Innovation in China’s Tea Industry

Joshua Kaiser of Rishi Tea pioneered organic, fair-trade tea in the United States, but also in China.


The United States is not currently a hotbed for tea, compared to say, England, but the market for tea in the U.S. is growing in small pockets throughout the country in the form of tea houses and premium tea and coffee shops. One entrepreneur, in particular, has cornered the organic, fair trade tea market in the U.S. and that is none other than Joshua Kaiser of Rishi Tea. I caught up with Joshua and his friend Wang Geda, the founder of one of China’s only organic, fair-trade tea companies, Yi Select, at the Hong Kong International Tea Fair. Kaiser shares his reflections on carving out a niche market in tea and what it’s like to pioneer organic, fair trade tea in the motherland of tea, China.

Of organic tea, Kaiser says, “In America, it’s the fastest growing section of the tea industry.”

But the United States is not the only one demanding progressive teas from organic and fair trade farms. “The market for organic tea is emerging in Asia at a very rapid rate. When we look at the young market, the young consumers in Asia in Hong Kong, Singapore, and all over Southeast Asia, we see a trend for organic, green tea and some emerging awareness of fair trade.”

With a focus on innovation, Kaiser has managed to bring something new to the homeland of tea: “There’s four total fair trade certified projects in all of China and two of the projects were established by our group. Our group established with the intention to act as like a wine company and so what we do is we work all over the provinces and we have many varietals at our hand to make different types of tea categories with. We approach the market in a very distinctive and unique way.We’re very versatile and we can meet the demands of many groups.”

He continues, “We’re in the right niche and we’ve been doing this since 1996. The niche has fast growth trajectory and we’re really thinking for the future. When we look at the rest of the competitors in China or in other parts of the world who are just focused on one style or varietal — well, we’re making 150 different types of tea and we employ tea masters from all over China that understand ‘this type of process is good for this mountain, this type of variety,’ etc, and we work with academics, tea researchers, and tea scientists to really help improve and innovate on something that actually has a lot of inertia inside.”

Clarifying a few misconceptions about Chinese tea, Kaiser says, “China is the perfect platform for fair trade organizations to work in because it’s all small-holders. There’s not these very huge tea estates. Part of the fair trade mission is to empower small-holder farmers to get access to international markets and there’s very few fair trade organic certified projects in China, but that trend is growing and it’s going to expand more and more and I do think that fair trade in China is needed.”

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.