Steeped in Tranquility, Creativity and Camaraderie: JoJo Tea
The last place you’d expect to find a serene tea tasting room is on the third floor of a nondescript building that houses medical testing labs on LeJeune Road. But at the end of a narrow, putty-colored hallway, the door to JoJo Tea opens to a dramatically lit room with stylishly distressed walls and a long, custom tasting table.
Here, founders Mike Ortiz and Tico Aran welcome guests warmly. They will talk about the intricate business of tea – its rich history, how many leaves are harvested, what temperature the water should be for each tea, how a green leaf hopper attacks a certain leaf, giving the tea a unique sweetness. And just as Panther Coffee’s Joel and Leticia Pollock set out to raise South Florida’s coffee game beyond cafecitos, these two 30-year-old former classmates want to establish a new American tea culture here. But first, they want people to slow down and connect with the tea experience.
“Tea is a moment of peace,” says Aran. “Tea nourishes attention, smell and memory.” Their tagline exalts their mission: To stimulate creativity and energize the intellect through seriously good tea.
The most interesting conversations happen around tea, say Ortiz and Aran, and the story of how they started JoJo Tea is one of those conversations. Friends since they were 11, the two attended Belen and then went on to higher education and career goals: for Ortiz, it was acting and yoga; for Aran, social work and pre-med in Chicago, then a masters at Tulane to work in international health. Back in Miami, Ortiz volunteered at Zen Village in Coconut Grove, where he learned to brew tea. It quickly became an obsession and in 2011, he decided to make selling tea a business. He called it JoJo, a nickname given to him by his young nephew. He went to a world tea expo, meeting major distributors and searching for the best in tea. Aran, meanwhile, had gotten engaged and moved to Peru, where he built wind turbines and health clinics. When he connected again with Ortiz in Miami, Aran had rented the moving van to return to New Orleans.
Not so fast. Ortiz invited his friend for a cup of tea. “Mike said, ‘I need help,’” recalls Aran. While Ortiz had been successful getting his tea in front of restaurants like Yardbird and Eating House, the business part needed work. Aran decided to put the move on hold and got to work building a system for the burgeoning business. The pair hosted more tea tastings. They got together with the late tea guru Steven Smith, co-founder of Tazo Tea Co. Sales started picking up and Aran decided to stick around.
Taste Is Tops
Ortiz and Aran decided that JoJo Tea’s main objective is to make the most flavorful and aromatic tea, rather than spotlight the tea ceremony that’s part of so many cultures. “We honor the ritual, but the focus is on the tea,” says Ortiz. Another goal is to create relationships with farmers and buy traditional hand-processed teas, benefiting both families and communities. Last year, each traveled overseas to meet with farmers. Ortiz went to Taiwan, spending time getting hands-on with tea production. Aran visited Nepal to tour tea plantations. It was right before last April’s devastating earthquake. JoJo Tea followed up with a collaborative benefit for earthquake relief a month later.
Back at home, the JoJo team stays busy with pop-ups and events, including the recent South Beach Wine and Food Festival and the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, where they served chai tea in a relaxing oasis with hammocks. Their new tasting room in their offices allows them to share knowledge and tea one-on-one. They remain respectful of the process, but practical too: “It’s easy to get intimidated by tea,” says Ortiz. “But all you need is hot water and a vessel.”
Taste JoJo Tea
JoJo Tea's eight-seat private Tasting Room opens its doors May 16. Hours are 4pm-9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 2pm-9pm. on Saturdays. Seating is by reservation only.
Find JoJo Tea at South Florida restaurants, including Panther Coffee, Zak the Baker, Alter, Zuma, 50 Eggs, Warsaw Coffee (Fort Lauderdale), Glazed Donuts (Key West), The Standard, Fooq’s, Dirt Eat Clean, Eating House, Kyu and Joey’s.