It's always teatime for Jeffrey Lorien. And it's always dreamtime for him too. A little more than five years ago Lorien decided to quit the corporate rat race and combine his loves of tea, start-up business and community. He, and the world, got Zhi tea—a rockin' little teahouse in Austin, where creative creations are concocted and customers always get a smile and a dose of doting.
The beginning to Lorien's tea tale isn't unique. He was working at a cool small company that got bigger and bigger and then publicly traded. You're probably familiar with it: Amazon. Back in the early days, "It was amazing," Lorien says. "But, like most companies that become giant beasts, it lost a lot of its greatness."
Lorien quit and took stock of his situation:
Love of craft beverages.
Love of entrepreneurialism.
Love of small, local business.
He put them all together and opened Zhi. He decided on tea because he's always had a love of craft beverages. "I was a barista in Seattle back in the really hard-core coffee days. When craft beer surfaced, I got really into that." Tea was something he'd come to know after digestive issues pushed coffee out of his life.
Zhi does tea in a few ways. There's a sip shop, a boutique blending business and wholesale. Each is run on the same business principles—quality, relationships and beauty—and evidence of these threads through all aspects of the business.
Lorien deals only in organic tea. "This cuts out about 99 percent of the tea available, but it was something I wasn't going to budge on," he says. His botanicals are fair-trade certified whenever possible, and he always ensures the fields workers are as fairly treated as possible. "China's hard—they don't have any regulations; but it's getting better. We try to ensure they are getting access to minimum benefits, like access to fresh water and maternity leave," he says.
If you manage a trip to Zhi, you will be well cared for. "When a customer walks in the door, we warmly greet them and offer them a cup of hot tea. We dote on customers; we really want them to have an experience."
Zhi's teas are sourced from all over the world. Lorien has recently been spending a lot of time in Taiwan, where he gets most of his beloved oolongs.
Lorien's dedication to following his dream of a business with heart is working. The company grows each year and was recently chosen by TakePart.com as one of its 2012 "Tastemakers," small food-focused businesses that are doing their part to change for the better the way our communities eat.
Lorien, who goes by Dr. Oolong on his website, can't say enough good things about his favorite tea. "It's what I have for my first cup each morning," he says. If you'd like to learn more about this dynamic tea, check out Lorien's Oolong Basics blog below.
Oolong, pronounced "woo-long" and sometimes spelled wu-long, means "black dragon" in Mandarin. This term describes a wide variety of teas that fall all along the black-to-green spectrum in terms of oxidation. Perhaps the sexiest and most mysterious of teas, all oolong creation follows some general guidelines.
Right when they reach maturity, the tea leaves are handpicked and set in short mounds, usually in the sunlight. They are shaken as they oxidize and wither. The goal (and key to this process) is to bruise the edges of the leaves without breaking them. The leaves soon give off a fruity aroma, indicating that they are ready for the next step in the process. Next, the leaves are hand-rolled into either a long, curly shape or tiny nuggets. Generally, Chinese oolongs are long and curly, and Taiwanese oolongs are pellets—but not always. To finish the process, the leaves are fired over a charcoal fire, often in a large wok.
Oxidation of oolongs can vary anywhere between 15 percent, producing an extremely green-like oolong with major floral and fruit characteristics, and around 80 percent, producing a much roastier, grape-like, earthy flavor.
Due to its rich, complex flavor profile, oolong makes a fantastic base for blends.
Some of the qualities used to describe oolongs? Chestnuts, cherries, peaches, oak, rum, wildflowers, smoked meat, icing, springtime, snow, wild rice, and more.
Taiwan is known for its stupendous oolongs, which are only now making their way into the United States' markets. Zhi now carries some very rare certified organic Taiwanese oolongs.
Recent studies strongly indicate that oolong tea's particular makeup of polyphenol compounds aids in weight loss. Oolong tea's effects on blocking the absorption of fats and carbohydrates is thought to play a key role in its weight-reducing benefits.
All in all, oolong tea is not only an extremely healthy lifestyle choice (did we mention antioxidants?), it is also one of the most incredible-tasting, versatile, and evocative teas in the world. Is it any wonder that we're obsessed?