The late Steven Smith elevated American tea culture throughout his career, founding household tea brands Stash and Tazo along the way. But, when he decided to retire and move with his family to France, he didn’t stay idle for long. Abroad, he was fascinated and inspired by how intimately the people and local artisans interacted, and soon, the Portland native returned home with a new vision, establishing Steven Smith Teamaker.
“In France, Steve was inspired by his relationship with the local chocolatiers, cheesemongers, and bakers – he loved that direct connection with your local maker,” explains Katie Burnett, Smith Teamaker’s Brand Manager. “He thought, ‘this is what I want to do in tea’.”
From its start in 2009, the company’s essence has been imbued with quality, craft and transparency. The superior taste of its signature blends, such as Lord Bergamot and Rose City Genmaicha, begins with ingredients sourced from trusted growers across the world that are known for their long established sustainable and fair practices. On Smith Teamaker’s website, tea drinkers can utilize a feature called “Know Your Tea”. By typing in the number on the bottom of every box, customers can attain precise information about each specific batch, including its origin and date of harvest.
At Smith Teamaker’s headquarters on SE Washington Street, providing visitors a glimpse into the heart of the company is a prominent theme. When you step into the tasting room, steam wafts from aromatic cups and the fireplace crackles, but your eye is instantly drawn to a vast window behind the counter. Through the glass, you’ll see a team of people, packaging each and every sachet with machines and by hand. To the side, behind a see-through door, is the lab where teamakers concoct new recipes and do sample cuppings to test them.
“We have a window in our tasting room that offers a direct view into our production,” explains Burnett. “It’s rare that tea companies manufacture on site, so we especially love that moment when people stop by for a cup of tea and realize that it was blended and packed right here.”
While all of the dry goods are formulated, assembled, stored and shipped from the Central East Side Industrial District, Smith Teamaker’s original location is where the liquid production happens for kegs. Built in a vintage brick blacksmith shop in Northwest Portland, the tasting room’s welcoming environment is a perfect place to hide out from the rain and warm up a spell.
Nothing will drive out the chill better than a festive Ho-Ho-Hoji-Chai latte with a crème brulee top. Aside from their trademark green, white, black, oolong and other tea varieties, Smith also features a rotating selection of teas on tap. If you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for, or simply don’t know much about tea, order a flight.
For $10, you can choose four different teas, and the friendly staff will walk you through the process or curate one based on your palate. The platter comes arranged with loose leaf, so you can sniff before sipping for a multisensory experience. Informational cards describe tasting notes and reveal the provenance of the tea.
One standout collection is the limited edition Holiday Trio. Inside, Silent Night is an herbal infusion wonderland of peppermint, cinnamon, ginger and sweet licorice; Morning Light is a rich blend with notes of rosemary, black currant and a dash of cassia; Ho-Ho-Hoji-Chai indulges with a hint of toasty chocolate. Don’t have time for a tasting? Pick up the packaged tins to try them at home – or stuff in a stocking.
In a partnership with local Rushmore Baking, Smith Tea offers tea-infused goodies such as chai monkey bread and big hibiscus shortbread cookie for when you get peckish.
The mission to bridge the gap between teamaker and tea drinker takes another step this December with the introduction of weekly tea factory tours. Guests will be invited to walk the warehouse, stopping at the tea blender, manufacturing floor and the tea lab, learning fun facts along the way.
Smith Teamaker hosts events and instructive classes like tea blending, cocktail crafting and candle making from time to time. Customers can now craft their own customized string tie and tea box, making an excellent gift for the holidays. Availability can be found on the website.
After an illustrious career, Steven Smith is largely credited with popularizing tea in the U.S. and his legacy lives on in Steven Smith Teamaker. Earlier this year, the company achieved the production of one million teabags in a single month, a goal that they will continue to accomplish in the future. “We launched at the height of the recession in 2009, but the tea industry was ready for Smith,” Burnett says. “The growth that we saw out of the gate and continue to see is incredible.”
Today, Smith Teamaker’s wholesale tea is shipped all over the world. They even have a tasting room in Seoul, South Korea. But to see what’s brewing and taste the success, there’s no need for a plane ticket – its home grown in Portland, Oregon.