What Are You Drinking? »

Checking in with drinks industry folks—booze-writers, distillers, brewers, bartenders, and winemakers—about what drinks they're excited about now.

What Are You Drinking, Steven Smith?

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We chat with the founder of Steven Smith Teamaker. [Photographs: Steven Smith Teamaker]

Even if you haven't been drawn in by the pretty packaging of the teas from Steven Smith Teamaker, you've probably experienced the work of our interview subject today. Back in 1972, Steve Smith was the manager of Sunshine Natural foods, the first natural foods store in Portland, Oregon, where he developed an interest in herbs, roots, and medicinal concoctions. With two partners, he then founded the Stash Tea Company in Northwest Portland. Stash was sold in 1993, and Smith went on to develop tea blends for his new brand, which eventually was named Tazo. He stayed on through the 1999 Starbucks acquisition of Tazo until 2006—his formula for Tazo Awake is still one of the most popular black teas in the country. After a brief move to southern France, Smith returned to Portland to found Steven Smith Teamaker in 2009.

We checked in with Steven about what he's drinking and where he thinks the tea industry is going.

What are you drinking these days, Steven Smith?

I think we're past the time when one only had one "go-to" hot or cold beverage. I should be embarrassed to say (but I'm really not) that I have about a half cup of dark roasted coffee in the morning followed by copious amounts of tea in the mid-morning and afternoon. Since I taste a lot of tea every day—what we're blending, what we are considering for purchase—I usually drink either Bungalow (a blend of Darjeelings) or Mao Feng Shui (a spring harvested green tea) to keep my engines running throughout the day. Evenings I'm a Meadow man.

Tell us a bit about how you got into the tea business. When did you get interested in tea? How did you learn about it?

My earliest recollection is that I drank tea with my grandparents—really sweet Red Rose tea. In my 20s I managed a natural foods store that had an herb shop called "The Gates of Eden." We used the herbs and spices to start Stash Tea in 1972 and then added green and black teas to the line when I started a coffee, tea and spice retail store in Portland in 1974. How did I learn about tea? I just continued tasting and experimenting and still am learning new things about tea every day.

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Where is the tea industry going, and how is it changing?

What we thought would happen is happening—consumers are demanding better quality and are willing to pay a higher price for a more compelling, authentic experience. Consumers want to know where their products come from and how they are processed—we provide that in-depth information through our batch look up feature on our website where you can find out where and when each ingredient was purchased, blended and packaged. Traditional flavors with unique twists continue to drive tea sales but consumers are looking for more interesting combinations that taste great and have great functional characteristics.

What do you think consumers get wrong about tea?

Many think it too complicated and too stuffy with too many rules for engagement. Tea is really very simple—pour hot water over dried leaves, flowers, roots, barks and enjoy. The reason wine consumption is growing is because it has become more approachable. Also, the expectations for flavor have been driven by the mainstream tea makers and traditionally quality in North America has been pretty poor. That's changing with brands like Smith.

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What do you recommend for people who are just starting to get into tea? What should they read? What should they taste?

Develop an understanding of the primary tea types—white, green, oolong, scented, black, and herbal—then start sampling each until you find flavors you like. Ask your local tea shop to help you start your indoctrination by selling you small samples. Buy an assorted pack at the grocery and taste through all the teas to find the flavors that best suit you. For references I would suggest James Norwood Pratt's A Tea Lover's Treasury.

When you're not drinking tea, what do you drink? Are you a wine lover?

I do like wine—Pinot Noirs from Oregon and I have a weakness for rosé, Champagne, and sparkling wine.

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