High-school-pals-turned-tea-men Tico Aran and Michael Ortiz want to make the world a better place with tea.
For the past year, the two guys behind JoJo Tea have been striving toward that goal three days a week inside their ascetic, tea-tasting speakeasy on Le Jeune Road. The $25 tea experience provides a moment of pause in an otherwise overwhelming world.
This year, they want to widen the lens and expand into markets outside Miami and Florida, and do it with farmers who practice better farming.
"It's a question of are you improving the health of the soil by farming tea?" the 31-year-old Aran says. "Tea in the Old World was exploitive to a certain extent, so as the world is shifting and these farmers have more ownership, how do we team up with them to get better results?"
The most effective way seems to be through the most familiar tea varieties: English breakfast, green jasmine, and so on. While much of them, Aran explains, are generally sold wholesale through a kind of consortium that congregates leaves from a variety farms, there are also individual sellers JoJo can turn to ensure the pair is doing it better.
"It's a balance of the art of the processing, what’s in the cultivar, and meanwhile, climate change is hitting a lot of these people very differently, so how do you support a crop that can keep water flow on the land?" Aran says. "There is a type of tea that when winter hits, they shave the whole bush, and what you taste in the spring is new growth, but it’s very taxing on the plant. If you do it repeatedly every year, it exposes the soil, and then, when it rains, that topsoil runs off.
"In different areas in Taiwan, Japan, and China, there is an overuse of pesticides and fertilizers that essentially kill the microbiome in the soil and slow release of nutrients," he adds. The result is less flavorful, less beneficial tea.
And expanding into other markets helps JoJo increase its order sizes and, the partners hope, refocus the market in some small way in the long term.
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Doing so won't be easy. Much of JoJo's success has come from Aran and Ortiz's passion for tea and their ability to tell theirs and their teas' stories. The two attended Belen Jesuit Preparatory School together but parted ways for college. Ortiz went to New York University, where he majored in fine arts and studied acting before returning to Miami, where he taught yoga and studied meditation at the former Zen Village Buddhist temple in Coconut Grove. A chance meeting back in Miami with Aran, who studied international health and development at Tulane and had been working on environmental projects in Latin America, soon evolved into the pair taking long trips into Asia's hinterlands to scour farms for some of the world's most pristine leaves. They like to say they approach tea from the inside. Ortiz came to it through meditation and thus thinks about what he calls "the moment of tea." Aran, on the other to hand, came from developing communities and soon found tea a channel to make an impact on environment and development, then fell down the rabbit hole.
"If someone meets Mike or myself, they can get it," Aran says, "but if they just see a bag with a name 'JoJo Tea' and couple of flavor notes, it's like, how can we tell our story without us having to be the messenger?"
That means redesigning their packaging and rethinking many of their strategies from the ground up. But figuring it all out might also help them insulate themselves from South Florida's foibles.
"I would love to have a market to have that same care of quality and understanding of Miami but has the opposite business cycle of Miami," Aran says. "Here, it's feast or famine."