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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008

The Art of Tea

Rishi’s award-winning brew

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Have you ever had one of those horizon-widening moments when you learn that something you’ve been enjoying for years, your whole life maybe, is comparatively inferior to what you could be enjoying. For example, drinking Sanka, and liking it, for 20 years before tasting your first cup of Alterra’s breakfast blend. Indeed, these “ah-ha” experiences can be humbling, even downright embarrassing, but the payoff can be extraordinary. These insights can add a richness to your life that you didn’t even know you were missing.

To many, making a cup of tea means microwaving a mug of water, throwing in a tea bag and letting it steep a minute or two before drinking it. Joshua Kaiser realized while traveling through Southeast Asia that tea has the potential to be so much more. He recognized that North American consumers would appreciate the natural complexity and flavors of premium loose-leaf teas in a manner similar to coffee and wine. Rishi Tea began in 1997 when Kaiser enlisted longtime friend Benjamin Harrison as a business partner to import and market premium organic teas, botanical blends and tea ware.

“I think what makes Rishi Tea quite unique, as compared to many other tea companies throughout the world, is that we partner with a lot of small gardens throughout Southeast Asia,” says Sean O’Leary, tea taster, apprentice tea buyer and China origin specialist for Rishi Tea. Typically export companies will partner with one large tea estate that produces every type of tea, even varietals that are traditionally from different areas of origin. Much like coffee and wine, the taste and characteristics of different teas are created by variables like soil type, climate, rainfall, sunlight, type of varietal used and nuances of processing. As a result, the big estate teas have a common flavor profile, regardless of whether one is a black tea or a green tea. Because Rishi imports its organic teas from a vast network of small organic tea gardens in China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and India, among others, the company is able to develop unique flavor profiles for its teas.

While Rishi’s list of teas fluctuates according to price, quality and season, the company typically offers more than a hundred loose-leaf teas and botanical blends. Selections range from African Rooibos and Oolong tea to Yerba Mat and Pu-erh tea, with many in between. At the 2008 World Tea Championship, Rishi Tea won seven first-place awards, all captured by organic teas.

“I think Rishi Tea’s commitment to fair trade and organic happened naturally,” O’Leary says. “It seems like the only thing to do when you’re there.” The Rishi team maintains personal relationships with each tea farmer and artisan they trade with. Their firsthand experience in these teagrowing regions motivated their commitment to social responsibility. As leaders in the advancement of fair-tradecertified tea, Rishi supports fair prices and wages, safe working conditions, environmental sustainability and education for tea-farming families and their communities. This commitment goes hand-inhand with organic farming, which also promotes the health and well-being of growers and their land through the use of environmentally sound agricultural methods and practices. Rishi Tea was among the first to earn organic certification under the USDA’s National Organic Program in 2002.

Rishi Tea extends its resources to local organizations, like Growing Power, that use tea leaves in their composts, and Our Milwaukee, a business alliance that advocates buying local. Rishi Tea is currently donating 25% of the profits from the sale of its organic cinnamon plum tea to the Clean Water Fund, a national organization working to protect and restore America’s water resources.

Rishi Tea designs and imports custom tea ware that allows users to brew and serve tea properly in order to fully appreciate the scope of each tea. Making tea is a 5,000-year-old practice that can be as simple as mixing water and leaves, but it also possesses an inherent depth if one wants to appreciate it.

Dec. 2 , 7:30 p.m.: Tea Time with Rishi Tea, Cedarburg Coffee Roastery
Dec. 3, 12-4 p.m.: Fair Trade Holiday Fair, Marquette University
Dec. 6, 1-5 p.m.: Our Milwaukee’s Buy Local Fair, Urban Ecology Center.

For more information go to www.rishi-tea.com.