Interview by Angie Brown
Photo Courtesy of Rishi Tea
A multiple-award-winning company, Rishi Tea is well known for its distinct and enthusiastic approach to tea. Joshua Kaiser, Rishi’s founder and tea buyer, believes in working directly with the growers. Consequently, he spends a large part of every year traveling throughout Asia, locating and tasting teas and bringing back his finds to the company’s home base in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both Joshua and Rishi Tea are committed to providing fresh and direct-from-origin teas, as well as unique tea wares such as exquisitely handcrafted teapots, tea bowls, and even tea tables, to their customers every season.
Q. Why are you passionate about tea, and why did you decide to start a tea business?
A. I love tea more and more each day. I learn something new about tea each time I brew a cup. I fell in love with tea in college. The energy, history, and cultures that flow from the world of tea made me realize that I could pursue my dreams to be a constant scholar and a businessman at the same time. . . . I now spend about nine months a year sourcing, developing, and studying tea in Asia, and my passion for tea grows with each new adventure and discovery.
Q. Why did you name your business Rishi Tea?
A. Rishi is from Sanskrit and means sage, teacher, or revealer of the natural path, and that’s what we are trying to do. We want to reveal the natural truth to our modern society that has become so dependent on the chemical and synthetic processed foods and beverages. For thousands of years, food was medicine, and medicine was food. I don’t believe people need extreme measures or faddish diet schemes to be healthy. We believe tea is just one important food that leads to health. Additionally, tea tastes wonderful and has so much gourmet appeal. . . . At Rishi, we want to share natural and simple alternatives for people to live healthy and delicious lives.
Q. Rishi Tea offers more than 200 loose-leaf teas, botanicals, and iced teas fresh each season. How do you manage to do that?
A. We have a very strong and passionate team from quality assurance, production, and sales. Rishi Tea is a private brand that is also an importer. I have developed a direct-trade model with tea and herb farmers all over the world and have been nurturing relations and long-term projects with farmers for more than a decade. I basically live most of the time in Asia to make sure it all comes together for us and our customers in terms of quality, innovation, and consistent character. . . . By exporting freshly processed tea throughout the year from one batch, we can keep our quality superior to others. . . . We know where our tea was harvested, when it was harvested and processed, the varietal of tea bush, the season, the elevation of the mountain, and even how much was produced on that day or the total batch size because I am there and not at my desk, all the while supported by my tremendously skilled team in the USA and Asia.
Q. You have been in the tea business since 1997. How have you seen it change overall, and how have you changed with it?
A. It is getting harder and harder to get great tea, and tea is becoming more scarce and expensive either from climate, economic, and/or societal changes. The U.S. tea market is greatly impacted by what happens to the Chinese tea price and market conditions. In general, we’ve been accustomed to cheap tea from China, and now that the U.S. dollar is so weak against the Chinese RMB, we’ve seen price inflation due simply to currency exchange and compounded with a rising middle and upper class in China that pays more than U.S. consumers for premium teas. Currency exchanges and rising domestic demand in China are pushing prices very high. During shortage times, the Chinese market demand for premium teas has made it harder for many newcomers in the trade to secure their teas at good prices because when there is a shortage, farmers are going to sell all they’ve got at the highest price possible.
In the last five to eight years, and most dramatically in the last three years, there has a been a shift by Chinese tea producers to focus on the lucrative retail tea markets in China and less on export-quality tea at what Westerners believe are fair prices. . . . A few of us tea buyers agreed that this year, 2010, has been the worst year in memory for buying tea and the trade in general. . . . it made me wake up to the fact that I have to continue to diversify Rishi Tea’s products and origins beyond the obvious premium producers like China, Japan, and Taiwan. Of course, those three will always be our most important volume origins, but I have been working for the past three years on organic projects in Korea, Laos, Nepal, Thailand, and other areas where we can make awesome, innovative, and somewhat unexpected premium teas and herbal infusions.
Q. Rishi Tea is an award-winning company. Tell us a little about the most recent awards you have received.
A. For the third year in a row, we have swept the World Tea Championship, leading the pack of international companies with the most first-place awards. This year, we received two first-place awards for our organic iced teas and five first-place awards for a range of hot teas, including Organic Fair Trade Pu’erh Tea, Gyokuro, Genmai Matcha, Super Green (Matcha and Sencha blend), and our Matcha. We also received three second-place and two third-place awards, totaling 12 awards for 2010.
Q. Why did you decide to partner with the Jane Goodall Institute?
A. The life work of Jane has been so inspiring, and her choice to work with us was an honor we could not pass up. We launched our partnership through our new Masala Chai Concentrate. Proceeds from each sale of the concentrate benefit Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Program, which is a global youth program about making positive change happen—for our communities, for animals, and for the environment.
Our Masala Chai Concentrate is made with a single-origin dian hong black tea harvested from ancient tea trees in Mannong Manmai, Yunnan, China. The tea is produced in a way that goes above and beyond organic certification without any human inputs or actions that disturb biodiversity or soil health whatsoever. Our chai is made with all 100 percent organic-certified ingredients and fair-trade tea, slow-brewed for 20 hours with traditional masala spices like cardamom, ginger, pepper, and cinnamon. We sweeten it with pure organic cane sugar, organic molasses, and real vanilla bean and stabilize the recipe with organic lemon juice.
Q. Tell us a little about your Taste of Origin line.
A. As tea devotees, we developed Taste of Origin to elevate tea to the same level of sophistication currently enjoyed by vintage wine and single-origin coffee. As with wine and coffee, each tea has an inherent sense of place that has been determined not only by geography (soil, climate, altitude) and how it’s processed, but also less obviously by history, culture, and tradition. The first featured Taste of Origin is Mannong Manmai in Yunnan, China, where remarkable teas are harvested from wild, ancient tea trees. We chose Mannong Manmai to launch Taste of Origin because it is home to a 1,500-year-old ancient tea-tree forest located in Yunnan, the birthplace of tea. The biodiversity, rich soil, and ancient varietals of Mannong Manmai are unlike those of any other origin. The Taste of Origin program launched with three organic and fair-trade-certified gift sets. Each set features unique teas from exceptional microlots, hand-selected during the peak harvest season for their superior representation of Mannong Manmai.
Q. Why is offering sustainable packaging and organic, fair-trade teas important to you?
A. People feel organic is a healthy choice, but I think organic is more than that. Choosing organic, even if only for the reason to preserve one’s health or genetic integrity, by default helps protect our water and soil supply. It is also a choice to buy and consume products that do not harm the farmers’ and farming communities’ lands by agricultural chemicals and pesticides. It is important for me and all Rishi staff that what Rishi does and sells has a positive impact on our consumers but also on our planet and the communities that produce our wonderful teas around the world. The same logic applies for our choice to support fair trade and offer sustainable packaging. The people harvesting and processing the great tea we drink deserve fair wages, safe working conditions, and community development.
Q. Where can our readers find Rishi Tea products?
A. All of our tea and artisan tea ware is available online at rishi-tea.com. Many of our retail products, including our retail tins and new Masala Chai Concentrate, are available nationwide at Whole Food Stores, Vitamin Shoppe, and select Cost Plus World Market stores. For additional stores and cafés, visit our “Retail Locator” online.
For more information visit www.rishi-tea.com.