Afternoon Tea with Steven Smith
I’ve never really been a tea drinker. That said, I’ve been drinking tea all my life. When I was young and lived in a small logging town in the hills of the northwest, my father would get those big boxes of Ice Nestea, fill up a gallon jar with water and plunge about ten sachets in and let it sit in the sun for hours so he could later have ‘sun tea.’ He would offer my brother and I some, but the taste of bitter black sun tea was not something I particularly enjoyed when I was a child. When I would go to my Nana’s house, she was a coffee drinker but would always offer you coffee or tea. I sometimes would say tea, but any types that she would have either weren’t that great or tasted like they had been left over from the depression. So until my teen years, I avoided teas like the plague. Then I found Snapple Iced Tea and Brisk Iced Tea, which I drank by the gallon. I however later found out how bad for you those processed sugars and chemically enhanced drinks were, and they weren’t true tea to begin with. After meeting Jade I was introduced to what really delicious, calming and soothing tea was like. She bought me some tea when we were first dating to have at my my apartment so when she came over we could have tea if we wanted. Then began our exploration of tea together. We have been drinking it regularly for around six years and I can now say that I thoroughly enjoy a good cuppa. But now I have been on a quest for the best tea, which has lead me to finding Steven Smith…
Steven Smith is one of, if not the most influential name in tea in the Northwest and possibly the whole Northern hemisphere today. If you haven’t heard of his current brand endeavor, Steven Smith Teamaker, then maybe you’ve heard of Stash Tea? Or maybe TAZO Tea? Both of those tea conglomerates were originally started by Mr. Steven Smith as small time businesses which lead him to selling them to seek out new territory. But his past exploits in the tea world aren’t what make Mr. Smith the truly successful, interesting, and exceptionally humble man that he is today. No. What makes Steven Smith ‘Steven Smith’ is attention to detail in the products he produces. Even with all of the success this man has had, it still comes down to the simple notion that if you aren’t happy with the product you make, how can you expect others to be happy?
We came into the Smith Teamaker teashop early one afternoon to meet with Steven and learn a little bit more about him and what he does best. The teashop store front is laid in brick with a long black and white painted banner across the top, as if the shop itself is a big brick tea box waiting to have the lid pulled off to expose the fragrant sachets. One side of the entrance door is covered in lush, green ivy which brings a somewhat mystic cottage sense to the place. The inside of the shop has a front bar where you can order tea to drink right on the spot or you can simply purchase goods to take home with you. The interesting part about the inside shop front is what is behind the bar, where a window allows you to glance into the inner workings of the production side of Smith Teamaker. There are large metal machines, conveyor belts delivering filled sachets of tea along down deeper into the room, and several burly men working and tinkering with all the different elements of the contraptions that surround them.
Steven came out of a side passage from the back of the shop with a gentle smile, light eyes and welcoming words. I stood to the man and shook his hand. He was much smaller than I imagined he would be, but let’s face it, I say that about nearly everyone I meet. He took us down the hallway where there were artifacts and photos of his past displayed to show where his business ventures have taken him over the years. The machine we were looking at was allowing high quality, loose leaf tea to fall into the top which essentially funnels it into tiny, delicate tea sachets, each one filled individually and delicately. I had heard that the machines they use get names and he said the one we were looking at was named Kitty 2. It was Japanese made and his employees came up with the name. Other machine names ranged from Buzz, Pam, and Scotty the over-wrapper machine. It wasn’t the type of industrial process that you might assume a tea packing facility might have. It had more of the livelihood of small business of friends doing what they enjoy to it. He told us surprisingly enough that not too long ago the back room where the production was all happening was once full of ladies, but he has realized its all changed to men now. He thought this interesting and pondered upon it. Then we moved on to the back rooms of the shop.
In a fairly large meeting room area with a long table and tea marketing displays adoring the walls, we stopped. I asked him about his marketing strategies and if there is a specific person for that in his company. He told us there was no individual like that and it was more of a team effort. We stood in front of a hand crafted, wooden display that he told us was the culmination of a lot of ideas that were eventually agreed upon to fit their style and ideas on how they wanted their tea presented. He showed what he called a prayer box display which had a surplus of prepackaged tea sachets in side of a black, leather-bound box. I debated stealing it. It was so well-crafted and beautiful. He said this was originally designed for only hotels, but they are now for sale too in store and on their website.
Steven then lead us to the very back room of the shop with two long stainless steel tables and a plethora of shelves with teas adorning the walls. On the table sat an arrangement of cups and sachets, where tastings would transpire. We had the luck this day that he was about to do a tasting and demonstrate how the process was done. He introduced us to his Director of Operations, Tony, and they prepared another few cups on the opposite table where we would first witness them aspirating and tasting their full leaf Black Tea they were calling “Exceptional Ice Tea.” They prepared the cups and both donned a spoon in each of their dominant hands. The spoon Steven had is an exceptionally unique spoon made of silver he only uses for tasting. They each dipped their spoons in and brought it to their lips as they almost aggressively slurped the tea up, rolled it around in their mouths, and then spit it into a spit bucket. This process is not unlike what you might find at a wine tasting; however there is less nose in glass sniffing and more aggressive slurping. This slurping releases the aromas of the tea when you inhale during a slurp and allows them to reach the nose where they can be detected. It is a very interesting process to utilize ones own bodies’ olfactory system to an advantage. After observing how the professionals did it, it was now time for us to take part in the action.
