Often, when I interview craft tastemakers for a product or story, the discussion happens one-one-one. The scenery is mostly the same: an open laptop, a pot of tea, a few questions exchanged between sips. That wasn’t the case, however, when I was given the opportunity to sit in with head flavor makers from Smith Teamaker and Salt & Straw Ice Cream, to witness the culmination of months of hard work and the next step in a years-long journey that started back in 2011.
Appropriately, the Tea Lab on Washington street was crowded with people and energy, the table covered in white porcelain teacups, frost-coated pints of Double Fold Vanilla and Honey Lavender ice cream and a sparkling bottle of amber amaretto. While the water boiled and the tea brewed, Smith’s head teamaker, Ravi Kroesen, sat chatting with Salt & Straw’s head ice cream maker, Tyler Malek, about everything from the importance of tea-slurping to the hierarchy of ice cream scoops.
It’s not unusual for so many collaborators to participate in creating a new flavor, but it’s rare to see so much creative expertise in one room. Fortunately, the company wasn’t the only treat at the table.
“It looks like you’ve done this before,” Tyler joked, as Ravi poured the first cups of Ice Cream Royale.
“A couple of times,” replied Ravi with a laugh, which was followed by a hush. The sniff. The slurp. And finally, the sigh, as Tyler admitted simply, “Oh. Oh, that’s really good.”
And it is. The newest test of innovative teamaking at Smith encapsulates the sweet and salty perfection of ice cream without neglecting the star of the show: the tea. In this case, Taiwanese Milk Oolong, an ingredient as delicious as it is convoluted. While many sources argue over how Milk Oolong is made, Ravi’s approach is characteristically traditional.
“This is a cultivar specific flavor,” he explained. In this case, the cultivar is Jin Xuan, created by the Taiwan Tea Research and Extension Station, to be milky, sweet and smooth. What better base for a tea that’s all about capturing the flavor, the emotion and the nostalgia that comes with a good scoop of ice cream? But as both of these craftsmen are well aware, creating flavors is rarely a straight line.
“What did you do to dial all the flavors in?” Tyler asked, as the conversation shifted to technique.
“The first blend was only two or three ingredients,” Ravi answered, “Which wasn’t enough to get us there. It’s still a pretty simple blend now—with only six ingredients or so. But all of the ingredients move it in this vanilla, ice-creamy direction.”
The other ingredients brought in by Ravi, Donovan, Claire and Sara, the all-star cast of Smith’s formulation team, include amaretto, chamomile petals, sarsaparilla, salt and crushed sugar pearls.
“Is this the first tea to have sugar built into the sachet?” Tyler asked, generating an honest laugh from Ravi.
“No—but it’s definitely not something we’ve done before.”
“It seems like the perfect combination of high-brow and low-brow,” noted Tyler, who has devoted his career, in many ways, to balancing these two elements. What better tool than ice cream to connect taste to memory and adventure, bridging the gap between ages, demographics and generations. Now, that experience was captured in the form of this one-of-a-kind tea.
But for Tyler, this tea was also the next chapter in a story that began all the way back in 2011, when he first sat down with Steven Smith to discuss the wide world of flavor.
“One of the first people I met in Portland was Steven Smith,” says Tyler. “I feel like every time we’re creating a flavor, I remember what we talked about.”
It wasn’t long after their fateful first meeting that Salt & Straw launched their first tea-inspired flavors. “People loved it,” he recalled. “Getting this immersive experience, coming to Salt & Straw and experiencing Smith through it. That was the first time we launched a cohesive menu, which became the blueprint for how we’ve done things ever since. It’s become the lifeblood of our company and it started from this journey of how Steven Smith wanted to share his story through five flavors of ice cream.”
In 2015, the script was flipped. Smith wanted to tell the story of Salt & Straw through a special tea, which became an essential installment in Smith’s Makers series. Now, over six years later, the infamous ice-cream tea has been reborn, reinvented and reformulated, keeping this tradition of collaboration alive.
Over the last two years, we’ve seen many of our favorite restaurants, tastemakers and Portland icons drift heartbreakingly to the wayside, making collaborating like this one not only more prominent, but more necessary. In many ways, I believe that it’s this sense of creative altruism that makes Portland’s food scene so remarkable. And what better way to capture this sense of tradition and fun, ingenuity and adventure, than to invite you to raise a cup (or a pint) with us in celebrating more than ten years of collaboration, friendship and all things ice cream.