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The All-Star Alchemist of Top-Shelf Tea

Hardly a household name, Mr. Smith is one of the biggest players in modern tea history, holding a key role in what’s been a renaissance in the U.S., with tea sales soaring to about $7 billion this past year from less than $1 billion in 1990. He’s responsible for many of the original blends for two top-shelf brands: Stash, now owned by the Japanese company Yamamotoyama; and Tazo, which Starbucks bought in 1999. His own company, Steven Smith Teamaker, sells small-batch teas in restaurants and stores like Williams-Sonoma, Zabar’s and even Eddie Bauer.

Quality leaves are essential to good tea, but so too are the expertise and imagination of the person creating the blends, said tea-expert James Norwood Pratt, author of the definitive “Tea Dictionary.” “In no generation in the past 5,000 years have we had more than a few people like Steven Smith. He makes astonishingly good blends,” Mr. Pratt said.

Since his start selling herbal botanicals from a health-food shop in the 1970s, Mr. Smith, 62, has honed his knowledge of what good tea leaves taste like. Over the years, he has traveled to India, Sri Lanka, China, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sumatra and South Africa, spending weeks in a region doing three tastings a day, with 200 cups per tasting.

Mr. Smith said that he picks a base—a black or a green leaf—and then thinks about flavors he has recently tasted or smelled that intrigue him. One tea, “Meadow,” with actual pink rose petals in its mix, was inspired by walking through the Portland Rose Garden in Portland, Ore., and smelling raspberries. Another that he created for Eddie Bauer includes dried Douglas fir needles to give a campfire taste. Intrigued by some bamboo growing outside his office, he’s tried adding bamboo leaves to a green tea and spicing it with ginger. He’s currently experimenting with aging teas in Pinot Noir and whiskey barrels: The teas absorb the moisture from the barrels and give off the alcohol’s scent.

Sometimes Mr. Smith tastes the ingredients individually and then mixes them with spoonfuls of tea, paying attention to how the look and smell changes when the tea is steeped, or infused in water. He writes down the formulas in a black notebook as he goes. Other times, when he’s on a plane or waiting in his car at a gas station, he comes up with the formulas in his head and writes them down, specifying how many grams or drops, without tasting them until they’re blended. He tries to avoid ingredients that taste and smell perfumed—oily and overly floral—and draws a distinction between herbs that taste “vegetative” and those that taste “brothy.”

Not all of his blends have been successful. After Starbucks bought Tazo, Mr. Smith stayed on for a few years. During that time he created a concentrated caramel tea latte formula that included very expensive teas from Darjeeling, India, and burnt-caramel sauce from a gourmet chocolate company in San Francisco. He said it tasted great, but when it shipped across the country the altitude caused the butterfat in the blend to clump, and Starbucks nixed it.

Born in Portland, Mr. Smith said that his strongest tea memory is drinking sweetened Red Rose at his grandmother’s after school, the whole house filled with the aroma. In high school he discovered chamomile tea in smoky, cool, dark coffeehouses. After three military tours in Vietnam and a stint at the natural-food store in Portland, he blended his first herbal tea in 1975 at Stash Tea, in which he was an early partner. “I learned as I went. It was a high-wire act,” he said.

At the back of Steven Smith Teamaker’s ivy-covered brick Portland tea salon is a blending room, or “lab,” with long metal tables and teapots. One teapot reads: “A Day Without Tea Is a Day Without Joy.” Mr. Smith said that’s true even on days when he tastes 200 teas of the same type made in the same week from the same region from a number of different producers. “It’s challenging to keep the taste buds engaged, but it keeps them sharpened,” he said.

Write to Nancy Keates at nancy.keates@wsj.com

October 10, 2014 by Alexander Pieroni
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