Getting Zen: A local company finds peace and passion in tea

Oriental Zen Tea owners specialize in wild tea with a story to tell.

click to enlarge Oriental Zen Tea owners Jacky Lee and Kristin Johnson, with their son, David. - Ryan Ballogg
Ryan Ballogg
Oriental Zen Tea owners Jacky Lee and Kristin Johnson, with their son, David.

One tiresome day in Beijing, the life of an advertising agent became too much for Jacky Lee. Despite creating a successful ad agency and winning creative design awards around the world, he didn’t feel healthy. He was smoking and drinking too much, he knew.

He just wasn’t happy.

“I think he was very sick,” said Kristin Johnson, now his wife.

Lee decided to take some time off work and take a hike. He went up a mountain, to be exact, past where a car could go, past where most people go, and into the old forests of the Guizhou Province of China. There, he crossed paths with an elderly man whose face was partially scarred. He invited Lee in for tea.

Over tea, Lee learned the man lived off the land and harvested wild tea. He was out harvesting one day when he was attacked by a bear, permanently disfiguring his face.

Lee asked the man if he regretted it. His answer: “No.”

“He said you should do what you like and like what you do,” Lee said, through Johnson who translated. “I wanted to find a lifestyle that was healthy, and happier. I found tea.”

Johnson met Lee while she was studying Chinese politics abroad.

“We had tea the first time that we spent time together,” Johnson said, laughing.

Married with a 6-month-old son, David, the couple launched Oriental Zen Tea together in the Tampa Bay area a little over a year ago. It was the culmination of six years of planning and efforts.

Johnson grew up in Florida and attended Eckerd College before going abroad, so for her it was a return home. Now she travels the state representing the tea company, distributing tea and giving demonstrations in health-food stores. She’s also finishing up her Ph.D. remotely. Lee travels back and forth to China, but aims to settle here permanently soon.

click to enlarge Painting in the traditional Chinese watercolor style, Lee says his background in sculpture shapes the way he approaches painting. - Ryan Ballogg
Ryan Ballogg
Painting in the traditional Chinese watercolor style, Lee says his background in sculpture shapes the way he approaches painting.
It doesn’t take much for their tea to catch the eye, as each box is adorned with original illustrations by Lee. His adventurous character climbs mountains, rides dragons and meditates on lily pads across boxes on store shelves.

The use of art is very purposeful, because he also sees making tea as an art form.

“Good tea is simple. How it is prepared can have complex results,” he said.

Lee and Johnson try their best to share this art at their demos, and it usually starts with re-examining people’s idea of tea.

“Tea here is not really tea to me,” Lee said. “They add sugar, spices, fragrances. They’ve lost the essence of the tea.”

He also claims that many store-bought tea bags are filled with tea “dust” and scraps of leaves — not the best leaves that provide the most flavor and health benefit. In the medical community, the jury is out on what exactly in tea is so good for people, and how potent the health effects are. But they almost all agree that it can’t hurt to imbibe it.

Lee, who often invites people to compare his teas to others and see the difference for themselves, explains that the best tea is made from young leaf shoots on old-growth tea trees; that’s where they source their wild tea. Much commercially harvested tea, however, comes from young plants.

“You can taste where it comes from, what part of the mountain,” he said. “If there’s sunshine on it or not. It has the feel of the soil where the trees grew and the air that moved through the leaves.”

After the quality is established, the artistry is applied in the tea’s preparation.

The material of the tea pot is one factor that can have a big impact on flavor and characteristics. Lee says it’s like bringing different musical notes out of a tea.

Ceramic tea pots lend the purest flavor. Clay extracts and strengthens flavor. Steel makes the taste deeper. And silver adds a fresh springiness. Water temperature is also influential.

“So many factors go into deciding what good tea is — like what makes a good person,” Lee said.

He hopes to teach people to understand a better way of making and drinking tea.

“People are really excited when they try the tea,” Johnson said.

When the time is right, the couple plan to open a traditional tea room somewhere in the area. Lee’s working on a book detailing the art of making and sharing tea, and he wants to find a local art studio where he can put on an exhibit of painting with tea leaves.

“If you mix tea with culture and art, you increase the value of all of them,” he said. “You see the health in the tea.”

Oriental Zen Tea’s full line can be found at about 100 health-food stores throughout the region and Florida, many of which serve as a venue for those tea-making demos. A few of them are Abby’s Health & Nutrition, Nature’s Food Patch, Rollin’ Oats and Mazzaro’s Italian Market. 

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