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Home > Food > Drink > Decoding the price of tea

Decoding the price of tea

Flavour, terroir and legacy are a few factors that add value to your daily brew

Single-origin teas cost more as they stand for the flavours of the terroir. (istockphoto)
Single-origin teas cost more as they stand for the flavours of the terroir. (istockphoto)

Why is some tea so cheap while others cost the earth? Given that tea is a staple, considered an “essential commodity” during the 2020 lockdown, the steep prices of some brands can be baffling. However, prices reflect not just the quality of the tea but also the effort put in by the tea grower—something connoisseurs understand and value.

Over the past few years, some of the teas that have fetched record prices are the Manohari Gold, a black tippy tea from Assam that sold for 75,000 a kilogram at the auctions in 2020. In 2019, two teas sold for that magic number of 75,000—the Golden Butterfly tea from Assam’s Dikom estate and the Golden Needles from Arunachal Pradesh’s Donyi Polo tea garden.

There is a collector’s and a connoisseur’s pride in acquiring teas like these. But they don’t describe a trend or set the tone for prices; they are too few and too far between. The most expensive tea I have come across is a Darjeeling tea from Makaibari—the Silver Tips Imperial, made only on full moon nights. It’s priced at 1,850 for 50g on their website—and the story that comes with it factors into the price. I liken this to poetry.

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Also read: Do you have to abandon chai and take to drinking green tea?

At the other the end of the spectrum is tea that sells for as little as 200-250 a kilo. These are the teas that a chaiwalla may find particularly cost-effective and they produce just the kind of tea customers expect—strong, sweet and milky. These are priced low because these are dust- grade, or very fine. No tea maker intends to make dust tea—it’s the inevitable consequence of processing tea leaves. Tea dust makes its way to tea bags and markets where a quick and strong brew is preferred at a low cost per cup.

Much of the black tea produced in India is commodity tea, as CTC (crush, tear, curl). This is sold in bulk to large tea brands which buy, blend, pack and retail. The teas we find on supermarket shelves are heavily blended. This helps brands maintain their selling price. For customers, it’s a shield from price volatility. As long as we are not particular about the source of tea, or as long as price determines our choices, we will remain happy with the product.

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Also read: The language of tea labels

Single-origin teas cost more as they stand for the flavours of the terroir, retaining the integrity of the tea-maker’s intent. There are signature styles in tea-making that elevate some teas to a crafted product. Organic, speciality teas and artisanal teas are low-volume, high-quality teas made with great attention to plucking standards and processing methods. The price, then, reflects the effort of the tea farmer.

A well-made, single-estate, loose-leaf tea can cost anywhere between 500-10,000 for 100g. So, how do you decide the fair price? Ultimately, when you look at loose-leaf tea by garden or terroir, the price you pay is for the legacy, for the brand, for quality, for flavours, for production and logistics—but also for the value that customers worldwide attribute to it.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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