Steven Smith: Artisan Teamaker

On an average overcast day in Portland, in a nicely revived part of Portland’s northwest industrial area, I walked into “Steven Smith Teamaker” on NW Thurman. It is unassuming and inviting all at once. As I entered the red brick tea room in the front, I was looking forward to my interview with Steven Smith, Portland’s artisan tea savant.

As soon as I walked in, I knew my day had just become a lot more relaxing. The aroma of exotic ingredients was present, but not overwhelming, like a perfect cup of tea. After selecting a nice Himalayan black tea, Steve arrived and we sat down in his Zen inspired office to talk tea.

Smith is the founder of both Stash and Tazo teas, beloved brands that saw meteoric rises, and were sold in the 90s to Japanese tea company Yamamotoyama and Starbucks, respectively. Smith has poured himself into this venture, branding his expertly blended teas with his own name—a name that has become synonymous with terrific teas. In 2011, the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade honored Steven Smith Teamaker’s Black Cap, “fruitsmithed” tea, as sofi Silver Finalist for Outstanding Cold Beverage.

I’m a self-described coffee addict, but I know very little about tea. To the uninitiated, tea seems to be a traditional beverage favored by elderly ladies and English gentleman. What am I missing? What’s so great about tea?

There are so many choices, so many teas from different regions that are all made from the same botanical species, which is called camellia sinensis. But you can make white tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, scented tea—all from the same plant, and that’s really quite phenomenal. It’s just a different processing method. And then there are the botanicals—the roots, barks, berries, seeds, grasses and peels, which have very intense flavors and great aromas. Over the last 20 years people are drinking a wider variety of beverages: a cup of coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, then perhaps a microbrew beer or a pinot noir or distilled spirit made by an artisan producer. So with tea, there’s just more variety.

Similar to beer, wine and coffee, quality ingredients seem to make all the difference in delivering an excellent tea. How do you go about selecting your ingredients?

First of all, it takes time to understand aromatic qualities and ingredients. I’m still surprised and delighted when new ingredients are presented to me that I haven’t tried. It’s also understanding when the region is at its peak. For instance, the best time to buy Darjeeling is the third week of March until the middle or the end of April, and then the second or third week in May until early to late June. That’s it. AFM09-IMG_2153_opt

Knowing tea is knowing what ingredients provide which flavor and aroma. Black tea comes from the same botanical species as other teas, but it tastes different depending on where it’s grown and how it’s processed. Tea from Darjeeling is different from tea from Sri Lanka. It’s the same with other ingredients. Ginger from Hawaii will be different than if it’s from Indonesia, or China. It takes time to learn. It takes a lot of cups and a lot of trips to the bathroom.

You’re dispelling some of the mystery while making it more interesting at the same time. I’m still a little unsure. Am I even drinking mine properly? Is there supposed to be a bag in here?

What are you having?

I’m having Bungalow.

I’m having Bungalow as well. It’s a beauty tea. Mine is now slightly over steeped, and that’s okay with me. The proper way to enjoy tea is to try to find what works for you. There are so many rules around tea that it might put people off. I hear, “Tea is just too complicated.” It’s not that complicated. It’s a leaf. You pour water over the leaf, you steep it for a certain amount of time, then, you drink it. I find wine and tea to have similar parallels. When I was in France I worked on a vineyard just to help out. One day I sat down to lunch with winemaker. He brought out a couple of bottles of rosé for lunch and they w He put ice cubes in the wine glasses and poured the rosé over said this was just fine. It’s not about over-agonizing over arcane are impediments to enjoying the crop—it’s about enjoying.

Are the ingredients harvested in an environmentally respo way? How do you ensure the quality of ingredients?

I think a specialty tea shop should know where their ingredient come from. If you know the origin of the ingredients, you’re more likely to be able to ensure that they’re going to come from a sustainable grower or collector. Since we’ve been to just about every place we buy from, we know that our teas a grown in a sustainable manner. Sustainability to me means improving and preserving the quality of the soil. It means taking care of t that is the livelihood of the tea estate or tea garden, and it means taking care of the employees. We have constant contact with our suppliers and we put a batch number on each of our cartons. When the consumer looks at the bottom of the carton they can input that batch number into our website and find out where each of the ingredients came from, when it was harvested, and our batch notes. So it’s getting the consumer closer and closer to the origin. It’s getting you there without the pass- port and shots and all that stuff. AFM09-IMG_2115_opt

The other part of crafting great tea is the blending choices. How does the blending process begin? What inspires you?

I typically need an inspiration to create a blend. I’ve got thick files with notes and two black books full of formulas. I work on 2 or 3 blends at a time. Sometimes it’s putting together ingredients that are unexpected. One time it was looking out my window at a bamboo plant—“What would bamboo taste like?” I chopped up bamboo and ginger, mixed with green tea, then I steeped with some peaches. I put the whole mix of ingredients into the water and it tasted good. So we made it and we bottle it. Being familiar with the ingredients and not being afraid to try small batches, that’s what we do here. It’s immersing yourself in that world—immersing yourself in tea.

How were your early life experiences formative for you in the process of becoming a purveyor of teas? Was there an ‘about face’ moment when it became clear what you wanted to do?

I was a manager of a natural food store near Portland State in the early 70s. That store closed after a relatively short period of time. Then I became a distributor to natural food stores. I knew very little about botanicals. I knew next to nothing about black and green teas, but I decided I didn’t want to go back to school to study journalism. This notion of entrepreneurialism sounded pretty good. Then I got into the coffee business with another partner and so I had to learn a bit more about other beverages. Stash tea was an herbal tea company back then. It didn’t have anything to do with black and green tea. So it’s an evolution—tea found me, I didn’t find it.

