Tea kind of seems like coffee's older, more responsible sister, right? She's sophisticated, smart, and a little less rowdy than coffee. She sends handwritten letters, collects 50's jazz records, and can crochet you under the table. She's always on time. Perhaps you perceive tea in a totally different way. No matter your thoughts on the stuff, one thing is certain: where tea comes from, how it is sourced, blended, packaged and prepared, is just as important as coffee. This is why we love Rishi Tea, whose sublime organic teas we serve at HubBub. Rishi, an independently owned company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is beyond committed to each step of the tea supply chain. And it shows: their teas absolutely shine, always balanced and nuanced. As Rishi says on their website, "Every tea has a unique flavor and style that reflects its origin, varietal, vintage and artisanal method of manufacture."
Marissa Reddy is Rishi's Field Trainer, and her job is to educate businesses about how best to handle and serve tea. Sounds like a sweet gig to us! We had the pleasure of speaking with her recently, and loved learning more about Rishi's story:
HubBub: Your founder Joshua Kaiser started Rishi in 1997. We read that he frequently travels to origin to seek out teas. This practice was also gaining traction in the specialty coffee world in the late 90's and has now become expected. Did he borrow the concept of traveling to origin from coffee buyers?
Marissa: Actually, not really.Josh was an international business major in college and spent a lot of time in Asia. His exposure to tea was far outside what was happening in the States, in terms of food or beverage. But coffee has always done a lot to pave the way for tea in terms of customers understanding that this is a plant that grows somewhere else, and it has to get here somehow. As more people are paying attention to where their coffee comes from, they're also caring about where their tea is from.
HubBub: How has Rishi grown in the past almost 20 years?
Marissa: We have grown quickly, but in a controlled way. We’ve always been Milwaukee-based, which is really important to our owners. We worked our way up from a tiny space to a bigger one, and now we’re in a brand new building that’s a big warehouse, production facility and offices all together in the Menomonee Valley neighborhood, which is becoming a revitalized district.
This is the first time we have had a place to invite people to come enjoy tea with us. We have a tea cupping lab that the buyers work in; it's a highly technical room where they choose the lots. There’s also the herb lab, where our master blender works. My favorite room is the training lab where I work most of the time. We have an espresso machine, and all the fun toys and gadgets for making tea you could ever want.
As for wholesale, we have so many channels: our biggest national account is Whole Foods, so our tea started reaching far beyond Milwaukee in the early 2000's, but in the last 6 or 7 years, we really started going into smaller coffee shops, cafes and restaurants. Some of my favorite customers are coffee shops where nerdy baristas are so ready and excited to learn about the teas.
HubBub: Yeah, that's us! So what is the main thing we should know about Rishi's story?
Marissa: To me, the thing that’s the most significantly unique about us is we’re one of the handful of direct tea importers in the States.So many teas are from really tricky places - there are two million small tea farmers in China alone, and getting access to some of them is virtually impossible. Our buyers take trips year round, so they are always out there. We participate in every cycle of the tea harvest. (Ed note: You can read about the Rishi buyers' globetrotting adventures and see breathtaking photos on the Travelogue page of their website.)
We focus a lot on the origin of tea, but the second piece that I want people to know about Rishi is that we do all of our blending and some really significant tea development here in Milwaukee.
HubBub: Is blending more of a science or a culinary art?
Marissa: You have to consider a lot of factors. For individual ingredients, there's the science of how they all work together, especially over time. As certain things sit together, how are they going to impact each other? But you also need to consider which flavors are complementary. We try to do blends that are nodding to culinary and herbal traditions.
One good example of how we approach blending and sourcing is our Rooibos Chai, which is on HubBub's tea menu. On the blending front, it’s a version of a traditional chai blend, but the rooibos base adds a nice honeyed sweetness and lets the spices really sing. Sourcing-wise, it’s a global blend with ingredients we’ve sourced directly from countries like South Africa, Guatemala, and Vietnam (we work with around 70 non-tea ingredients here in the blending room), including the unusual roasted coffee-like ramón nut…our standards for buying these herbs and spices are as stringent as our tea standards. Practically, there isn’t any caffeine in the blend, so it’s a nice alternative for folks who want traditional chai without the caffeine.
HubBub: Any tips for better tea brewing you can share with us?
Marissa: A lot of it is common sense. For one, use good quality water, and if you're brewing loose tea (which I recommend), use a nice mesh tea bag. Be sure you’re brewing it in something that’s big enough. A lot of little mesh balls don’t work very well because they don’t allow the leaves to expand. Pay attention to the leaves - if, after steeping, they are dry or still rolled up, you haven’t given them enough space to expand. Water temperature is important, too! For green tea, let the water sit for about 2 minutes after it comes to a boil. You’ll get a much sweeter, fragrant tea. More robust teas can handle hotter water, and herbal blends want a full boil, like 195F.
Thanks so much for all the info, Marissa! We are proud to serve Rishi's wonderful teas at our shops!