Steven Smith: On Brewing a Perfect Cup of Tea

published Jan 19, 2011
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Steven Smith of Steven Smith Teas, has been expertly blending fine teas for the past thirty years. Steven and his wife, Kim, are both from the Portland, Oregon area, and after many different tea ventures and a few years of living in France, they’ve returned home. They’ve also opened a cozy tea shop. Pull up a chair, throw the kettle on, and join Steven and myself in a conversation about tea. Find out what this expert says about how to brew the perfect cup!

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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Steven has traveled high and low to places such as North India and Sri Lanka in search of teas harvested fresh, within their ‘first blush,’ which means the teas are clipped and processed at their peak season.

And now, inspired by old–fashioned candy shops where customers can see the product being created and packaged, the Steven Smith Tea Shop is a tea–blending, packing and sipping station. It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory for tea enthusiasts — and, frankly, I’m the Veruca Salt of black teas — I simply want more more more! With an open tasting area and a view into the tea–sorting, happy customers can watch teas being weighed, bundled into elegant sachets and boxed up to be shipped to sippers near and far.

Many Portland restaurants carry Steven’s teas and after encountering the rich, floral “Lady Bergamot” and bold “Brahmin” black tea, I had to know more about these elegant brews. After a lengthy tasting of fourteen different tea blends and a tour of the shop, I came away more informed about my beloved beverage and awash in a pleasant, jittery glow of caffeine.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Steven’s passion and knowledge of tea is intense. He described a tea’s flavor and character while I slurped and sipped — the complex story of the golden liquid dancing on my palate, unfolded. It’s as if the notes were there, swirling in my mind and Steven was the maestro, slowly revealing a beautiful song.

His observations on season, region, size of leaf, proper tea–ware, blending complementary flavors, terroir— for me, it was all endlessly fascinating. Steven Smith teas are available online and if you’re in Portland, the shop is a must–visit.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Interview with Steven Smith

What inspires you to create new flavors, blends or tea products?
All kinds of things – different foods, regional fruits and vegetables spice combinations and flavors from other beverage categories.  I am rarely inspired by other teas in the market as I’m not a big fan of mimicking other flavors.  We have a very interesting culinary community in Portland and dining out is always an educational experience.

Where are some of the more interesting places you’ve traveled in pursuit of tea?
Eastern Ethiopia, Kalimpong and Assam, India, Japan and China for tea;  Kerinci in Sumatra for cassia bark (cinnamon), Coban Guatemala for Cardamom, Madagascar for vanilla and Egypt for chamomile and south Africa for Rooibos and honeybush.

How can we brew the perfect cup of tea at home?
Easy. For green and white teas use about 1 teaspoon of tea (or one Smith sachet) per cup of tea.  Place tea in cup or pot and bring freshly drawn filtered water to just under a boil (about 190 degrees), pour over tea and allow to steep for three minutes.

For black teas and herbal infusions heat the water to a boil and follow the same instructions but allow 5 minutes steep time. 

It is important to separate the steeped tea (the liquor) from the tea leaves once the proper steeping time has been completed to keep your tea from becoming bitter.  
What do you enjoy most about creating your own blends of tea?
I like the experimentation the best. I like imagining what a tea will taste like and smell like and then writing the ingredients down on a piece of paper and then blending the ingredients to see if the flavors can meet the expectations of my imagination. 

I also like how the seasons impact my thinking when blending a tea. Recently we created some ready-to-drink teas and it was towards the end of summer with all the berries in season and it just seemed right to use fresh fruit in the mix, so we steeped fruit in filtered water (we call it “fruitsmithing”) and then steeped the tea in the fruited water and found it to be delicious. I don’t think I would have had that idea had I not just driven by a fruit stand in Washington County.

Describe the perfect cup of tea . . .
One that is shared with others — one that satisfies your thirst when you are thirsty, stimulates and inspires you when you are running low on energy and one that soothes the angst of daily life.

How does living in Portland affect your tea-making?
The weather for one is an inspiration – the vast variety of weather whether cold and damp or crisp and fresh.  Also, Portland is full of creatives and the food and beverage scene is so diverse we’re given license to try just about anything.  I like to make tea that not only satisfies those who are tea-centric but also those who are new to tea.  There are some very talented and creative people here in the food and beverage business.  It’s very gratifying to have some of the best chefs in Portland and the best wine makers in the region find the subtleties in what we do and to appreciate what we create. 

Visit Steven Smith Tea Shop: Smith Tea

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)