With the new year in full swing, we’ve spent some time steeping ourselves in the history of Steven Smith Teamaker. Now more than ever, we feel it’s important to cherish the wisdom of those who’ve contributed to this marvelous endeavor over the years. We recently sat down with Carrie Smith––the daughter of our co-founder, Steven Smith––to discuss her father’s legacy, and how her own fondness for tea has deepened over the years.
Carrie, born in 1975, grew up in Portland, Oregon, where she watched her father build Stash Tea (founded in 1972) from the ground up in the garage of their cozy, neo-Victorian home on Water Avenue. She was there when Steve created Tazo Tea Company in 1994, before retiring to the South of France. Finally, in 2009, she stood by him with the rest of his family when he decided to come out of retirement and found Steven Smith Teamaker (this very company!) devoted to transparency and haute tea couture. Carrie currently resides in Alberta, Canada with her wife and their two children, where she serves as the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of German Studies at The University of Alberta.
Q: What was it like growing up as the child of a prolific Teamaker? Are there any anecdotes from your father’s work-life that stand out to you?
Carrie Smith: My father’s work was a huge part of his identity. There was no real division between Steven Smith, the person, and Steven Smith, the Teamaker. He was always doing something tea-related. When I was in high school, I’d often come home and our whole house would be filled with the aroma of an ingredient he was experimenting with. I’d ask him what he was up to, and he’d tell me something like: “I was trying dry orange peels in our oven for a new blend, but it overheated.” On weekends, I thought it was spectacular to help him hand-out samples at our local Safeway, and I would frequently accompany him at trade shows––it was just part of how we spent time together.
I also inherited the desk and the credenza that my father used at the original Thurman St. location of Smith Teamaker. It’s a mid-century modern piece from the early ‘60s. It’s industrial. It’s fireproof. It probably weighs 150 lbs. But it has a great feel to it, and it’s wonderful to have a piece of his legacy. My father and I have done radically different things professionally, but I learned everything about my work ethic from him––well, not everything exactly. My mother also has a great work ethic, and my stepmom Kim DeMent Smith, and my step-dad. But I learned a lot from my dad about risk-taking, problem solving, and how finding your passion in life enables you to derive joy from your work.
Q: In photographs of Steve working, he always looks like he’s in his living room, especially when he’s in the Tea Lab surrounded by freshly brewed cups of tea, tasting spoon in hand. He radiates calm and enthusiasm. Was he really always like that?
CS: My dad was so comfortable in his body and his being around tea that you can tell it was absolutely a part of him. I remember, when I was little, we’d be grocery shopping, and I’d lose track of him and have to go find him. I’d always discover him sorting the boxes of Stash tea on the supermarket display because it wasn’t to his liking. He didn’t do this out of spite or frustration. There was a generosity about it. For him, it was just about getting it right; making it feel good; making it look good. He took care wherever he went to ensure that his teas would emanate an aura that set them apart from the other products on the supermarket shelves. Appearance and service mattered to him just as much as flavor did.
Q: What are your first memories of tea?
CS: My first memories of tea are not so much about tea, they’re about my father. I distinctly remember his smell, which changed every day depending on what he was blending and the ingredients he was experimenting with. Sometimes it would be peppermint, sometimes it would be chamomile, but I have such vivid memories of that! He would walk into the living room and it would be filled with that aroma.
I remember going to the peppermint farms with him in Oregon, sitting in the front seat of his truck (unbuckled, haha––it was the ‘70s). I also remember playing with his ingredients constantly. One of my favorite things to do was to steal handfuls of freeze-dried raspberries from his big industrial freezer, or chew on the licorice root or the rose hips he kept in his blending room.
This is not “Tea Time” persay, but it's a memory that speaks to the kind of childhood I had. I remember, when I was eight or nine years old––like lots of kids at that age––I began obsessively inventing ways to earn money. Most kids start raking their neighbor’s leaves for a few bucks, or running a lemonade stand––something like that. True to our roots, my cousin and I decided that we wanted to start our own tea line. My dad, of course, humored us: he let us blend our own tea, and gave us a big roll of tea-bagging paper. We made illustrations on each individual tea bag, and we even made our own packaging. I don’t know what happened to the one or two boxes of tea we managed to fill, but we called it “Cinnamint”––which is not an inspired name at all––but it was a cinnamon and peppermint forward tea. My cousin and I thought we were gonna get rich.
Q: Are there any teatime rituals from your childhood that you still incorporate into your life today?
CS: Tea is just part of who I am. It’s part of daily life. I need a cup of tea next to me when I’m writing emails or when I’m in a meeting, and I brew a big thermos of tea whenever I take my kids to a soccer game. I do have one wonderful memory of sharing a little tea ritual with my own children. It was snowing really hard here in Alberta (Canada), and it was very cold: one of our -40˚ days. My daughter and I built a huge fort in our living room with all the pillows and blankets we could find. I brewed a big pot of Peppermint Smith Tea and put out a plate of cookies, and my daughter got all of our library books out. We stayed in our fort, drinking tea, eating cookies, and reading library books all afternoon. That’s gotta be the most perfect ritual there is. I guess it’s not really a ritual, it’s just being together and sharing a cup of tea.
Q: As a college student, you studied German Literature and Culture in Freiburg, Germany, and you later held teaching positions at international universities. Did you ever travel internationally with Steve to visit Origin sites around the world?
CS: Only once, unfortunately. That’s something I wish I’d had the chance to do more of, but by virtue of how life worked out, it didn’t happen. I do hope that someday I’ll get to do that retroactively. I’d love to follow his traces and travel to all the places he visited with my wife and kids.
When I was 21, I was able to attend his wedding ceremony when he married my stepmom, Kim Dement Smith, at the Makaibari Tea Estate in West Bengal, India. That was a really memorable 10-day trip during my last year of college. The Makaibari Tea Estate cultivates the Darjeeling teas that are used to blend Bungalow, which was my dad’s favorite tea. It’s funny how tea-taste changes over time. Darjeeling teas were too strong for me for most of my life, but during the past year, all I’ve wanted to do is drink Bungalow.
Kim and my dad held a pretty spectacular ceremony. There was lots of tea drinking throughout the day, as well as tea leaf and flower petal showers. The owners of the estate put together a feast that was served at the school on the grounds of the estate, and we ate and drank tea with all the local school children and their parents.
That trip was about family and community, and how they can both be brought together in celebration over a pot of tea.