Often called the “Champagne of teas,” Darjeeling tea is one of the most expensive and coveted types to be grown in India. Found only in the West Bengal region, Darjeeling has historically only been sold at auctions to a select few buyers. Once a riotous weekly affair, the tradition has now quietly gone to the wayside as sellers have switched to an online auction system that anyone in the world can now take part in.
Tea may be one of India’s iconic exports, but it isn’t a native crop to the east Asian nation. Darjeeling in particular has only been grown in the area since the mid-19th century, when a British man named Arthur Campbell smuggled some seeds in from China. A doctor working at a nearby sanatorium, Campbell figured that the Darjeeling region’s climate was well-suited to growing tea and began planting them in his estate. Luckily for tea lovers, the plants flourished in the area’s high altitude and quickly became a popular crop, Liz Clayton writes for Serious Eats. Soon enough, as the strain became popular throughout the British Empire, the ruling colonial authorities began setting aside land specifically to raise Darjeeling tea.
For more than a century, Darjeeling has been one of the most prized teas, for its flavor as well as its rarity. While some stores sell so-called Darjeeling blends in tea bags at grocery stores, the real stuff is on a different level. Like Champagne and Parmegiano Reggiano, the only true Darjeeling teas are grown in their namesake region, limiting the amount that can be grown at any time. Over the years, a system for buying the tea developed and became formalized into exclusive, invitation-only auctions, Eric Grundhauser reports for Atlas Obscura. While a kilo of typical tea usually costs about $9, the same amount of Darjeeling can go for nearly $2,000.
“The teas are very fine and the bidding prices can shoot up very quickly. It involves a lot of money,” Shivaji Sen, an associate director at Kolkata-based Ambootia Tea Group, tells Suneera Tandon for Quartz.
When most of the rest of India’s tea crops recently transitioned to online auctions, Darjeeling stayed behind, partly because of how dramatically the cost of a kilo of Darjeeling can change. In a way, the auction system itself created a culture where the only way people could sell the tea was through the auction system, Tandon writes. However, India’s commerce secretary Rita Teaotia recently announced that Darjeeling will finally join the online auctions after almost 150 years of exclusivity.
“The new system will help in better price recovery,” Teaotia tells Sutanuka Ghosal for the Economic Times.
Not being restricted to selling to the exclusive buyers who are able to bid on the tea in person might mean some big changes in the Darjeeling world. Farmers have a better chance of finding buyers, more buyers will be able to participate in the auction, and the price of Darjeeling might become more stable, Grundhauser reports. But while that likely means the tea will become less rare, it might also help officials protect their brand from pretenders. As the real stuff gets more accessible, tea lovers won’t have to resort to Darjeeling knockoffs anymore.