The Tea Master's Cup started in 2013 as an international tournament for tea masters, not unlike the World Barista Championship. Qualifying events now take place in 22 countries, and the winners from each country go to the International Tea Master's Cup finals, which will be held this year in China.
But the 2019 World Tea Expo was the first ever American Tea Master's Cup, which meant we were witnessing history, which was great for my thesis. That day we were watching the Tea Mixology competition, in which contestants created tea-based alcoholic drinks for a panel of five judges. And that's when I first saw Mike Ortiz.
Remember Mike Ortiz from the beginning? Ortiz is a Cuban American from Miami with a BFA from NYU in Dramatic Arts (he took classes with William Macy! He kind of knows Donald Glover!) who truly believed he'd be a thespian until his father had a massive heart attack in early 2009, and Ortiz felt he needed return to Miami and help. On the side, he taught yoga and worked in a UPS store, but as yoga became a bigger part of his life, he thought he needed to do something drastic to show his devotion, like going to live in a cave in India and chant, until he met a woman at a Buddhist temple in Miami. Her practice was just pouring tea. "That was it," Ortiz said. "I was so confused -- it just seemed so trivial."
But then Ortiz tasted the tea. He remembers the exact one that changed his life. "It was in 2011, and she'd brewed this small batch of Oriental Beauty. I remember sipping it and realizing it tasted like fresh peaches, and then if you brewed it again it tasted like grilled peaches, and then again, you'd get this incredible honey flavor. It was my holy shit tea moment." Ortiz realized then that he wanted to dedicate his life to spreading the Good Word of Tea. Also, he thought, maybe I can make it a viable business, so he created JoJo Tea and started trying to sell great, real tea to restaurants. He was 25.
Eight years later, JoJo Tea has 280 tea accounts, 90% of which are restaurants and bars in South Florida. His name now rings out. When the famous chef/restauranteur Joël Robuchon decided to open three restaurants in Miami, his people called Ortiz, and he said "great, let's set up a tasting." "No," they told him. "We don't need to taste. We just want to carry your stuff."
Anyway, once you understand his terroir, Ortiz's performance at the Tea Master's Cup makes a little more sense. The acting background explains how he was able to lock eyes with the judges as he talked about iced tea numbing the taste buds, or explaining why he used lemon myrtle from Australia to brighten his drink, and ginger to cut it. His Cuban-American past helped color in the Latin-tinges in his voice, which is two octaves lower than you think it'll be, and unique in a way that should be copyrighted. Hearing Ortiz speak is like listening to the Ocarina of Time from Zelda. At one point, he began to read ingredients ("saffron bitters, organic lemon peel, sarsaparilla root, turmeric root,") and I swear the entire place stopped. I nearly cried.
He didn't win the tea mixology event that day (another Miami tea master, Adrienne Etkin Nascimento, did), but the day before Ortiz had guaranteed his spot in China as an American Tea Master by winning for tea preparation in myth making fashion.
Each contestant was given five teas, one tea pot, and a set of cups. You had to pick one of those teas and brew it for the judges, and one tea of your own choosing. The idea was that you wanted the two teas to balance each other in some way, or play off each other. I'm not going to be able to do the rest justice, so I'm just going to let Ortiz explain it himself:
"The first tea I brewed was Jade Mountain -- a Taiwanese oolong that's heavy, it almost has an oily mouthfeel. In fact, the family that makes it told me it's so heavy they recommend it to folks working in the mountains on an empty stomach. To balance it, I had to pick one of the five teas they gave me, and I saw Ruby 18. Ruby 18 is fully oxidized, but instead of being roasted like 99% of black teas, it's dehydrated at a much lower temperature (Author's Note: At this point he stopped to explain to me that rolling the tea leaves exposes the sugars which caramelize when baked, but dehydrating suspends the sugars in the leaves without bringing them to the surface, so the sweetness is more subtle. I just nodded), so it ended up with berry flavors on the nose, but what lingered was this rose petal flavor, with a mouthfeel that was cool and crisp like peppermint.
When I saw that tea come out, I thought that the Ruby would cut through the thickness of the Jade like a laser, and be a startling experience for the judges. But I needed to make sure the Ruby 18 was bright enough, so I walked up and stuffed some leaves in my mouth and started chewing. Saliva diffuses the flavor, so you get a crude idea of what the tea will taste like, which seemed the most efficient way to make sure it was good. But all the other contestants were breaking out thermometers and scales and stop watches, and here I was just stuffing leaves in my mouth and walking away. In retrospect, it might've looked kind of obnoxious, but hey, it got the job done."
That job, of course, was winning Mike Ortiz one of first two American slots in the International Tea Master's Cup. I ask him if he's nervous. "Hell yeah," he says. "But it's so cool to represent America. We got to show the rest of the world Americans actually know a thing or two about tea."