Tea in Bangladesh

Tea in Bangladesh: History, Production and Consumption

Explore the history of tea in Bangladesh with this full-blown guide. From the early days of the tea trade to the modern day, we’ll give you a detailed account of how this key crop is grown and produced.

Tea in Bangladesh
A tea garden in Sylhet district

Bangladesh is an important tea producing country in Asia and is the world’s 10th largest tea producer. Bangladesh’s tea industry dates back to Colonial Period, during British Rule when the East India Company initiated the tea trade in Chittagong back in 1840. Today, the country has 178 commercial tea estates, including many of the world’s largest working tea plantations. The industry accounts for 7% of global tea production and employs more than 0.5 million people.

In Bangladesh tea is grown in the Northern and Eastern parts or districts of the country. The highlands, temperate climate, humidity and heavy rainfall in these districts provide a favourable ground for the production of high-quality tea.

Chittagong is the birthplace of the Bangladesh tea industry.


Historically, Bengal was the terminus of the Tea Horse Road connecting the subcontinent with China‘s early tea-growing regions in Yunnan. Atisa is regarded as one of the earliest Bengali drinkers of tea.

Black tea cultivation was introduced in Bengal during the British Empire. European traders established the first sub-continental tea gardens in the port city of Chittagong in 1840, when plantations were set up beside the Chittagong Club using Chinese tea plants from the Calcutta Botanical Garden. The first home-grown tea was made and tasted near the Karnaphuli river in Chittagong in 1843. Commercial cultivation of tea began in the Mulnicherra (Malnichora) Estate in Sylhet in 1857 for the first time. The Surma River Valley in the Sylhet region emerged as the centre of tea cultivation in Eastern Bengal. Plantations also flourished in Lower Tippera (modern Comilla) and North Bengal.

Tea in Bangladesh
Tea Research Institute of Bangladesh Estd. 1957

Tea was a major export of British Bengal. The Assam Bengal Railway served as a lifeline for the industry, transporting tea from growers in the Surma and Brahmaputra Valleys to exporters in the Port of Chittagong. The Chittagong Tea Auction was established in 1949 by British and Australian traders. British companies such as James Finlay and Duncan Brothers dominated the industry once. The Ispahani family also become a highly prominent player in the industry nowadays.


Srimangal is a major tea plantation hub in Moulvi Bazar.

Tea is the second-largest export-oriented cash crop of Bangladesh, following jute. The industry accounts for 8% of the national GDP. Tea-producing districts include Sylhet, Moulvi Bazar, Habiganj, Brahmanbaria, Rangamati, Chittagong and Panchagarh.

Once a major world exporter, Bangladesh is now a net importer of tea. The rise of the Bangladeshi middle class has increasingly driven the industry to focus on a lucrative domestic market. The sector is today dominated by Bangladeshi conglomerates, including M. M. Ispahani Limited, Kazi & Kazi, the Transcom Group, James Finlay Bangladesh, the Orion Group, the Abul Khair Group and Duncan Brothers Bangladesh Limited.

In 2012, Bangladesh recorded its highest production of tea, at 63.85 million kilograms. The country has over 56,846 hectares of land under tea cultivation, up from 28,734 hectares in 1947. The government has begun to promote small-scale tea growers, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The price of Bangladesh tea is determined at the public auction in Chittagong. In March 2015, the international price of Bangladesh tea was US$2.40.


More than 300,000 plantation workers are employed in Bangladeshi tea gardens. 75% of workers are women. Many are descendants of tribal labourers brought from central India by the British.

Government bodies

The Bangladesh Tea Board and the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute support the production, certification and exportation of the tea trade in the country.

