In a world of vet-owned coffee, Rakkasan Tea has a mission of its own
Brandon Friedman wants you to know that just because coffee has the reputation of being the military's beverage of choice, tea isn't reserved for Brits in silly hats enjoying crumpets. For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, their wars have centered mostly around having tea. After all, foreign fighters and tribal leaders hold court over tea, not coffee. Friedman thought it was strange that tea isn't more associated with the military experience. He founded Rakkasan Tea Company with that in mind.
Friedman was commissioned as an Army infantry officer in 2000 and was assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division — known as the "Rakkasans," the old Japanese word for "parachute." By March, 2002, he and his unit were in an air assault into Afghanistan's Shah-e-Kot Valley as part of Operation Anaconda. In 2003, he was part of the initial invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and eventually became part of the force that held Tal Afar and Mosul.
By 2004, he was out of the Army and taking his career in a different direction. His now-business partner in Rakkasan Tea was then-Pfc. Terrence "TK" Kamauf, whom Friedman met in his unit. Kamauf was a machine gunner then, but stayed in long after Friedman left. Kamauf went on to become a Green Beret and was in another six or seven years. Now, the two import tea together.
Friedman's partner in Rakkasan Tea, Terrence "TK" Kamauf (left), in Iraq.
(Courtesy of Brandon Friedman)
But Friedman's love for the leaf began in Iraq. As many veterans can attest, all business was conducted over tea. It was an introduction to what Friedman calls the "social experience of tea."
"It's hard to find that in the U.S. because this is such a coffee country and coffee is really a solitary drink," He says. "Tea brings people together and we think the U.S. is ready for that. I know we won't convert everyone, but the veteran community should certainly give tea a serious look."
Friedman with his platoon of Rakkasans in Iraq.
But where Rakkasan Tea Company gets its tea is central to its ongoing mission. The company imports solely from post-conflict countries as a way to promote peace and economic development.
"As a veteran-owned and veteran-staffed company, we understand what conflict does to communities," Friedman says. "And we want to get as many veterans into this business as we can. So, we often describe our mission as being one that helps communities recover from war at home AND abroad."
Rakkasan Tea comes from places like Nepal, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Laos. With the exception of Sri Lanka, these are difficult to find on American shelves. The tea imported from Laos is significant because it comes from one of the areas most devastated by American bombing during the Vietnam War — more ordnance was dropped on Laos than in the entirety of Europe during World War II.
One of Rakkasan Tea Company's Vietnamese tea pickers.
(Courtesy of Brandon Friedman)
The latest effort in Laos centers on small farms in the mountainous Xiengkhouang Province and on the Bolaven Plateau in southern Champasak Province. The teas come from some of the oldest trees in the world and you won't find this quality at Starbucks or Whole Foods.
To Friedman, tea is like wine: its character, flavor, and aroma are all greatly influenced by its environment. That might be why he sells tea both by the type of tea and its place of origin.
"Rainfall, altitude, soil content, processing techniques, and more all factor into the taste and quality," Friedman says. "So when we say we have premium tea grown in Rwanda's volcanic soil or tea grown on northern Vietnam's 400-year-old tea trees, that's of interest to tea enthusiasts. Because it's really good."
He wants you to know how good it is and he wants you to be a repeat customer. He obsesses over the returns from his customers. Their feedback really does have an influence on the direction of the company.
"First, I hope we're living up to the Rakkasan ideal of honor, justice, and commitment," he says. "But meeting people who enjoy our product is best part of doing this."