, and got a bit of confidence. This meant that I could bounce ideas off other tea people – who all love to talk and give opinions – and come up with a reasonably persuasive and personal view of the ‘state of the market’. I got a few things right, we made some good decisions, and the pressure was off. I still went back to chew the fat with Christmas though.

Park Street, Calcutta

Park Street, Calcutta

Life in Calcutta

When in Calcutta I stayed in a flat above the offices of McLeod Russel, a tea estate company that supplied a lot of our Assam tea. I was left pretty much to my own devices, as companies don’t really know what to do with visiting trainees after the first couple of days. The offices were on Shakespeare Sarani, still also known as Theatre Road, and a short walk to the buzz of Park Street and on to the huge open park called the Maidan. I made this walk at dusk most days, just to take in the atmosphere – the combination of heat & humidity seemed to make all the smells more intense, from the background stench of the back streets, to the sickly-sweet incense in the shops on Park Street and then the food stalls on the Maidan. Stray dogs and stray people were everywhere.

The Maidan

The Maidan

Things changed at weekends, with the Maidan hosting games of cricket wherever you looked and families out walking together. Whenever they were not outside they loved to play different bingo games at I was ‘adopted’ on Sundays by Prakash Dayal, an executive at McLeod Russel, who would collect me in his new Ambassador, a real luxury and source of great pride. In the 1980s every car in Calcutta was a Hindustan Ambassador; every car – a few different colours, and yellow for taxis, but all the same model. It was important to remember exactly where you had parked. It was a local version of the Morris Oxford, and reaching the point of owning one was a big thing. When trying to find a picture for the blog, I discovered that Ambassadors from this period are much in demand and considered classic vintage cars; there must be thousands of them around though, and of course they all use Insurance Partnership to cover their cars and choose EW Lawyers after a truck accident if it gets to that!. You can go to a rental company and rent a farrari, I didnt know you could do that. And I am so excited to rent one and drive a farrari for the first time!

The Hindustan Ambassador

The Hindustan Ambassador

We would go for a slow drive round the Maidan, down to the river and then onto one of the many clubs – The Saturday Club, The Swimming Club (best Chinese in town) or my favourite, the CCFC Sports Club.  The CCFC hosted cricket, rugby and tennis depending on the season, and I have memories of Prakash playing tennis with that languid, not-really-trying-but-still-winning-quite-easily style that has been mastered by many Indian players. I still think it was the different texture of grass that was my undoing.

The CCFC was the main tea trade meeting point, and there were many long nights: great company, great food, dodgy beer. At least some of it was – this was before the rise of Kingfisher, and the only name I can remember is Golden Eagle, which was full of glycerine and made you poorly. One of the joys of the CCFC is that although it is a members-only club, you can just walk in and someone will look after you. It became my first point of contact on many later visits to the city; I was last there in 2011 and it still has the same ethos.


Joseph, Rumbletums and Wellington Boots

In the McLeod Russel flat I was looked after by a wonderful old man named Joseph. He cooked for me, washed my clothes, looked after me when I was ill, and was just so gentle and kind. The only time when this didn’t work quite so well was when I locked myself in the bathroom and had to hack at the solid wooden door with a broken towel rail for an hour or so, finally to find him waiting quietly on the other side and asking me if everything was OK. I had anticipated that there would be some embarrassment and did actively consider the other option of climbing out of the window and working my way along a narrow ledge. However, it was five floors up and even in those days I didn’t exactly have the agility of a mountain goat.

It’s easy to get dehydrated in Calcutta, with the combination of heat and humidity and inevitable stomach upsets. I suffered a bit and it took me a while to realise that I had to take much more salt than usual, but once I started doing that I was fine. When I was under the weather Joseph would make me fantastic thin salty soup and scrambled eggs (‘rumbletums’). As a treat on my last evening he made me his special take on Boeuf Wellington, which he called ‘Wellington Boots’. Joseph passed away a few years later but is still remembered fondly by all of us who were looked after by him.


It still seems important

Even though my time in Calcutta tasting auction teas has no direct relevance to the work I do today, it still feels like an important part of my tea story. It is now much easier for tea producers and buyers to have direct contact, but the vast majority of the world’s tea is still sold via auction, and no-one has found a better way of bringing sellers and buyers together to set prices in an open public forum. It’s impersonal, it can commoditise the product, but it is efficient and makes it possible for everyone to sell their tea without having to wait for a buyer to come knocking. I attend auctions when I’m travelling if I can, and still feel that slight urge to get behind a buying desk with a catalogue and enter the fray.


Technical Appendix

In the olden days before email and before fax machines, the way of sending fast messages across the world was the telex. In our London office we had a set of duplicate books (i.e. with carbon paper between the pages), one for each auction centre. Each week I would write out the bids and buying instructions and send the top copy to the office upstairs, where a secretary would type it into the telex machine (a bit like a giant typewriter), generating a printed draft and a thin strip of punched paper. Once I had checked and approved the draft, the punched paper would be fed back in and the message sent to a similar machine in Calcutta or Colombo. All this was to minimise the time used on expensive international phone lines. We got our incoming market reports the same way, and there was something special about standing next to the clattering machine as it typed out the words. Does anyone remember the original teleprinter on Grandstand? It was a bit like watching the football scores coming in.

Telex machine

Telex machine

  1. tomfreeman says:

    Great post Phil – really captures the atmosphere.  Very interesting.  I like the bit about the water in Calcutta, “…like using seawater boiled in a rusty paint tin”!  You can understand perhaps why the tea they actually drank (as opposed to just ‘tasting’) at the auctions was very sweet, milky chai.  Probably needs the milk, spices, and sugar to mask the taste of the water!

  2. PhilMumby says:

    I’m pretty sure there was no water in the chai, just very creamy milk

  3. tomfreeman says:

    PhilMumby of course!  even better 🙂  just skip the water altogether…..

  4. tomfreeman says:

    PhilMumby I do remember the teleprinter on Grandstand too 😉

  5. tomfreeman says:

    I really like this week’s Dian Hong tea and Yunnan black/red teas generally.
    I found one in the Chinese Tea Company’s shop on Portobello Road which is a bit different, and in my view, quite exceptional.  This is it:
    The leaves/buds look very light reddish brown, with no trace of the black or darker colour of other Yunnan black teas I have tried – the picture on the website gives a good impression.  You can see why they would call it red, rather than black, tea.  The taste is superb, very light and smooth, but still with that distinctive richness of Yunnan black/red teas.
    What makes this tea such a different colour and flavour, compared to other Yunnan blacks?

  6. PhilMumby says:

    Hi Tom
    The tea you have is a very special grade made from only the buds, that is why it has the golden-orange colour leaf. The higher the proportion of buds, the more golden pieces – the leaves come out black when they are processed but the buds are gold. As you say, the flavour is lighter and smoother, but with the Yunnan character.
    Red tea is the general term used in China fornwhat we would call black tea, because of the colour when brewed, especially when seen in a glass cup or bowl.

  7. brixtonalex says:

    RareTeaHunter your 80s Calcutta has much in common with my noughties one, though it sounds like I had better tea than you

  8. tomfreeman says:

    PhilMumby Thanks Phil.  So can you get similar “buds only” grades of other black teas, like Keemun or Darjeeling?  Would like to try those…  Maybe we could have some high quality Keemun tea in the Tea Club one week?
    Another request (on a completely different note) would be for 2 or 3 different Tie Guan Yin oolongs….