The Process of Tea Production

The cycle of tea processing


It is not particularly hard to make tea grow. As long as it gets plenty of rain and temperatures do not vary much year-round, Camellia Sinensis is a robust shrub, able to tolerate a fairly wide range of more or less tropical climates, altitudes and soil conditions. It flourishes happily in the wild, in China (whence it originates), in Assam, Bangladesh and elsewhere. Untended, the bushy shrub that covers the hills of central Srimangal in manicured, contour-planted swathes becomes a shaggy, gnarled tree that can grow up to 9m (30ft.) tall. It was from such trees that the original seed stock of Finlay tea – in fact, of all tea – was derived. Growing tea worthy to bear the famous Finlay logo is not at all easy, however. Every permutation and combination of such variables such as plant stock quality, soil, weather, altitude and exposure has a discernible effect on the quality of the final product.

tea in Bangladesh
Different types of tea

So sensitive is the tea plant to such effects that samples of tea picked from different hillsides or ‘fields’ on a single estate, or even from the same hillside on different days of the week, will appear different to an experienced taster. Today, when much of the island’s output is grown on smallholder farms, the potential variation within even a single sub-district can be even wider.

Such extreme variability was a great handicap to pioneer Finlay tea planters, who could never be sure of a consistent product. Advances in the art and science of tea production, together with such processes as bulking, delivered greater consistency, but tea cultivation remains, much like viniculture, a business of regional and seasonal variation, of vintages delectable or disappointing. Modern supermarket brands, which are made by blending teas from many sources of origin, tend to eliminate this exciting variety in the flavour of a predictable, homogenized ‘consumer experience’; Finlay tea, on the other hand, proudly emphasizes its unique, variable yet always recognizable character. The differences between the various tea-growing regions of Bangladesh are marked, and the flexibility of the orthodox black tea process enables many adjustments to be made at the manufacturing stage.

tea in Bangladesh
Clearing the land for tea plantations


Less common now than in the pioneering days, a sloping hillside is cleared of trees and scrub for planting with tea. The heavy timber, often valuable, is removed and the remaining cutting is burnt off, the resulting ash helping fertilizes the soil.

tea in Bangladesh
Land preparations for tea cultivation


In preparation for planting, the land must be surveyed, ‘lined’ to mark the future position of each bush, drained and ‘holed’ to receive the plants. Proper drainage is vital; the ideal is a clean runoff with a minimum of erosion.


Originally grown from seed, either in situ or at a nursery, tea is now reproduced by vegetative propagation or ‘cuttings’. The traditional pattern of planting, with bushes arranged in geometrical clusters, was superseded in the 1857s by contour planting that closely follows the line of the hillside. Trees are planted amid the tea to provide partial shade and further control soil erosion.

tea in Bangladesh
Tea planting by a worker
Weeding tea plants


Early planters weeded their fields clean, losing tons of topsoil with every shower of rain. Today, only weeds that can harm the tea are picked, the rest left in to help ‘bind’ the soil. Topsoil loss remains a problem, however; how to overcome it is a subject of much controversy, study and experiment at Bangladesh’s national Tea Research Institute and elsewhere.

Fertilization is vital for tea production


While the proportion of organically-produced Ceylon Tea harvested increases annually to keep pace with demand, conventionally-grown teas must also pass the Tea Board’s stringent rules on chemical content. This not only results in a safer and healthier product but also helps protect the environment.

Pruning of a tea plant


Tea bushes, like vines, respond well to periodic mutilation. Pruning, which begins before the plant is mature enough for plucking, is repeated every couple of years thereafter, causing the bush to grow horizontally instead of vertically. Performed using a special knife, pruning is a strenuous and difficult manual operation that resists automation. Human skill is an essential part of the process.

Plucking is very important for good quality tea


Picking the tea, or ‘plucking’ as it is known in the trade, continues all year round, though different regions produce their best teas at different times of the year due to the climatic variations associated with them. The pluckers, mostly women, restrict themselves to the two tenderest leaves and the ‘bud’ that grow at the very top of every stem. Coarser picking results in poor-quality tea.

Manufacturing tea in a factory


Bangladesh’s tea cultivators and manufacturers are the custodians of the traditional, orthodox method of black tea production. This is still agreed by most experts to produce the best black tea. Even with the technological improvements introduced over the last thirty or forty years, the orthodox method is relatively slow and labour-intensive; but as the tea planters and traders of Bangladesh have always maintained, good tea cannot be hurried. Nor, oddly enough, can it be delayed. The time devoted to each of the processes of tea manufacture has to be finely judged if a quality product is to be obtained. This is a matter of the tea-maker’s judgment, for the right timing depends on the moisture content of the plucked leaf, the temperature and humidity conditions prevailing throughout manufacture, and a variety of other factors. Although the process of making fine black tea is simple in its essentials, expertise, experience and a ‘feel’ for the task are essential to success.

