Dallas-based combat veterans want to change the way Americans look at tea culture
By ERIN BOOKE | The Dallas Morning News | Published: April 30, 2018
DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — When Brandon Friedman invites you over for tea, don’t expect clinking china, “big hats” or stuffy propriety.
This is minimalist, unpretentious, let’s-have-real-conversation tea, much like the way he learned to drink it while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division after the 9/11 attacks.
Friedman, 40, a combat veteran, University of Texas at Dallas graduate and public relations professional, lived in Washington, D.C., for eight years, serving in the Obama administration. He worked as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and as the first director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He moved to Dallas last year with his wife, young son and a new mission: He is founder and CEO of Rakkasan Tea Company, which he runs from two small, stripped-down rooms at the back of an old brick building in Deep Ellum.
He is now focused on recovering from war — both at home and abroad. He wants his company to be a vehicle for hiring veterans locally while sourcing rare, premium tea from farmers in post-conflict countries — like Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Rwanda — to help rebuild their economies and find U.S. customers.
Friedman is warm, approachable and unhurried, just like the tea culture he wants to be an ambassador for in Texas and beyond. In his office, he heats water in a small kettle on a hot plate, which sits atop several cardboard boxes. He stands and peeks into the kettle, checking to see if the water has reached the right temperature.
“I don’t have a thermometer. I’ll eyeball it,” he says. “We stay true to our origin: ‘Born in conflict.’ We don’t have fancy stuff.”
He places a few teaspoons of loose tea leaves into a sleek glass teapot, then pours in the water and lets it steep for several minutes. He then drinks his tea out of small, Turkish-style glasses, just like they do overseas.
As a native of Shreveport, La., Friedman grew up only with iced tea. “I still can’t stand it,” he says. “And I grew up in Louisiana — no one drinks hot tea.”
“I don’t even know if I knew what hot tea was when I went to Iraq and Afghanistan,” he adds. “But we didn’t do any business with people without doing it over tea. ... My experience was around combatants and Peshmerga [the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan]. People carrying AK-47s, drinking hot tea. That was my introduction.”
Friedman served in the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Rakkasans, within the 101st Airborne Division, from 2000 to 2004. He fought in Afghanistan from 2001-2002, and in the Iraq War in 2003. "Rakkasan" is derived from the Japanese word for parachute, and that’s where his company’s name and mission come from.
“I did two tours, drank a lot of tea. Got into some messes and decided I was done,” Friedman says.
When he came home and began his civilian life, Friedman looked for loose-leaf tea, but could never really re-create the tea culture he experienced.
“Here in the U.S., it’s such a coffee culture, and coffee’s not a social drink at all,” he says. “You grab your coffee, run into the office, or sit down at Starbucks, turn your headphones on and tune out the world. That was not my experience overseas. Tea is a very social drink.”
Friedman would like to see our culture move more toward tea, something he says is healthier and brings people together. But changing perceptions is a big part of that.
“A lot of times, when I tell people I sell tea, they have that British tea time image in their head, but that’s not really what we’re about,” he says.
One of Friedman’s fellow soldiers was Terrence “TK” Kamauf, 39, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, who continued in the service after Friedman left, joining the special forces as a Green Beret.
Kamauf left the Army in 2011 and began working in oil fields near Houston, but recently reconnected with Friedman. Kamauf wanted to help out the company, and eventually moved to Forney and became chief operations officer for RTC.
“I trust this guy implicitly, of course. I’ve known him now for 17 years. We did both tours together,” Friedman says.
Now, instead of serving in the field, the two complete marathon missions of tea packing, sorting and labeling, and they hope to add more veterans to the team as the business grows.
“A lot of veterans, when they get done with combat or service, they’re sort of disenchanted with civilian opportunities because the jobs you’ve had in the military are very mission-oriented,” Friedman says. “We think this company can give back to veterans that sense of mission, that they’re helping to make the world a better place.”
RTC carries a white tea, an oolong tea, and several green and black teas from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Nepal and Rwanda. Friedman hopes to begin selling teas from Laos soon, and the company just began offering a lemongrass tisane from Sri Lanka for customers who don’t want caffeine.
“People talk about tea in two ways, they either talk about tea like it’s wine or like it’s drugs,” Friedman says. “But it’s a lot like wine, you can talk about the terroir — soil content, rainfall, altitude, growing conditions — which impacts how it tastes and how it smells.”
What makes Rakkasan tea different from what you’ll find at a grocery store? A lot. It is rare, loose-leaf premium tea — not in bags — sourced directly from independent farms. The tea is pure, with rich character and texture. Each tea has an origin story.
For example, the Amba Thieves tea from Sri Lanka is ground with a stone mortar, just like estate workers used to make it at home. The Rwandan tea is grown in volcanic soil — which gives it a unique profile — from an estate known for its sustainability and ethics.
And all Rakkasan tea from Vietnam is grown on wild tea trees that are hundreds of years old, not the chest-high rows you typically see on tea plantations.
“Vietnam has had a long, storied, problematic history with pesticide residue,” Friedman says. “But you run into pesticide issues in South Vietnam where the weather is warmer and you have more bugs. You don’t see as many problems in the wild trees in the north. One, because temperatures are cooler, but also because these wild tea trees are huge. People have to climb ladders. They’re not as easily sprayable.”
Friedman also says that telling the stories of these countries will change Americans’ perceptions of them as well.
“Because when you think of Vietnam, what do you think of? You think of war,” he says. “But some of these mountainous areas on the Chinese frontier, they were pretty much untouched by the war. Mountains and rivers, pristine forests, wild tea trees, it’s paradise.”
Some of Rakkasan’s offerings are bolder, like the robust, black Amba Thieves tea and the Six Borders Black from Vietnam. Others are more subtle, like the White Sunrise tea from Nepal, which Friedman says has an orange, citrusy aroma.
For beginning tea drinkers, Friedman recommends the Amba Thieves or Rukeri Black from Rwanda.
“Typically, whole-leaf tea has more subtle flavor,” Friedman says. “It’s considered higher grade, premium tea. A lot of times lower-grade tea, with the broken leaves, will have a bolder flavor because more of the tea seeps into the water.
“I have a terrible sense of taste,” Friedman adds. “I like high-quality, broken-leaf tea. I can taste it more. But to some people it’s too much.”
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