Food & Drink

A speakeasy for tasting tea? Only in Miami

Mike Ortiz (right) and Tico Aran take guests through flights of different teas, from mild to powerful, at JoJo Tea’s hidden tasting room in a nondescript medical office near Little Havana.
Mike Ortiz (right) and Tico Aran take guests through flights of different teas, from mild to powerful, at JoJo Tea’s hidden tasting room in a nondescript medical office near Little Havana. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Not until you open the door are you sure you’re in the right place.

Your footsteps echo down a narrow, beige hallway blanched in fluorescent light, in a squat, nondescript medical building at the edge of Little Havana, where the only businesses listed are a medical testing lab, an ophthalmologist and JoJo Tea.

But open the last door to the right, and it’s like stepping through the back of the armoire into Narnia.

A faint scent of herbal calm permeates a room where seven perfectly aligned white bowls are spotlighted under warm lights on a long bamboo table, pops of colorful tea leaves artfully piled into each. Moody, hip-hop instrumental music softly bathes a room where Chinese art hangs on walls textured to look like an urban gallery in Wynwood.

Behind the counter, Mike Ortiz is waiting to serve you tea.

You’re not lost. Call this Miami’s first tea speakeasy.

“I didn’t want this to be a place you stumble into. I wanted it to be a more intentional space,” said Ortiz, JoJo Tea’s co-founder. “I wanted it to be about having tea. Not to order a sandwich, not to check your email. There are a thousand other places you can do that.”

Four years ago, former Belen Jesuit Preparatory School buddies Ortiz and Tico Aran, both 30, founded JoJo Tea and quietly became a favorite among some of Miami’s top chefs who both sell and cook with their loose-leaf teas at their restaurants.

They work with farmers around the world — visiting them personally or Skyping between Miami and places such as India, Nepal and Taiwan — to bring South Florida some 60 different kinds of the world’s finest whole-leaf tea (whole-leaf tea retains more flavor and natural properties than tea sold in individual serving-size bags at the supermarket).

Think of JoJo Tea as the spiritual twin to Wynwood’s Panther Coffee, whose co-founder Joel Pollock carries their tea in his stores and makes himself a cup of JoJo’s green tea (in one of his special coffee brewing machines, of course) in the late afternoon instead of coffee.

“I’m so impressed with their passion,” Pollock said. “They’re super into it, and you can’t fake that.”

But Ortiz and Aran want to do more than sell tea. They want to infuse Miami with tea culture.

A month ago, they opened this unexpected tea tasting room on the third floor of their offices at a medical building owned by Aran’s father (the aforementioned ophthalmologist) in what used to be the waiting room of a doctor’s office. They take reservations only online through Resy and charge $20 a person for an hour to 90-minute tasting, after which you can buy tea.

Ortiz knows about speakeasy culture firsthand. A fine-arts major at New York University, Ortiz studied acting alongside the likes of Haley Joel Osment (Sixth Sense), Lady Gaga, the Olsen twins (Full House) and Mara Wilson (Matilda) during the day. At night, he found underground bars and clubs in unexpected places.

“I wanted to bring that sense of discovery here,” he said.

Teaching yoga and studying meditation at the former Zen Village Buddhist temple in Coconut Grove, he started drinking and learning about tea — and was frustrated when he couldn’t find quality tea at local stores. He started looking to buy directly from Asia.

Shortly thereafter, he reconnected with Aran, who studied health and international development at Tulane and had been working on green projects in South America (installing wind turbines in Peru), when he returned to Miami intending it to be a pit stop before starting a new, environmentally focused job in New Orleans.

But when the two began talking about an opportunity to sell tea — and Aran saw the work they could do with small farmers around the world, teaching them to cultivate tea in an environmentally sustainable way — he saw an opportunity to expand his calling while fulfilling Ortiz’s vision. Aran never did take that other job.

“I saw the possibilities and the passion that Mike had,” Aran said. “I wanted to see if we could turn this into a real business.”

In four years, they have. They sell to more than 130 different businesses in the Southeast, but their biggest fans are chefs: All of the 50 Eggs restaurants (such as Yardbird and Swine), and those owned by Michael Schwartz (Michael’s Genuine, Cypress Tavern) and Giorgio Rapicavoli (Eating House, Glass and Vine) carry and sometimes cook with their teas.

Chef Nicole Votano of the South Beach restaurant Dirt, which focuses on healthy dishes using organic and sustainable ingredients, created a four-course menu last month with their teas: a matcha green tea ricotto crostini; a white tea hogfish ceviche; tea-infused miso soup; and duck confit cured in smoked black tea.

Votano has been a frequent visitor to the new tea tasting room.

“You’re transported to another place,” said Votano, who was raised in London with tea time. “Their knowledge makes me excited. I could sit and listen to them talk about tea for hours.”

Think of this tasting speakeasy as the secret altar to their passion.

Ortiz begins by discussing each of the seven teas he has laid out on a large-scale version of a tea table you might find in a home in China. Their recent new hire from China, Nan Yan, their former intern who grew up drinking tea in her home in Yunnan, China, amplifies their knowledge and delves into the background of each tea as tasters savor their favorite.

They lead you through a spectrum of teas, from so-called white teas at one end to fermented, aged teas at the other. Flavors range from mild and floral (think flowering nightingale) to earthy and pungent (shiitake mushrooms).

And behind each tea is the story of the farm where it is harvested by hand, bud by bud.

“Good tea comes from good land and good people. It echoes,” Aran said. “We’re looking to share this cultural experience and why it’s been such a phenomenon for over a thousand years.”

Ortiz then chooses a tea based on your favorite and, for the next 45 minutes or so, visitors simply talk and relax and Ortiz often asks not how the tea tastes but how it makes you feel.

His ice blue eyes radiate zen. Somewhere, you expect to hear the meditation chime that gave Mad Men’s Don Draper clarity.

“When you see the tea, smell the tea, and taste the tea, you understand,” he says.

A peace settles over you. And when you step back out into the Spartan hallway and close the door behind you, you wonder whether any of that happened at all.

If you go

What: JoJo Tea’s tasting room.

Where: 951 SW 42nd Ave., Suite 305, Miami.

Hours: The tea room is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 2:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday.

More info: Reservations are required at www.sipjojo.com. Cost is $20 a person, for parties of eight or less.

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