Tea in Bangladesh
Plucking is very important for good quality tea


The process of manufacture commences when the leaves are picked or ‘plucked’. Plucking calls for discrimination and dexterity and is carried out mainly by women. Only the uppermost foliage on every stem is picked – the famous ‘two leaves and a bud’ – and the stem itself must be left undamaged. Fiddly work, but a skilled tea-plucker can collect up to 35kg. (44lb.) of leaf daily.

tea in Bangladesh
Workers are paid according to the kilos of leaves they collect


On arrival at the factory, the raw leaf is weighted. The total weight recorded for the day’s batch provides a benchmark for quality assessment at the end of the process of manufacture. After weighing, the tea is laid out for withering.

tea in Bangladesh
Raw leaves are withering on a tray


Raw leaf is ‘fluffed’ and spread out to dry on racks or troughs in a well-lit and ventilated space. It will lie here for 18-24 hours, slowly losing moisture and undergoing physical and chemical changes essential to manufacture. Over-withering can be fatal, so the process is carefully monitored. It is complete when about two-thirds of the moisture present in the raw leaf has evaporated.

Tea leaves are rolling in a conveyer belt


The withered leaf is now ready for rolling. This is a mechanized process in which the leaf cells are ruptured to release enzymes and bring them into contact with air so that aeration can commence. The bits of broken and rolled leaf are called dhools. The dhools are then broken up and sifted before aeration.

tea in Bangladesh
Aeration is also known as fermentation


During this critical stage of manufacture, important chemical reactions take place through the action of air on the leaf tissue. The rolled, broken leaf is spread out on tables and exposed for a period that varies between 20 minutes and five hours, depending on a variety of factors, including what kind of final product is desired. The withered tea leaf is a rusty, coppery orange colour. Again, timing is critical: under-aerated tea tastes raw and green, over-aerated tea is soft and tasteless. Aeration is also sometimes known as ‘fermentation’ or ‘oxidation’.

tea in Bangladesh
Drying tea in the firing chamber


When the right amount of aeration has occurred, the leaf is dried in a desiccator or ‘firing chamber’ at 99-104˚C (210-220˚F) to prevent further chemical changes. This shrinks and darkens the leaf, resulting in the product known as black tea. This completes the actual manufacture.

Tea in Bangladesh
Gradings are done in a separator machine nowadays


The size of the leaf particles in your teapot bears no relation to quality per se, but it does affect the colour and strength of the brew. Manufactured tea is graded by leaf size using a mechanical sifter. ‘Leaf’ grades contain the largest pieces; ‘broken’ grades are successively smaller, while the smallest grades of all are known as ‘dust’. Larger grades tend to command higher auction prices.

Tea in Bangladesh
Bulk packed box for tea auction

Bulk Packing

To ensure consistency of appearance, flavour and quality, each grade of a particular consignment is thoroughly stirred up and mixed. After this, the tea is bulk-packed – either in the traditional wooden chests (in former times these were lined with lead) or in more modern aluminum-lined paper sacks.

Tea in Bangladesh
Packaging become essential for branding

Tea Bags and CTC

Bangladeshi manufacturers responded to the growing worldwide popularity of tea bags by commencing manufacture in recent years. Tea that is destined for bagging is not rolled traditionally but processed by a CTC (‘cut, tear and curl’) machine, which breaks the withered leaf into very small pieces. This fragmented leaf is ideal for tea bags; it infuses rapidly, producing a dark, strong brew.

Tea in Bangladesh
Common tea recipe

Want to learn the art of tea-making? Book a tour with Bangladesh Unbound and get a Tea Making Lesson for FREE from our expert! And know all secrets of making a cup of delicious tea!

By Arafat Rasul

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