Rishi Tea’s founders subscribe to the leaf itself

By - Jun 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By John Hughes

It is not widely known that Rishi Tea, perhaps the finest tea company in the world, winner of an unprecedented three consecutive Best Tea awards from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, is a six-year old Milwaukee-based venture, founded by three graduates of Rufus King High School.

Joshua Kaiser, whose brainchild this was, and his colleagues Aaron Kapp and Benjamin Harrison, still in their early thirties, have founded an elegant, growing, socially conscious, organic tea company. They purvey a product which might very well redefine your understanding of tea with one sip, and which supports traditional tea artisans. They work out of a warehouse within these city limits, but all their tea is derived directly from specific, known gardens in rural Asia.

To sit and speak with these three is to encounter three distinctly different personalities which mesh well together, and which are united in their passion for truly great tea. In an interview in mid-May, Joshua, Aaron and Benjamin spoke for two hours with Vital Source, and spoke with a depth of commitment and seriousness uncommon for persons of any age. They have been studying tea in depth for many years — it’s variety and history through the millennia; it’s being touched by culture and vice versa; it’s commerce and “mind-boggling evolution;” and the art of it’s cultivation. These are men who will continue to learn about all the aspects of tea for a long time, and who only want to continue to improve their company. Their quest for Quality is exhilarating.

Three students of the leaf make good.

Joshua Kaiser, who graduated from Edgewood College in Madison, has had a fascination with tea for years. He wanted a career which allowed independence, creativity and travel. He wanted to form a loose leaf tea company, rather than one with broken bits of leaf in tea bags. He wanted to “track the production of quality tea” down through the centuries into the present, to find it now, and to offer the market tea from a single origin, a single garden in a special village for each variety, grown with traditional techniques. He wanted to offer an alternative to multi-origin tea, sold as a commodity by brokers all over the world, where the packaging was most of the cost of the product. He wanted to give business to Asian practitioners of the ancient art of tea cultivation, so they and their craft could survive.

A serious young visionary with a swarthy demeanor, which occasionally melts into a smile, he recruited Aaron Kapp, and then Benjamin Harrison. Aaron was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in gardening, and a personal friend. A talkative and cheerful man, Aaron attracted Kaiser with a whimsical wit and the ability to work long and intense hours. Benjamin had graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, and was succeeding in the corporate world of New York City. He has a steady, even-keel temperament and was the last of the three to join Rishi. He brings business acumen and an articulate presence to the company.

They present a formidable three-strand braid of personality.

The leaf itself is the thing.

The “rishi” were nomadic founts of information on tea and botanicals who roamed the Himalayas many centuries ago. When I jokingly told Aaron that as a Rishi founder he was a “tea sage,” he became quite serious and said, “Rishi is not our self-description, but our aspiration. We are students of tea. It’s such an all-encompassing discipline, and there’s so much to learn, that we just want to learn from anybody and everybody, about every aspect. But, I think the essence of the truth about us at Rishi is, we subscribe to the leaf itself.”

His partners nod assent. They, too, subscribe to the leaf itself. These are not young cynics given to irony.

Joshua says, “Tea is a thing much greater than us. It’s just a humbling topic. It was here for five thousand years before we came, and it will be here after we leave. And this tea company and the quality we want to attain is nothing that will happen overnight. But we want to honor the greatness of the subject.”

A belief in sustainable commerce.

It is important to the three of them that Vital Source report how essential the social welfare aspect of their company is. The company develops over 150 different teas, and their relations with traditional tea artisans in China, India, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam enhance the infrastructure of these nations without depleting them like a coffee mega-chain. They want to be an outlet for organic agriculture. Beyond that, they want to donate money back into the communities in which their tea was grown, to support social welfare programs. They want to contribute to similar programs in Milwaukee as well.

“We’re not up on a moral podium,” says Benjamin. “But we want to make a positive impact in the supply side, in Asia, and in the market side, in the US.”

We walked through their impressive warehouse, preparing for a photo-shoot (Joshua meticulously setting up a display of wares in front of where they posed), drinking some seriously delicious “Jasmine Pearl” tea. The football field-sized space contained several hundred large crates of tea. They informed me that this inventory is at a low for the year.

“I just want to put one more thing into this interview,” Aaron says animatedly, with a smile. “That is, to reinforce that we’re Milwaukee-based. We’re proud of that. This is a cool city.”

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