In a co-working space in Deep Ellum shared with a marketing company and the bare-bones staff of Central Track, Brandon Friedman and Terrence “TK” Kamauf run Rakkasan Tea Company out of two rooms lined with exposed brick and filled with mounds of canisters. The U.S. Army veterans, who served together in Iraq and Afghanistan, are on a mission to source premium, loose-leaf tea only from post-conflict countries.
But their experience with the beverage is rooted in combat. They consumed it with city officials, village elders, and translators, occasionally brewed with water from jerry cans. Friedman says it wasn’t always hand-rolled whole-leaf tea, but a rustic brew sweetened liberally with sugar to balance the bitterness by “guys with bandoliers and AK-47s, sitting around in plastic chairs at dusk in a war zone.”
Their neutral-colored canisters and baseball caps bear the logo of a torii gate and the word rakkasan, a reference to the word “parachute” in Old Japanese, the nickname of their 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment. The canisters are filled with teas of all categories: black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh, herbal. But instead of sourcing from India or Japan, they are reaching out to Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Rwanda, Colombia, Ethiopia, Laos. Their two dark, pu-erh-style teas come from Laos and Vietnam, not the customary China. It took them a year to secure a trusted source in Ho Chi Minh City for wild tea from several 300-year-old trees on likely long-abandoned tea estates now run by Hmong and Dao families in Vietnam.
Having launched in late 2017 with seven teas, Kamauf and Friedman now have 24, with tea from Myanmar to be added soon, if all goes well. Sourcing teas from these war-torn, conflict-damaged countries is the duo’s attempt to promote change. Because of that, they won a $5,000 social impact award from UTD’s Big Idea Competition last year.
Even though Deep Ellum is a long way from a war zone, Friedman sometimes gets an urge. “I’m just gonna crank out that Rwandan Rukeri Black, make a bunch of it, and fill it with a bunch of sugar,” he says. In those moments, he longs not for an exotic tea experience, but for a memory.
A Cold-Brew Primer
Making iced tea doesn’t have to be a bother. You can use any tea leaves, but Friedman recommends three strains from Nepal: White Sunrise, a white tea; Himalayan Black Dragon, an oolong; and Himalayan Golden Tips, made from black tea buds.
Add half an ounce of loose tea to 1 liter of room temperature water. Place in the fridge and let chill for four to 12 hours. Strain and enjoy.