Q&A: Joi DeFrantz Of Tea’s Me Cafe

Joi DeFrantz of Tea’s Me Cafe.

Tea’s Me Cafe, the local tea company owned by former WNBA star Tamika Catchings, opened a second location in 2021 and now offers a monthly tea subscription for home delivery. In-house Tea Chemist Joi DeFrantz shares some tips on how to get the most out of every sip.

You have an unusual background. You started your career in a lab as a chemist, and now you’re informally known around town as the Tea Chemist. How did that happen?
Yes, I have degrees in chemistry and Spanish. I was in the lab for about 12 years, and then made the transition into business. I’ve been at Tea’s Me for four years, and I was Tamika’s first hire.

The perfect tea does seem like a chemical pursuit. Can you talk about that connection?
I’ve learned a lot about the molecules in tea. You have L-Theanine, which is a natural brain relaxant. You have polyphenols, which are the antioxidants. There’s thioflavin, which is an antioxidant in black teas. All of these are part of the tea naturally. There’s a lot of great chemistry with tea because you have an extraction process, which is what you’re doing with the tea when you steep the leaves in water. You need a certain water temperature based on the type of tea that you’re drinking. And then the amount of time you steep it depends on the type of tea leaf. If you have a more fragile tea leaf like green tea, you brew for a shorter time at a lower temperature. If you have a more robust, fully oxidized leaf like a black tea, you steep it longer at a higher temperature.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about tea?
I think people don’t understand all the health benefits of tea. It sounds like a gimmick, but I honestly feel like my overall health has improved because I drink tea on a daily basis. We have loose leaf tea at the café, and the flavor is so rich. Sometimes people want to add stuff to it, and I try to tell them that you really don’t need it. There’s a lot of flavor in the tea naturally. A lot of things that people add to it will mask the natural flavors and potentially reduce some of the health benefits. Customers are usually pleasantly surprised with the flavor of loose-leaf tea, because they’re used to tea that they get in tea bags, and those are the leftovers in production. It doesn’t have the robust, beautiful, fresh taste of loose-leaf tea.

When you talk about people adding things to tea, are you talking about sweeteners and milk? Those kinds of things?
Yes. Milk and artificial sweeteners, because they have their own taste. If you want to sweeten your tea, we recommend you use raw cane sugar. There’s nothing wrong with honey, but since it has such a strong taste on its own, it can mask the taste of the tea. There are times that you just need that honey tonic, right? It’s very soothing for your throat. So, I definitely understand putting honey in tea now and then.

Can you give us a quick lesson on loose-leaf tea? Something like loose-leaf tea for dummies?
It’s part of the tea plant. All tea comes from the same plant. Originally, it was in more Asian countries like China and Japan. And now of course they’ve been able to get the plant in more tropical regions. But, whether it’s white tea or black tea, it all comes from the same plant. Tea is harvested about four times a year. White tea is the most delicate, and it’s the first offering of the tea plant. Green teas will be next. They’re going to be evergreen, with that lush, grassy look. Then there are the oolong teas, which are a little darker because of the oxidation (the amount of time they’re exposed to the air before they’re harvested), and finally the black teas, which are fully oxidized, and that’s why they’re the darkest.

What are your top selling teas?
The green teas, definitely, because there are so many great health benefits to them. They’re great for metabolism, blood pressure, lowering cholesterol.

You said you drink tea every day. What does the perfect tea day look like to you? Take us from your morning to evening in tea. 
Oh, wow. That depends. Some days I’m a little bit groggier so I’ll start with the black teas because they have the most caffeine and are the best way to get an energy pickup. And then as I’m going through the day, I’ll probably get a green because it’s a lighter, fresher, grassier taste. And then I end the day with an herbal tea. Herbal teas aren’t technically teas because they don’t have any tea leaves in them. They’re dried fruits and flowers, so they’re the most hardy when it comes to being able to steep them. You can steep them at a higher temperature for longer without burning tea leaves, which are more delicate.

What happens if you steep a tea too long, or if that water is too hot?
It can burn the tea leaves and make it very bitter. A lot of times when people say they don’t like tea, it’s usually because they’ve had bad experiences with it because it wasn’t steeped properly. Steep time and temperature are essential.

What are your recommendations for people who want to make a good cup of tea at home but aren’t sure about steeping time and temperature?
One thing we recommend is using a tea steeper instead of a bag. A tea bag can constrict the leaves, but the steeper has more room to allow your tea leaves to open up and breathe. For white and green teas, heat the water up until right before it boils. If it comes to a boil, don’t worry about it. Just let it sit for a minute or two and then pour it over your tea. For oolong and black teas, you can use boiling water. I wouldn’t steep anything more than three to five minutes, and that depends on the preference of the person drinking it. The longer you steep it, the more robust the flavor, so it’s really personal preference. And the other really important thing is the concentration. For every six to eight ounces of water we recommend a teaspoon to a teaspoon and a half of tea. If you add too many leaves it can really make it taste very bitter, very quickly. Too few tea leaves will be too light, without a lot of flavor. Over time you’ll get to know your own flavor preferences.