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A Conversation with Steve Smith




Interview by Amy Levin-Epstein

Photography by Derrin Battles/Polara Studio

 

Q. You certainly have extensive tea experience. How did it all begin?

 
A. My first tea memory is of black tea that I drank at my grandmother’s house. We lived in the Pacific Northwest, where it’s damp, and after school we’d walk to her home, where she’d have a fire going and a pot of tea on. The aroma of very sweet Red Rose tea in a very warm little cottage is really memorable. My first recollection of herbal teas is when I was in high school, and there were some hip Bohemian-style coffeehouses. It was the tail end of the beat generation. I would go there and drink chamomile tea—I thought it was pretty cool.

Q. From there, how did tea become your career?

 
A. After a year in college, I ended up going to Vietnam, and when I came back to Portland, my sister’s boyfriend had started a natural-foods store. In conjunction with the store, we had a little herb shop called The Gates of Eden, where we sold ginseng, burdock root, and other functional botanicals. That developed into an herbal tea company that eventually morphed into Stash.

Q. How was Tazo a new direction for you?

 
A. I felt the category had become stale. No one was having fun with marketing tea. The whole thing needed to be lightened up. But I also felt the tea inside the package was the most important thing. It was an area where many tea makers try to save money. I said, ‘I’m going to make tea that I like to drink, and when it’s all said and done, I’m going to add up the numbers and sell it for a price that allows me to keep the lights on.’ Our products were higher priced than others on the market, and people still bought it. We extended into areas where tea hadn’t gone before, like tea and fruit juice combinations and frozen-tea Popsicles. We were having fun, being creative.

Q. How did you end up teaming with Starbucks?

A. I had known [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz from being in the business, and we were looking for a strategic investor. It just so happened that Starbucks was looking to elevate the tea experience for their customers. But they didn’t want to partner with us—they wanted to purchase us. And they did, in 1999.

Q. How did going abroad inspire you to re-enter the tea business?

 
A. I went to southern France, and I learned how to properly wear a scarf and take long lunches! But more than that, I learned to relax and enjoy being in the moment. I met people in France that inspired me—in particular, a chocolatier in San Remy, a winemaker near Vaison la Romaine, and a cheese maker who would come to the market in our village every week and who made beautiful cow cheese. I liked the places where you could see people making things, and it was the proprietor selling it to you. I put a little lab together in my kitchen there, and I was consulting, putting together ready-to-drink teas for a company in Calcutta. When I came back to Portland, I found a lovely 100-year-old former blacksmith shop and started the new company.

Q. Besides working smaller batches, how is Smith different from anything you’ve done before?

 
A. Each blend has a unique batch number marked on the carton. When entered into my Web site, it will tell you where each ingredient comes from and when it was harvested or processed. There is also some information about that area, maybe about who processed it, and other batch notes. There is total transparency. People can walk into the shop, get a flight of tea, and do a tea tasting. They can sit here and watch it being blended and packed. We blend in 30-pound batches—any more and we’d crush the leaves and flowers. We buy the best Darjeeling, the best white tea. We’re not restricting ourselves in any way at all. That is why our product sells for a slightly higher price in the market, but it’s why people are buying it and coming back.

Q. What tea do you drink most regularly?

 
A. Lately, I’ve had two teas I’ve been drinking quite a bit. I have a tea called Mao Feng Shui. It is a Mao Feng tea, which is wiry leaf. It has some nuances of sticky rice and chestnuts and is a lovely green tea. I also drink a tea of ours called Bungalow, which is a combination of two second-flush Darjeelings and one first-flush Darjeeling. First flush refers to the first harvest period of the season. It’s when the new growth, the top leaves and buds, are coming up. First flush tends to be lighter in character.

Q. You use a silver spoon for your tasting. What kind of cup do you use for drinking?

 
A. The cups I like are china and thin lipped. The thin lip is the best way for a beverage of the subtle nature of tea to be enjoyed. Think about wine—it’s best enjoyed in a crystal glass with a delicate, thin lip. I drink green tea and white tea out of a bowl—it fits nicely in my hands.

Q. What are your favorite tea and food pairings?

 
A. There is a wonderful blue cheese that pairs incredibly well with our Big Hibiscus blend, and sharp Cheddar cheese pairs well with most black teas. Red nectar tea goes nicely with Brie, and herbal infusions go with light cow cheeses. We serve a little almond cookie here with all the teas we sell.

Q. Any tea-related pet peeves?

 
A. The way people store tea can be atrocious. People put it into their spice cabinet with other aromatic things, and it can absorb smells. I store mine in an area of the cupboard without spices. If it’s not in the sachet, my loose tea is in a glass jar with a screw cap.

Smith teas are available online at smithtea.com, by phone at 503-719-8752, in select fine food stores, or the shop at 1626 NW Thurman Street in Portland, Oregon.
 





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