By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jan 15, 2003 at 5:40 AM

Lots of people take time to travel after receiving their college diploma. But how many actually end up doing something constructive with these experiences?

Milwaukeean Joshua Kaiser did. After extensive traveling in Asia upon graduation from college, Kaiser wanted to bring his passion for Asian culture to Milwaukee. And what better way to embody Asian tradition than the ancient art of tea making? So, in 1997 Kaiser started what is fast becoming one of America's most innovative companies in its field, Rishi Tea.

With the help of two high school buddies (all three went to Rufus King High School), Aaron Kapp and Benjamin Harrison, the company has seen about a 100 percent growth a year in the last four years. Rishi Tea is currently sold in every state in the U.S. and Canada, Japan, England, Italy and Mongolia. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (comparable to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences giving out the Oscars) awarded Rishi Tea with first place "Best Tea" awards three years in a row, the only company ever to receive this honor consecutively.

For the past two years, the 11-person company, which includes two salespeople in New York and Washington D.C., has resided in a small warehouse in Riverwest. They are now in the process of upgrading to new quarters, twenty times the size of their original home, located in the Louis Allis building in Walker's Point.

"Do you know the scene at the end of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' when they are putting the ark in some warehouse packed to the gills with crates? That is a fair image of what our warehouse had become," says Benjamin Harrison, co-owner and sales manager of the company.

Don't get the wrong idea though, these guys still stick close to their roots -- grass roots, that is. Rishi Tea sells directly to its customers, versus going through a distributor, the norm for most food production companies. Some of these customers are as large as Whole Foods, a grocery store chain specializing in gourmet health foods, or as small as privately owned restaurants, cafes and teahouses. Rishi even sells to a few individual tea connoisseurs who found the company over the Internet.

The company has gone a step further by cutting out the middleman. Instead of buying their tea from tea importers in the United States, modifying it to their brand and then selling it to wholesalers, Kaiser travels to tea gardens in China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka to buy directly. Not only does this enable Rishi Tea to sell its product at an affordable price, they can also handpick for quality and deliver the tea while it's still fresh.

"With other teas you don't know how long they've been warehoused and stored," says Lynn Sbonik, co-owner of Beans and Barley Market and Cafe, which sells several tea varieties.

Harrison estimates that only four or five other tea companies in the U.S. operate this way. And the reason is simple: getting into this line of work is exceptionally difficult. Kaiser, Kapp and Harrison had to take time to learn the tea importation ropes, like how to gage quality of tea leaves, learning where the tea regions were, when to buy and other logistics of importing from Asia. But the results speak for themselves.

"The teas we import are traditional artesian teas," says Harrison. "They are handmade, usually from organic cooperatives and family estates who have been doing this for as many as seven or eight generations."

And most importantly to the tea company's owners, Rishi Tea is one of the largest organic tea suppliers in the United States market. "One vital part of our company's strategy is to support organic farming and on a larger level, socially and environmentally conscious agriculture," says Harrison.

Harrison says that the organic part of the business, while integral, was and continues to be a challenge. "It took us a long time to find good quality organic tea," says Harrison, stressing the often misunderstood notion that organic and quality are synonymous. The problem is that organic tea farmers have to yield their crops without the assistance of conventional farming techniques such as using chemicals and pesticides, making it more difficult to produce quality plants.

Also contributing to the success of the Milwaukee-based company is a gaggle of recent media hype concerning the health benefits of tea. Harrison says that while tea does have health benefits, tea drinking has to become a regular part of one's lifestyle in order to see real effects. "We want to steer people away from thinking that tea is a cure-all or medicine," says Harrison. "Health benefits that tea imparts are effective only when consumed daily."

In order for something to technically be a tea, it must come from a plant called Camellia sinensis. Much of what we call tea in America is actually an herbal blend or some other kind of herbal concoction. Rishi Tea sells more than 80 varieties of tea and herbal blends on a seasonal basis. The most popular are teas like Organic Jasmine Pearl, Organic Earl Grey, and the herbal blends, Roots and Scarlet. Pu-Erh Tea is among the rarest tea Rishi sells, a vintage variety aged from 1930 (a 500-gram bowl sells for $150).


So, how's the tea business in Milwaukee? "Most people would probably not be surprised to hear that people from other parts of the country are often surprised to hear that we are based here," says Harrison. "But we have a great following in Milwaukee, and a lot of really loyal customers."

Liz Zahner of Stone Creek Coffee says the company sells Rishi Tea not only to support another local business but because Rishi Tea has made its mark on tea drinkers in Milwaukee. "It's a very steady sell for us," says Zahner. Yvette Livingston of the Window Box, a specialty tea store on Downer Avenue concurs. "It's one of the best loose teas I carry," she says.

Will we be seeing a Rishi Tea store anytime soon? "We've talked about it, but it's not on the drawing board," says Harrison. "We want our real strength to be to supply, support and educate."