The story behind our Oolong Ice Cream tea by Tony Tellin, head tea master. The limited edition product is sold out.

May 19th

Today is the day to kick off the first of the Maker’s Series.  Tyler Malek, head ice cream maker from Salt & Straw, is a good friend and I have worked with him a handful of times. They have used our teas in several ice cream recipes over the years and I knew that Salt & Straw, like Smith Teamaker, takes a more culinary approach to production and flavor development. He is a perfect candidate for our first of the series; knowledgeable, creative, fun, and above all not afraid of complexity or hard work to obtain something special.

I reached out and we chatted via email and started to visualize the direction we wanted to go. Our inspiration came pretty quickly, how cool would it be to create a vanilla ice cream profile in a hot cup of tea. I loved it. Vanilla ice cream seems straightforward but it is complex to create and designing a blend that supports the top notes while creating the texture and visual properties was a good challenge.

The two of us experimenting in the lab

The heart of this blend needed to be a milked or cream oolong. The intense butter and cream aroma would create the perfect backdrop for the execution. This tea is somewhat rare (at least for the authentic, artisan, hand rolled version) and thus I started searching through my contacts to find the right lot. I ended up finding a spring harvested lot from the Nantou area of Taiwan that provided the necessary aromas and flavors.

After the oolong was sourced, I started formulating the balance of the blend. I needed ingredients that imparted creamy textures, white and opaque like liquors and soft floral tones. After experimenting with rice, lotus seeds and a few other ingredients, I landed on marcona almonds, white jasmine blossoms and Indian sarsaparilla root. I was also striving to strike a balance in the cup, wanting strong vanilla and cream presence but wanting the greener note of the oolong to speak as well.

I invited Tyler over to our kitchen to discuss what I had come up with. We both liked the direction and started experimenting with sugar, salt and vanilla, key ingredients to our execution. We liked the idea of incorporating sugar directly into the blend and thought a hard candy would be perfect- it could be sized appropriately for optimal blending and allow us to easily fold the vanilla and salt into each cup. We each had some assignments - Tyler was going to make a vanilla sugar candy while I further refined the blend and ingredients.

Vanilla sugar candy... coming together

The oolong arrived at the Smith Teamaker kitchen. I opened up each bag and placed a sliced whole vanilla bean in each before resealing the bag. I wanted the tea to sit with vanilla aroma compounds for a month or so prior to its use, adding soft and delicate top notes.  Scenting teas like this goes way back for us, and is what we like to reference as “artful cross contamination”. I have scented teas in scotch, rum and whiskey barrels, and with spices like cardamom and cassia and fruit peels.

May 22nd

We re-grouped at Salt & Straw to share our findings. We were close but the vanilla notes were not right and the sugar was not setting up correctly.  We had sourced a premium vanilla extract to apply to the dry leaves but it tasted more of coconut and sunscreen and thus found itself in the garbage. We were not daunted, as we knew some tweaks would need to be made and we were on the right track. We agreed to get together early on production day to finalize the formula and that we would just chop up Madagascar vanilla bean to get the top notes we wanted.

Trying one of the new seasonal flavors... quite delicious!

It was good fun to hang out with his team and immerse ourselves in ice cream while trying to develop this tea. Here I am trying one of the new seasonal flavors…quite delicious! I can say I am somewhat jealous of making ice cream all day.

I came back to the Smith kitchen energized and determined. The white jasmine blossoms were the right ingredient for the floral note– however, they had a gritty and slightly dirty finish. The problem is the calyx; we ended up crushing the blossoms by hand, removing the delicate petals and sifting to get the optimal particle size. We hand sift chamomile blossoms to collect the delicate petals for our White Petal blend so we knew this approach would work, and it did. 

June 10th

Next up is the actual production day. I arrived early to set up our kitchen for the day­– sifting screens, cutting tables, chefs knives and of course music to get our rhythm on. Tyler arrives; we immediately get to work on making the sugar, vanilla, salt component.

We get some help from ML while making the candy

Here we are making it, it hardens pretty quickly and then we have to chop it down to the proper particulate size. We then sift out the smaller particulates and dust and then take the optimal candy shards and blend with almond dust. This keeps any pieces from sticking together through the blending and packing process. We prepare the other ingredients: chopping vanilla and almonds, measuring and sorting the sarsaparilla, jasmine blossoms and tea. Combine all the ingredients, then taste.

Boom! We hit it and high fives go all around.

Next up is production, to pack the blend into our sachets. For this we get Joe Besch’s help– Joe is arguably the best FUSO operator in North America and he packs the blend to specification with ease. Samples are drawn and tasted to ensure the final product meets our expectations. This all goes well and we are happy with our product.  We pack the sachets into boxes, initial all the labels and then celebrate out in our courtyard with some ice cream and tea. It was a great day; we had a lot of fun and feel proud that we made something special to share with our Smith Teamaker fans.

Our Finished Product



Thanks for the ice cream Tyler!