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Friday, June 26, 1998 Published at 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK

Business: The Economy

Storm in a teacup

London's auction is not everybody's cup of tea

Tim Clifton, chairman of the tea brokers association, explains why change was inevitable
A historic change is brewing in the tea market. The City of London has seen the end of one of its oldest traditions - the London tea auction.

The auction, which has set the price of tea for more than 300 years, has been overtaken by technology and the increasing globalisation of the tea market. Rival auctions have sprung up around the world and more and more buyers are using new methods of communication, such as the Internet, to trade tea.

[ image: Ooh I do love a good cuppa. Tea is still Britain's favourite drink .]
Ooh I do love a good cuppa. Tea is still Britain's favourite drink .
Ever since 1679 tea buyers have gathered on a weekly basis. By the 1950s a third of all the world's tea was bought through the auction.

But it has been in steady decline in recent decades. Now less than 8% of the tea drunk in Britain is sold under the hammer.

Tim Clifton, chairman of the Tea Brokers' Association, said that Monday was a sad day for the London tea market, signalling the end of yet another grand British tradition. "One of the reasons it is particularly sad was that it was a very nice weekly gathering of the trade where we could swap views with each other."

However he said that the move did not threaten the international vibrancy of the tea market. "I don't think it will affect the growth in ... tea sales. The rise in private sales by telephone, e-mail and the Internet has been apparent for some time. It is merely a closing of a declining method of sale," he said.

[ image: The tea auction in its heyday]
The tea auction in its heyday
Tea is still the most popular drink in Britain and as a nation we remain among the biggest tea consumers in the world, getting through more than 150 million kilos of the stuff a year, or 185 million cups a day.

But as world-wide communications have improved, so the auction has become increasingly superfluous.

The emergence of the Internet has facilitated instant electronic trading and left the auction looking an increasingly outdated way to buy and sell tea.

As tea has come increasingly popular around the world, and shipping more advanced, major producers have also set up their own auctions in their own countries.

[ image: Most specialist teas are no longer purchased at the tea auction]
Most specialist teas are no longer purchased at the tea auction
A large number of supermarket groups and major UK producers have also chosen to bypass the middle-man by buying tea directly from foreign plantations who for their part are keen to get paid as soon as possible.

This has lead to a demise of the British tea industry. Where once tea clippers docked at bustling wharfs, tea warehouses now lie empty.

Britain may have lost another fine tradition with the demise of the auction, but tea drinkers are unlikely to notice any difference to their favourite cuppa.

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