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Election Information: Board Candidate Statements and Proposed Budget Details
2005 Annual Membership Meeting Recap
Produce News: The Effects of Chemicals on Our Foods
Eating Well, Being Well and Having Fun While You're At It!: The Food for Thought Festival
Book & Housewares News
Health & Wellness News: Teas
Recipes & Drink Recommendations
Organics: In Our Beds, On Our Bodies and On Our Minds
Producer Profile: Rishi Tea
Putting Your Organic Garden to Bed
Member Services News: Our Annual Farm Tour
by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
Tea leaves, like grapes for wine, tell a story about the places they were grown. “Black tea with caramel notes and a malty finish” speaks to the mountainous areas of Southeast China or Taiwan. The “blushing pink infusion and tart, juicy, sweet finish” of the Plum Berry tea hails exclusively from China. Rishi Tea, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a company developing a new model for international trade to bring us these delicious ancient stories in the form of tea.
There are several interesting factors contributing to the unique nature of this company. One of them is their unique ability to offer an international selection of USDA-certified organic teas and herbal blends. And, notwithstanding the enormous amount of work they’ve invested in creating a fair system of trading with all of their growers, Rishi Tea owners still hold, above all else, the pure enjoyment of great tea as their main motivating factor. “Our core approach,” co-owner Ben Harrison explains, “is that tea and botanicals are, first and foremost in our minds, a gourmet creature comfort. It doesn’t have to be expensive but something that is about enjoyment. It’s about quality gourmet ideas and a natural and clean experience. We love the fact that [teas have] healthy attributes, but it’s a component that’s part of a healthy lifestyle.“
Calling Rishi Tea a “garden-direct importer,” co-owner Josh Kaiser travels extensively to personally arrange the purchase of harvests from individual gardeners or family farms, primarily located in remote villages around the world. It’s taken years to develop these relationships which provide the highest quality teas. Currently, their teas are grown in Japan, China, Taiwan and India. The many herbs purchased for their blends are purchased from over 30-40 countries including the United States, which supplies ginseng from Marathon County, Wisconsin. Rishi Tea also works primarily with TransFair (a non-profit, third-party certifier of fair trade products) in countries and communities where TransFair projects are in place in their quest to a become 100% Fair Trade company.
Depending on the availability of transportation in each area, Josh also arranges shipments of fresh harvests either by air-freight, which can take as little as ten days, or shipped via boat, which typically takes about six to ten weeks. Rishi’s teas ultimately make their way to a warehouse in Milwaukee’s Bayview neighborhood where the teas are blended, packaged and sold to consumers within six months, ensuring a quality gourmet experience.
Conversely, a more typical route from grower to consumer would take much longer. For example, teas picked from a gardener might be sold to a regional exporter, then to a government exporter, then to a Canadian or overseas exporter, then to a U.S. broker all before being sold to a tea company who would sell it to consumers anywhere in the world. And with each change of hands, the price goes up while the quality goes down due to the passage of time and the amount of handling.
“What’s great about teas and botanicals is, unlike so many yummy and delicious gourmet foods, that it does have a lot of health benefits,” says Ben. “Find something that you like. Any tea or good herb is going to have some medicinal value in it, some of it is folklore and some of it’s documented. We’re all about the gourmet experience.”
Ben says, “[Josh] founded the company in the late 1990s as an extension of his personal path after traveling in Asia for several months. After returning to the U.S., he wanted to form the company in order to combine his love of food, food-culture, international travel, Asian culture and tea.” To begin undertaking this venture, Josh brought together friends Ben Harrison and Aaron Kapp, and the three identified the individual points they wanted to go after and set about doing it. The Rishi Tea staff now numbers 14-15 and operates out of a 20,000 square foot warehouse/office space in Milwaukee. Ben, who describes Rishi Tea as “a dynamic and energetic place to work,” says they are a company whose philosophy means they take the business very seriously but take themselves far less so.
Blazing the Fair Trade trail in Southern China, Rishi Tea is on the cutting edge of developing first-of-its-kind relationships with gardener growers in some of the world’s oldest tea forests. “We’re business people, there’s no question about that. We obviously want to run a good business, but running a good business with principles and having something that extends beyond the balance sheet has always been the core part of our philosophy,” Ben says.
“In India,” Josh explains, “you have hundreds of Fair Trade projects. Then you go to China, which has the world’s largest tea production, and there’s just two [Fair Trade projects] and these are just right now in their pilot stage. They’re [TransFair] actually just monitoring how we’re developing and how we’re working with people to get an idea of how they can even introduce the Fair Trade project in China. There are so many areas of China that desperately need this Fair Trade compensation that we’ve been doing all we can. Because there are so many tea projects in China, especially where the working conditions are not good, not clean and it needs this sort of third-party sourcing.
“We go to these areas,” Josh continues, “to buy our teas and interface with the people who grow our tea, but also to monitor how the Fair Trade funds are being spent in the area. Basically Fair Trade funds have gone into water-purification systems, hot-water shower systems, an agri-training center and to send the first college student ever from this village to study Agricultural Science.”
This specific tea project is the cooperative called The Jing Mai Ancient Tea Association, an elected group of leaders from each village in the area’s ancient tea forests who preside over the group and vote on how to best spend the money. They come together and discuss everyone’s needs, then go back to their village and consult with their communities. To be clear though, Josh says, “Many of our products are made by small holders and they don’t have cooperatives.” A family or an extended family group will have ten acres of tea that they pick and process. Typically the women pick the tea and the men handle the processing.”
Tea, or Camellia sinensis, has historically been used as currency in some forms, but will undoubtedly remain precious to the people whose ancestors left them this legacy. The people in the Jing Mai Mountain area still protect and possess the scrolls extolling their Bulang Ancient tea proverbs: “If we leave the gold you will spend it...if we leave the ox it may die...We must leave the tea trees so they can grow and provide...You should not let others take the tea trees...You should protect the tea trees like you do your life and never let them out of your control.”
For more information about Rishi Tea, please log onto: www.rishi-tea.com. You can find an abundance of Rishi Tea for sale at the Willy Street Co-op in the bulk tea section in the Health and Wellness aisle. Or, you can have the Juice Bar pour you a cup.