When I entered the 1914 blacksmith's shop in Portland's Northwest District, I thought I'd mistakenly walked in the door of an art dealer instead of a craftsman. My eyes centered on a sleek, high table adorned with orchids and illuminated by soft pendant lighting. Well-traveled tea chests and other artifacts accented shelving used to exhibit small stacks of string-tied boxes, all artfully arranged between two ancient teak columns from Old Delhi. But it was no mistake. And as a new type of smith, a teamaker named Steven Smith, came out to greet me while furiously stirring his latest custom blend, I knew I was in the right place.
Portland, Oregon, and its surrounding area is increasingly becoming the land of curious liquids made by careful artisan producers. Most visitors come in search of famous pinot noirs from the Willamette Valley, though many are also drawn to other drinkable assets, like craft beer, coffee, even sake. But few know the city is perhaps America's most distinguished place for a spot of tea. And much of it has to do with Steven Smith himself.
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A founder of both Stash, acquired by Japan's oldest tea company, Yamamotoyama, in the early '90s, and Tazo, now owned by Starbucks, Smith continues to chart the city's tea map using knowledge gleaned from years of teamaking and traveling to tea estates in exotic locales. His newest venture, a tea production facility with a storefront called Steven Smith Teamaker, takes a highly edited approach to the drink. While many local shops offer extensive menus from around the world, his list is short and simplified, allowing every blend to stand on its own.
"I have pretty much always made teas I like to drink and hope other people like to drink them too," says Smith. "I recognized that when I'm out in restaurants and retail shops, there's an incredible selection of tea and not a lot of it sells very well. We wanted to bring the freshest tea to the consumer, and I decided to keep the selection tight and cover the Grand Cru of flavor profiles that are in the tea world."
All his teas are made in small batches to ensure nothing gets shelf worn, and every item is always sold at the peak of freshness. You can read details about a specific batch, which will vary as much as the seasons where the tea leaves are grown.
With its high tasting table and stools, Smith's tearoom has the vibe of a wine-tasting room, and sampling teas is encouraged. But even more, the experience is interactive, where guests can watch through a glass wall as teamakers blend and pack the fragile leaves in the manufacturing room. "The approach came to me while I was living in France, after being around small artisan producers of chocolate, cheese, wine and bread. I thought it was something I could apply to the tea category," says Smith. "I wanted to pull back the curtain and show people what it takes to make tea."
While observing the tea production process, tasters can take their time with a tea flight and learn to properly slurp the brewed "liquor" with a silver spoon. Seemingly counterintuitive for such a dignified beverage, this tasting technique will help people appreciate the complex flavor profiles of the steeped leaves, and know whether their cup is brisk, "biscuity" or "vegetative." But don't worry. A tearoom host is always on hand to help.