Meet Maisha Rahman, Bangladesh’s first female tea auctioneer

June 4, 2024

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We spoke to Maisha Rahman, the country’s first tea auctioneer, to understand the trade and her journey. Maisha Rahman was introduced to the world of tea tasting for the first time at her father’s office. 

“He handed me the spoon used for tea tasting and told me, ‘Just distract yourself from the world, and completely focus on the taste. Try to understand everything that you are feeling.”

As Ahmedur Rahman Selim, one of the senior tea tasters in the country, marked the varieties of tea as good, bad or medium, he explained to Maisha why some of them were better than others, some of them worse, and some were the absolute best.

“Tea tasting does not require bookish knowledge; it is all about practice,” she remarked.

So, what makes a tea ‘better’ than the others?

“It is not just about the taste; the visual, smell, colour etc matter too. The tea needs to have body, brightness [actual term used for tea tasting] etc. There are different categories and sometimes, despite some faults, the tea is still acceptable [for drinking],” she explained.

The tea tasting process involves tasting tea liquors in cups. Photo: Mohammad Minhaj Uddin

The tea tasting process involves tasting tea liquors in cups and the loose leaves are arranged in front of them. At first, the taster takes a spoonful of the tea with a big gulp, swirls it around her/his mouth and tries to detect the flavour notes etc. Then s/he expels the liquid from the mouth.

The next stage involves taking a whiff of the leaves to have a better understanding of the tea. “We also pour in milk to see how the tea performs under it,” said Maisha.

The tea is then catalogued and priced accordingly and the catalogues are sent to buyers.

Maisha, the first female tea auctioneer in the country, has been a trainee taster for two years. “It is a lengthy process. It is not something one can learn quickly. I want to learn so much more and become an expert like my father.”

The daughter of a ‘tea’ family

Maisha was born in the lush, green tea gardens of Srimangal, Sylhet. Although she studied in Chattogram and lives there with her family now, tea has been an integral part of her life.

“Ami chaa poribar er e meye (I come from a tea family),” she said.

As a child, she saw her grandfather work under the sun as a tea planter. It fascinated her – how the small leaves eventually turned into a fragrant drink.

Maisha Rahman with her father Ahmedur Rahman Selim, one of the senior tea tasters in the country. Photo: Mohammad Minhaj Uddin

She spent long holidays in the tea gardens, watching her grandfather deal with the workers. Her grandfather, Mukhlesur Rahman, was the manager at Srimangal’s Nandarani tea garden in 1956.

“During British rule, he was one of the most well-known Bangali managers. He was known for having a temper. But his anger would subside once he came home and spent time with his family.”

Although both her father and uncle are involved with the tea business, she faced no pressure to join them. It was her passion that drove her to first become a tea taster and then an auctioneer at Produce Brokers Limited.

“I had seen my father work in the tea gardens and then I wanted to see how he sells the final product. And he welcomed me into his office,” said Maisha, who earned her Honour’s and Master’s degrees in English Literature from a private university in Dhaka. She accompanied him everywhere, including the tea auctioneering sessions.

“One day in 2022, while he was auctioneering, he turned to me and said, “Do you want to give it a try?”

That is how her journey as a tea auctioneer began. She remembers everything that happened that day. “From the hammering [of the gavel at the auction] to the whole experience. Ispahani, Abul Khair, Meghna, HRC, Finlay – all of the internal buyers welcomed me wholeheartedly. My life’s first lot was [auctioned to] Ispahani Mirzapur Tea Garden and it was amazing,” she said.

The world of tea auctioneering

“When I first witnessed an auction, I absolutely loved the whole process. In the blink of an eye, kilos of tea are sold,” she said.

Every Monday, she is busy auctioneering in Agrabad, Chattogram, in front of hundreds of buyers. She works from morning till evening, with only an hour-long break for lunch.

The auction is regulated by the Tea Traders Association of Bangladesh (TTAB). There are seven tea broker companies in Bangladesh, including Produce Brokers.

Before the auction, she and her team have to do some pre-planning, such as doing some market research, looking at price changes etc.

“Mondays are very hectic for us. You have to understand that auctioneering is a matter of good judgement – we have to judge on the spot,” she said.

At the auction spot, samples of tea are displayed for the buyers and some are given to them so they can decide which ones to buy.

Can tea auctioneering become a career choice for other women? “It can definitely be a career option for women. If I can do it; there are so many women out there who are more qualified than me and they will do even better, I believe,” replied Maisha.

Maisha wants to continue as both a tea taster and auctioneer but she also feels that tea tasting is more challenging and demands more of her focus.

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