August 9, 2014

Tea culture in Miami comes to a boil

Tea and Miami may seem an odd couple, but the city has discovered a new interest in the old beverage.

When people think Miami, they think sun, surf and sand, glamorous clubs, and, of course, hot weather.

Tea time? Not so much.

Yet in the last few years Miami has joined a national tea trend, with the beverage gaining the same mass consumer appeal as coffee and craft beer.

Michael Ortiz goes so far as to say the city is undergoing a tea renaissance.

Soon after founding JoJo Tea in 2011, Ortiz said orders began to pour in to his Miami-based online shop. He now supplies specialty teas to about 55 restaurants and shops in South Florida and beyond, including Panther Coffee, 50 Eggs Inc. (Khong, Yardbird, Swine) and The Genuine Hospitality Group (Michael’s Genuine, The Cypress Room, Harry’s Pizzeria).

“If you’re too hot, you drink tea to cool you down. If you’re too cold, you drink tea to warm you up,” Ortiz said, explaining why hot tea works even in warm-weather places. “If you’re tired, it wakes you up; if you’re anxious, it cools you down. It just balances you.”

Fellow tea entrepreneur and enthusiast David Palmerola said Miami’s culinary landscape has helped pave the way for an interest in high-quality tea.

“I think tea is wrapped into that movement,” he said.

Palmerola and his wife, Gabriela, founded Steep City Teas in 2012. Their Miami-based website sells to some local cafes, including Bunnie Cakes in Wynwood, and fulfill orders of high-end teas and accessories for customers around the country.

Locally, Miamians can turn to independent spots like Moloko in midtown Miami, SpecialTea Lounge in West Miami-Dade and Madi’s Tea Garden near Kendall for a hot cuppa.

For those who like it cooler, iced tea’s profile is rising thanks in part to the new Ticety Iced Tea Bar, which opened last month at 206 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables.

Even Starbucks knows tea, the world’s second-most-consumed beverage, is hot.

The company paid $620 million in cash to acquire Teavana in 2012. The company’s tea drinks are now available at Starbucks cafés as well as at more than 350 Teavana stores in malls throughout the United States and abroad.

To those who say Miami is too much of a coffee town to embrace tea, Palmerola says no way.

The Cuban-American was a proud coffee drinker until his wife persuaded him to try tea, which she had fallen in love with while studying in Switzerland. Instead of his usual coffee, Palmerola began drinking tea daily — black tea in the morning, oolong after lunch and green tea late in the afternoon — and sometimes as many as five cups a day.

“I noticed a difference in how I felt,” he said. “That clarity and alertness was a catalyst for me to look into tea as a business, to share this epiphany.”

Steep City Teas makes its own blends, some inspired by the city, like Miami Mango (black tea with mango, apple, rose and hibiscus) and Coconut Grove (white tea with rose buds and blue mallow flowers), and its immigrant heritage, like the Mexican-Caribbean Agua di Jamaica (green tea with hibiscus, safflowers, cranberries and black currants).

Palmerola, Ortiz and others cite the health benefits of brewed loose-leaf and whole-leaf teas. While specific amounts vary depending on variety, tea generally has about a third of the caffeine as coffee, and scientists say it promotes weight loss, fights eye disease, prevents wrinkles and improves heart health.

Exposing people to quality tea often is enough to break their association with it as something to drink only when sick, or of it being mass-produced and bland-tasting, Palmerola said.

Education also is key, Ortiz added. His JoJo shop takes its teas on the road for occasional pop-ups; the next one is the weekend of Sept. 5 at Salad Oz in downtown.

By brewing, pouring and describing teas for people, Ortiz said, he shows them the difference between “a cup that tastes like perfume and a cup that tastes like fresh jasmine.”

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