History of activism drives Missoula tea company’s mission, philosophy
In the summer of 1991, after months of planning, a group of eight international activists based in Australia traveled to Borneo, an island nation of roughly 16 million people in Southeast Asia. There, they chained themselves to cranes and other logging equipment to protest timber harvesting.
Their action was intended to highlight the plight of the Penan people, a hunter-gather tribe in northern Borneo who were being pushed out by the intense logging activities.
The stint garnered a ripple of media coverage and attention. All eight individuals were arrested and spent months behind bars.
Among the group of activists was a recent graduate from the University of Montana’s masters program in environmental studies, Jake Kreilick.
“We got up on to the (expiative) timber export ship, climbed up a crane, locked down to a crane. And so eight of us ended up getting arrested,” Kreilick said. “We were serious about trying to put an end to it.”
Decades later, Kreilick, along with his wife Heather, is the founder and owner of Lake Missoula Tea Company in downtown Missoula. In its own way, the couple’s business espouses many of the values Kreilick fought for as a grassroots activist – a commitment to both environmental and social justice.
The Kreilicks’ primary mission with Lake Missoula is to source directly from small scale, artisan farmers. They have focused on working with farms that are dedicated to treating the environment, and the people behind the tea, in a positive manner.
One aspect of that model includes working with farmers invested in organic and sustainable farming practices.
“Most everyone we work with is organic,” Kreilick said. “It’s just that they can’t afford the certifications and that would also extend over to the fair-trade stuff.”
By purchasing tea straight from small-scale farmers, the Kreilicks are intent on making sure that their business directly helps support the workers, the worker’s families and the local community where the tea is grown.
Or, as Kreilick puts it, they want to help “the little rubrics, you know, that are set up around these tea farms.”
Kreilick is now in his late 50s with feathery white hair and a brawny build. His blue Merrell trail shoes are blistered with holes.
A stained white mug filled with loose leaf and bearing Lake Missoula’s insignia is never far from arms reach. He is dressed casually – sporting a well-worn black and white Adidas rugby jersey as he worked in the shop’s office in the middle of the week.
According to Ashby Kinch, Kreilick’s longtime friend and teammate on the local Missoula Maggots rugby team, a key to understanding Kreilick is realizing that he is a hardcore rugby player.
He plays the game full speed yet intellectually while maintaining a certain sense of clarity.
“I see a lot of that same personality in the way he runs his business,” Kinch said.
Kinch also tossed around phrases such as “colorful personality,” “amazing diplomat” and “super smart” to further describe his close friend.
Kreilick’s diplomatic capabilities shone while imprisoned in Borneo. He befriended a couple of the guards, who happened to play rugby, and traded them a Maggots jersey.
Occasionally, he would even get summoned to the warden’s office where he would engage in long conversations about religion and “deep ecology.”
Kreilick’s activities in Borneo are just one instance in a long history of sensational activism that has mostly revolved around the protection of old-growth forests.
In 1989, he was arrested for a tree-sit in the Flathead area of Montana. He found himself in further legal trouble a few years later after burying himself in a road during an anti-logging campaign in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.
Kreilick does not travel as much for activism anymore, but he and wife are often overseas for business. They have traveled to countries from Kenya to China to visit the tea farms where they buy their product.
It increases their direct knowledge of the tea. Even more importantly, it enhances their understanding of the people and culture behind the tea.
The Kreilicks have striven to build a rapport with the farmers they work with and visit the farms to confirm they are operated in a way that supports the company’s mission.
“So that’s been a lot of what the trips are about is going out and ground-truthing that and obviously building on the relationships,” Kreilick said. “But a lot of it for us is also just making sure we feel good about it.”
The name they chose for their business, Lake Missoula Tea Company, harkens back to the last Ice Age when Missoula Valley was covered by a glacial lake and a land bridge connected North America with Asia. The name touches on the significance of connections.
Kreilick uses tea to create connections through his business and travels.
“Tea is just a great unifier, you know. It’s a good way to bring people together. It’s good for hanging out,” he said.
As he walked behind the Missoula Art Park on a recent Thursday afternoon, he noticed and chatted with the vice president of Arts Missoula, mentioning he will see him on the upcoming board meeting. Kreilick happens to serve on the board as the immediate past president.
He is further interrupted multiple times greeting various people passing by.
One employee, Lindsey Tucker, remembers shadowing Kreilick when she first started working for the company two or three years ago at a tea tasting with a local retirement home.
“He is really engaged and got them really excited about tea,” she said.
She also mentioned Kreilick has a “strong altruistic nature” and is “really enthusiastic and driven by teaching people.”
The Kreilicks’ way of running their company veers from tradition in a business that has historically received negative attention for worker’s rights violations and harmful environmental impacts.
The farmers that the Kreilicks work with speak to their commitment to conduct business in a different fashion.
India, in particular, has received a lot of negative attention where large plantations take advantage of their workers according to Kreilick.
“You know, the farms we are working with in India are very different,” he noted. “We know who we are working with and why it’s important to do business with them.”
One farmer they source from, Tenzing Bodosa, owns a tea farm in northeastern India.
“Tenzing is growing tea out there and it is right on the border of Bhutan and Assam. And it is super wild. When we spent the night out there, we heard elephants coming through the forest,” Kreilick said.
Bodosa is the first tea farmer to become elephant friendly certified for the steps he has taken to safeguard and protect elephant populations around his farm.
He has also adopted organic farming methods and works to educate others in the area about these practices, even starting an organic cooperative in his community.
Outside of Bodosa’s house, Kreilick remembers, there is a banner hanging with a message written in English: “If you respect nature, nature will respect you.”
The Kreilicks also work with Sonia Jabbar, who runs the first women owned tea estate in India.
Before running the tea estate, Jabbar worked as a journalist and videographer covering issues in Pakistan and India.
“She’s done a lot of really, really wild shit,” Kreilick said.
Jabbar created an environmental based curriculum for the children of her employees. She promotes these principles in the hope that the younger generation will be socially and environmentally conscious.
Often times, there is an old green Subaru Outback parked in the alley behind Lake Missoula’s storefront.
Rugby jerseys and disc golf discs are strewn around the back. It is marked up with stickers. One reads “Americans for Obamacare.” Another, “Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists.”
The stickers themselves shed light into Kreilick’s personality highlighting his caring nature and commitment to justice – values that have permeated into his tea business.
Kreilick is concerned that people and societies are too narrowly focused on economic growth and financial gains. An author Kreilick admires, the Indian ecologist Vanana Shiva, has written that “in nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.”
This sentiment seems to strongly resonate for Kreilick and his tea business.