Following the lucrative sales of Stash in 1993 and Tazo in 1999 you moved your family to Avignon France. Some would consider that a happily-ever-after moment, but something was still propelling you forward with new ideas for tea. Why is tea so significant in your life?

In France I saw a connection between the producer of the product and the purchaser of the product. I thought it was very unique and very authentic, and it made me want to do some small-batch, artisan-produced products. I wanted to get back in the game because I was impressed by the chocolatiers, the biscuit makers, the small vineyards and the olive oil sellers. Initially I wasn’t thinking tea, I was thinking I wanted to do a regional fruit soda line. I wanted to execute this in a way in which people could see product actually being made. Go visit Bruce’s Candy Kitchen in Cannon Beach and you’ll see taffy being made in the window. I wanted to do that. I decided I could use tea as a platform to do other things. It was a great starting point for me, and I landed back on tea and found this place on NW Thurman. I walked in the door and it didn’t say make soda here—it said make tea here. ’Cause it’s got that vibe you know?

Is there something about owning a startup that appeals to you more than a larger company? Does the concept of authenticity get lost as companies grow?

I think that the ability to act on ideas, to take chances, to create products within a very short time frame, to trust your instincts and not focus groups—that’s the best part of a startup. In a larger company they have brand managers, or channel managers. They impart their expertise, but from a large brand perspective. What these guys are trying to do is pitch the ball right down the center of the plate. I want to nick the corners a little bit. We’re shooting for people who see the value, who understand the notion of quality and don’t feel that paying 65 cents a sachet is so far out of the realm. If you purchase less expensive tea, you’re going to miss out on a great experience with my product. I don’t think tea is something to be price sensitive about—within reason. When I launched the Stash brand it was more expensive because the ingredients cost more. I love knowing that when people drink my product they are entirely satisfied with it.

Do you have a business philosophy or set of business principles?

The guiding principle is to do something that you can be proud of. Be honest, be direct, and give the people that you work with respect and allow them to take on responsibility, make decisions, and make mistakes. I believe in just getting started. If you believe in your product, you equip yourself with enough capital, enough human resources—you can get to the next level. You’ve got to be flexible enough to see other avenues, and don’t be afraid to take a different path. It may be more circuitous, but you might discover more around the corner. Be open to inspiration and opportunities to get your product in the market, without a huge infrastructure that might crush you. AFM09-smith-tea-bags_opt

You’re known for creativity and having a sophisticated palate, as well as your business acumen. What advice do you have for all entrepreneurs hoping to blend the yin and yang of imagination and profitability?

First get to know the market that you’re going after: have a vision of who your customer might be, who the competition is, and where your product is going t fit in the hierarchy. If you have completely new product that no has ever heard of, you might be creating a new category. If you’re coming into a crowded category, you’ve got to track record with. Just trust your gut.

Tell me about Darjeeling and Assam. What is it about these places that inspired you to get involved beyond business?

I traveled to Darjeeling for the first time in ’84. My wife and I got married in Darjeeling and there was a big turnout for our wedding. beautiful pathway telling us, “Namaste.” It’s a really beautiful and hilly area. The terrain makes it hard to work and to get running water. During my first visit I was enamored. On my second visit I looked more closely at village life. We bought books for some of the schools—not a huge gift. And then at Tazo we bought a couple hundred pairs of boots because in winter it gets very muddy. Then I felt I needed to do more. I wanted to do a project that got my supply chain involved, and got Starbucks involved. We identified violence against women and the impact of alcoholism on women and children as the highest priority. There are other important issues too—cooking inside, eye problems, firewood collection, water collection, education, and sanitation. We got Mercy Corps involved to oversee the solutions.

Right now our company funds a 5th through 8th grade education retention program. We’ve done this on two different tea gardens that we don’t buy from—that’s critical that it doesn’t have to be gardens we buy from. We’ve made that commitment out of the basic operating funds and not profits. That’s a pretty strong statement when you’re a young company and you’re just marginally profitable.

You’ve traveled extensively and lived overseas in beautiful and exotic places. What is it about Portland that keeps bringing you back?

It’s the weather—I love Portland summers. I wish they started a little earlier. If I had my choice—give me September, or early October. They’re beautiful here. I also like the food scene. It’s so vibrant.There’s so much going on such as the art – just the general livability that we have here. I know a lot of people here, and to me it just feels really comfortable. I missed it while I was in France. I miss France now that I’m in Portland. So, you know, I like to do a little bit of each.

I’ve heard of wine pairing, but your tea shop offers “tea pairings”?

As opposed to food pairing, I like to do mood pairings: If you’re feeling like this, this is the tea that you should have. If you’re feeling a little mellow, feeling like you’re a little low, maybe a cup of Brahmin might brighten your spirit. If you’re feeling anxious, if there’s a lot of angst surrounding you, maybe a cup of Meadow to smooth the edges off your day. We have done chocolate and ice cream pairings—some of our teas have wound up in ice creams and in chocolate. We also did some pretty interesting cheese pairings.

What’s next for Steven Smith Teamaker? Are there any blends in the works?

We’ll probably do one to two more ready-to-drink teas. We take fresh Northwest fruit, sometimes frozen fruit—whole berries. We steep that into filtered water and we remove the fruit and then we add tea. We call it fruitsmithing and we’ve done a couple of batches of big bamboo, as I mentioned earlier—bamboo leaves, ginger. And we launched a hibiscus blend last year that’s really great, so we’ll be working on that. I’ve got a notion of some green and white tea blends that we may add—we’ll certainly have them here in our tea room. Whether or not they’ll get into a package, I don’t know. You know, I’m not quite sure what’s around the corner.

About The Author: Justin Fields