Featured Steepings

Springtime at Smith

Jun 08, 2023

Springtime at Smith Teamaker has an energy like no other. While holiday releases and iced tea summers come with their own waves of excitement, spring marks the beginning of a new tea year, full of hope and possibility. This energy can be felt the most clearly in the formulation lab, where the first of this year’s tea samples are already arriving from tea growers all over the world. 

I sat down with Donovan, Anthony, and Ravi to discuss everything that makes the spring so special. Of course, we began with a cup of tea—a 2023 Mao Cha, one of several samples cupped up at the table. This complex, energetic tea is an early form of what will become Sheng Pu-erh. When a favorite sample has been chosen, Ravi explained, the Mao Cha will be steamed and compressed into Pu-erh cakes for this year’s lineup. 

The majority of Smith’s products are sourced just like this. As samples arrive by mail, the lab team rush to cup and taste, so that procurement can begin. Anthony, who is experiencing his first spring in the lab, described the spontaneous shift in pace. 

“It can be at a moment’s notice—we have a tea come through the door and suddenly we’re tasting through twenty teas we hadn’t planned earlier. Very different than December or January where there’s a clear schedule. We definitely have to be lighter on our feet.” 

Line tasting of teas in the Smith Teamaker lab with a hand reaching for a sample jar of loose tea in background.

This early in the season, only certain origins have sent out samples, among them Darjeeling, India, where the first flush harvest is already underway. In the last two weeks, Donovan estimated that they had tasted more than 45 first flush samples, with more to come. He explained that the trick is to not buy too early, before the best teas are harvested, or too late, when the amount we need is no longer available. Because no one farm can produce all the Darjeeling or Assam we need for a year, the lab will inevitably source many lots, gardens and estates, which will need to be carefully balanced to replicate our signature blends.

As an agricultural product, tea is vulnerable to changes in weather, climate, and many other factors—meaning one year’s prizewinning tea is another year’s discard pile. This year, droughts in China contributed to a lackluster first sampling of teas from Yunnan, according to Ravi, who nevertheless remained optimistic, describing spring as a ‘reset button.’ 

“The promise of spring is always nice,” said Ravi, “There’s always tomorrow, tomorrow. Even if it’s been a hard season in some places. There’s always the promise of more months ahead and lots of opportunity for teas later in the season.” 

Of course, it’s not all about searching for blendable ingredients. Among the spring’s many challenges also come some of the greatest rewards. “It’s always very exciting to see new things come across the table,” said Donovan. “Even when they’re not what you hoped they’d be, they still shake up the supply that we have and we’re used to. Things like Lord Bergamot, British Brunch, or Fez, are teas that everyone knows…this is an opportunity for us to find specialty teas that appeal to the folks who are looking for a high-end tea experience, something that coffee drinkers will reach across the aisle for.” 

Hand pouring loose tea from a sample jar into a small french fry tray to weigh loose tea.

“One tea convert at a time,” joked Ravi, who agreed that finding new teas was a highlight of the season. “It’s what gets people excited,” said Ravi. “People who get excited about flavor, who look for innovation, who enjoy things like our Northwest Alder and others… this is what tea is about.”

As we finished our tea and Anthony and Donovan moved seamlessly to begin the next formulation project, I felt compelled by how the Mao Cha we were drinking reflected the season: young, energetic, full of unforeseen complexity, uncertainty, and hope. Every sealed packet of tea that comes into the lab, wrapped in shiny foil or bulky yellow bubble mailer, could be the next tea in our Reserve line, the next best-seller, the next put-down-your-spoon-and-gawk kind of cup. Amidst the logistic needs and blending wants that come with being a tea company, it’s the promise of something new that imbues the spring with such vitality. As Ravi said, this is what tea is all about—the hope, the uncertainty, and the chance to share whatever treasures we find. 

Written by Jeffrey Miller