July 5, 2010— -- 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.
As someone who prefers lighter teas with subtle flavors, I'm partial to the Fez, a rare green tea with a speck of Oregon spearmint, as well as to the delicate petals of the Chinese osmanthus flower in Smith's White Pearl blend. If you want to know what it's like to drink a spiced cumulus cloud, try the chai latte. But don't let me fog your judgment. Tea selection is very personal, so you'll have to sample them for yourself. Flights of four teas cost $5.75.
Other Teas to Try in Portland
In addition to Smith's, there are nearly as many locally owned teahouses in Portland as there are neighborhoods. While his shop offers refined discernment and education, other businesses bring their own approach to the drink, from honoring traditional customs in Asia and Britain to emulating coffeehouse culture and other modern twists. So while you're out and about experiencing the town, make a point to tour all the teas, too. Here are a few excellent options:
If you've started out at Steven Smith Teamaker, a good next stop in the Northwest area is the Tower of Cosmic Reflections located in the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Built in 2000 by more than 80 artisans, the teahouse is run by Tao of Tea and offers a menu highlighting Chinese varieties, many of which can be ordered ceremony style, like the famous Gong-Fu for oolongs. You'll feel transported back to 16th century China as you relax with your cup and gaze out toward the tranquil garden.
Across the Willamette River, Tao of Tea's Original Tao, built in 1997, is Portland's oldest tea house (according to the company's website) and is a standout among a row of coffee shops and cafes on Southeast Belmont Street in Sunnyside. The tea room and adjacent shop stock teas from all over, plus offer a comprehensive list of herbal infusions and ayurvedic teas. Reading through pages of single varietals and blends requires patience but is half the fun. With Buddha statues, Tibetan prayer bells, and nooks shielded by gauzy curtains, you'll feel as if you've traveled across the globe and landed somewhere in Asia.
Townshend's Northeast Albert Street location reflects the funky flavor of this strip of neighborhood restaurants and shops. Inside, local hipsters chat with each other or fret away solo on their laptops, all while sipping the latest concoction made with maté (a South American infused beverage), which could include "matéjuana," a mixed of maté, lapacho, and kava root that's said to be as mind altering as the name implies. Another shop favorite is chai and its dozen or so variations.
For something more "proper," head downtown for a delayed lunch in the form of a traditional British afternoon tea. The historic Tea Court at the Heathman Restaurant and Bar hosts this Victorian indulgence with white tablecloth service under a crystal chandelier. For $32 per person, each guest gets a whole pot, finger sandwiches, scones, and an assortment of mini-cakes and other sweets like house-made marshmallows. Weekday seatings are at 2:00, and advance reservations are a must.
For a late afternoon break, sink into a well-worn velvet couch as you peruse the large selection of organic and fair trade teas at Tea Chai Te (that's "tea" in three different languages) back in Northwest Portland. With more than 80 varieties to choose from, you can find pretty much any type, including kombucha, a fermented mushroom tea, and Taiwanese bubble tea. Though, if you need a break from caffeine, it might be best to hit the "Apothecary" for a blended herbal infusion.
If you've got the verve to keep going, Portland's tea scene continues well into the wee hours, especially at Tea Zone, a tea bar by day and lounge by night in the happening Pearl District. During happy hour, tea-inspired cocktails like Darjeeling-infused gin with fresh lemon juice and champagne, or the "Smokey Robinson" made with lapsang souchong bourbon and spicy maté sour, are the perfect segue to an evening of live music.
You can follow my tour plotted out on a Google Map, but you're sure to find a host of other tea houses with a little research of your own.
With so many businesses in the same competitive space, you have to wonder how so many can survive, especially in a world with big names like Stash, which has a retail store in nearby Tigard, Tazo, and even Oregon Chai, a company that makes honey-spiced tea mixes and concentrates. According to Smith, "It's a robust area for hot and cold beverages, and is an area that grows entrepreneurs." Clearly, it's also the creativity those entrepreneurs bring to their ventures that keeps people interested.
So what could possibly be next for Portland? You'll have better luck reading the tea leaves then asking me. But what I can tell you is that you're sure to find something wonderful to wet your whistle while in town.
- Steven Smith Teamaker: 1626 NW Thurman Street; smithtea.com
- Tower of Cosmic Reflections: 239 NW Everett Street; taooftea.com
- Tao of Tea: 3430 SE Belmont Street; taooftea.com
- Townshend's: 2223 NE Alberta Street; townshendstea.com
- Tea Court Lounge at the Heathman: 1001 SW Broadway; heathmanrestaurantandbar.com
- Tea Chai Te: 734 NW 23rd Avenue; teachaite.com
- Tea Zone: 510 NW 11th Avenue; http://www.teazone.com/
- Stash (retail store): 7250 S.W. Durham Road, Tigard, OR; stashtea.com
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Anne Banas is the executive editor of SmarterTravel, as well as a columnist, and a frequently quoted observer of travel trends and issues. Anne particularly enjoys helping travelers find great deals to both popular and up-and-coming destinations. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.