I am a casual tea drinker. That’s to say, I am like nearly everyone in the U.S. who enjoys this beverage hot and cold. I am less particular about tea grades than coffee beans, microbrews or wine varietals, and my cupboard holds boxes of Celestial Seasonings herbals and Tazo’s Zen green tea blend, along with loose-leaf black teas in silver tins marked Chai and Assam. Behind them sits a lone white packet of Lipton’s Cold Brew leftover from summer. My tea collection is a snapshot of the evolution of tea drinking in America over the past 40 years. And the man who has single-handedly upgraded all our tastes in tea is tea master Steven Smith.
If you haven’t heard his name, you certainly know the groundbreaking tea companies he’s founded, including Stash Tea Company and Tazo. Recently, I met this Portland, Ore., native as he conducted a tea tasting at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in the Willamette Valley.
Tea at a wine tasting? “Tea is like a fine wine,” Smith explained without pretense. “Chefs and winemakers understand that the quality of tea is on par with Pinots.” I’d hardly expected to be sampling oolongs at this annual July fête, but it turned out to be a wise choice at 1 p.m. and more relevant to my everyday drink choices.
A career in tea
It’s no exaggeration to say that Smith is a brewing visionary. With Stash’s founding in 1972, he made tea special, retailing the brand exclusively to food service outlets. I remember the alluring tea displays and rainbow-colored foil packets that introduced me to my first Earl Grey and herbal blends like Ruby Mist. This was not my grandmother’s cup of black Lipton I sipped from her china cups, and it opened up a new world of tea.
After leaving Stash more than 20 years later in the hands of Japan’s oldest tea company, Smith created one-of-a-kind black, green and herbal tea blends with a start-up named Tazo. This exotic-sounding brand turned tea into an aspiration. I was not alone in being inspired by the clean package design and bags labeled Zen, Calm and the best-selling black tea, Awake. You can also thank Smith for the concept of ready-to-drink teas, cold blends of juice and tea sold in glass bottles. In 1999, Starbucks snatched up Tazo, with Smith staying onboard to create dozens of proprietary tea blends until he retired in 2006.
Within two years, Smith was back in action in the same quiet corner of Portland where he began. Steven Smith Teamaker, his most personal brand to date, is based in a wood-paneled tasting room and workshop crafting small-batch teas with the attention of great perfumers, chocolatiers and winemakers. His newest venture is the convergence of all he’s done before. The company’s ultra blends and signature tea beverages in irresistible packaging are coveted by Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma and other high-end retailers, along with motivated tea drinkers like me.
In his early 60s and slender, the silver-haired Smith favors skinny jeans and dark colors. With nearly a dozen teapots arrayed before him and an expectant audience, he poured hot water over them with the ease of watering plants. Affable, and unassuming, he timed the steeping for each, then dosed the tea into small bowls for tasting with his favorite silver spoon. Rather, it was unabashed slurping, a technique that aspirates the liquor to express its full flavors. Yet, he made it look so unfussy. This was no high tea, just appreciation of all its wondrous varieties. And the one who enjoyed it above all was Smith.
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He escorted us through a personal slideshow trip to tea plantations in China and India, and illustrated the processing of the leaves from picking and rolling to oxidation and drying. How remarkable, I thought, that he has spent his entire career working with a single plant. For Camellia sinensis, the tea plant produces every tea we drink: white, green, oolong and fully fermented black teas from Darjeerling to Keemun. This plant is the ingredient in all but the large family of herbal teas.
Tea tasting like a connoisseur with tea master Steven Smith
Smith slurped his Keemun, “one of the grand crus of the tea world,” called Keemun Hao Ya. “There should be an evolution of flavor in the tea,” he said. He sampled again and commented on flavors including oil and charcoal with winey notes. We were a long way from Stash Earl Grey. I was challenged to tune into my taste buds. Especially captivating was Methode Noir, a Ceylon tea scented in used Pinot Noir barrels. I sensed a hint of the wine, like catching its aroma on a light breeze.
Exploring the bounds of tea with Smith, I recognized how very far we’ve all come — and still can go — with this single-minded connoisseur leading the way.
Steven Smith Teamaker products. Credit: Polara Studios