Smith walked back to the first table and began gently picking up each sachet, swirling it up of the edge of each cup allowing the air to flow through. With each bag he swirled into a cup, I got the feeling that this was more a ceremonial ballet for each tea bag that had to be completed before they were to be bathed in boiling hot water. Following the ceremony he poured the boiling water into each cup then explained that as a rule of thumb he steeps green, white and herbal teas about 3 minutes. Black teas he steeps 5 minutes. The different steeping times allows the teas to release their natural tannins and turn the water into rich deep liqueur. Steeping for more time than 3 minutes for lighter and 5 minutes for darker teas he said was not necessary, he said, it would release to much of the tannins and you get a less enjoyable and bitter cup of tea. The kind of tea you would want to add sugar or cream to.
The teas had steeped a sufficient amount of time and Steven gestured at how the bags expanded. How your leaf expands can tell you what ‘flush’ or season your tea was harvested. He personally selects the flushes from all different tea growers around the world. He is currently in the process of sampling several flushes of Darjeeling green teas from a grower in India, a place where he has traveled many times to make sure he is getting the best product in the way it is grown, harvested, and farmed. There are so many different aspects that go into selecting the right tea and it doesn’t just stop at what tastes good or bad. We each dipped our spoons into one cup at a time as he would describe and tell us a little about the teas. My slurp of tea is admittedly not as practiced and as aggressive as Stevens, but I could definitely tell the difference in measuring flavor between a strong slurp and just a swish around the gums.
Smith explained his teas are numbered on each bag in accordance with a system that only he uses within his business. As we sampled ‘Meadow,’ he commented on the taste to be likened to mead. If you’ve never had mead, its a rather rich alcoholic drink made by the vikings. Jade and I both were taken aback by his peppermint tea which was the strongest and most natural tasting peppermint we had ever tried. I have always had a love of mint teas and it was obvious this was going to be my new go-to morning flavor. I was curious if he had any favorite flavors of his own brand that he drinks on a regular basis. He stopped and looked at me quizzically and said he really doesn’t favor a particular type of tea but lately he had been drinking a lot of his Bungalow, a rich black tea, and Mao Feng Shui, a lighter green tea.
Our tasting came to an end after we slurped our last spoonfuls of the last cup in the row. We adjourned to the meeting room and took a seat to talk a bit more about what he does. I asked Steven what made him passionate about tea. His answer was fairly simple. It’s about being involved with a product that is pure with a rich history, one in which his own history is intertwined. He said even as far back as his work in the ‘70s with natural and organic foods he had interest in tea as not only a product, but as a part of life. He began drinking tea with his grandma many years ago. Smith is a Portland, Oregon born native, which I found surprising considering most people around this area over 60 years of age are usually from the midwest. He said when he started his first tea business with some friends, Stash Tea, they ran the actually ran the store out of the space where Oba ,the Latin food restaurant in the Pearl District of Portland is now. They got all of there mint for their mint tea from local farmers in the area and the smell was so strong during production you could smell it for blocks and blocks away! He was surprised that they didn’t name it the Mint District!
I noticed he had a stack of journals on his shelf and asked if his journaling was an important part of his process. He seemed a bit surprised by my question as if no one had ever asked him about this particular part of his process and he grabbed a few of them. He explained that he had been keeping journals for years and years. Part of the books he would fill with miscellaneous ideas for combinations of teas and formulations, ideas on what might go together or places he needed to visit.The other part of his journals were daily notes that he had been keeping on his adventures to different parts of the world or just in his daily grind in his business. He flipped through the journals as if he hadn’t in a long time, being reminded of old ideas which now seemed new in some ways.
I asked if there were any particular memories of trips he had been on that stood out or were overtly danger filled, considering he travels to 3rd world countries with unstable political situations. He said his travels in India were not completely safe. The region of Asam had lots of crime, explosions in pipelines and sabotage, even abductions of travelers. There had been military issues going on which he had to travel through and it was not something he wanted to do a second time. I couldn’t blame him. Putting yourself in danger for the sake of business seems daunting, but its obvious he would go through great lengths to get the best product for his businesses’ well being. Lastly, I had to ask if he had any role models in the tea trade since it has been a trade for thousands of years. He said he admires a lot of different positive people throughout the states from Napa valley and San Francisco to people basied in New York. One person came to mind though and that was Joe Wertheim of Tea Importers Inc, a jewish german born man and one of the biggest names in the tea trade today. His admiration and what seemed like personal and professional relationship with this man had helped him see business in the tea world in a unique way.
In our conversation Smith was very calm, professional and had a very dry, witty sense of humor. I could see how he could be such a success in his businesses over the years because the man had a poker face that could not be cracked. I saw no tells or instances where it seemed he was not sure of himself. This was one of the more surreal and interesting conversations and meetings of my life. I have no idea why he chose to meet with us, he could have easily said no, he is an incredibly busy man after all. I feel distinctly honored to have had the opportunity to speak with him about his life and business and I do not believe it will be an occasion either Jade or I will soon forget.