Steve Smith knows a thing or two about tea. Having co-created both Stash and Tazo (two of the best known U.S. tea brands, Stash was acquired by Japanese tea company Yamamotoyama in 1993 and Tazo was bought by Starbucks in 1999), he probably could've retired early.
But instead, he's just launched a new line of meticulously sourced, beautifully crafted teas under his own name: Steven Smith Teamaker. When I visited his Portland, Oregon-based atelier this summer, I was impressed by how small and tightly run the operation is. There are no outside tasters or focus groups, just a team of five tea lovers (including Smith) who sift, taste, and package everything by hand. In his Zenlike headquarters on the northern fringes of the Pearl District, Smith and his crew blend tea by hand in small batches to maintain freshness and seasonality. He sources ingredients from farms he and his wife have visited—from Fayoum, Egypt (chamomile) to India (organic Darjeeling) to nearby Hermiston, Oregon (peppermint). Traceability is key: each artfully designed carton has both its batch number and the date packed printed on the bottom so customers can trace the ingredients down to the exact lot and garden. (You can even find out the week of harvest and farmer's name, should you so desire.)
This fall, Smith released 12 teas (including white peony with asmanthus from China and a Darjeeling Bungalow or "Bed" tea from India) and though he has just 40 accounts, they're the right ones: Zabar's and Eli's in Manhattan and Portland's New Seasons grocery store. There's also a lovely tea room on site @ 1626 Thurman St., Portland (Phone: 503/719-8752)
I single out Smith in the current issue of Monocle (subscription only) as a "Leader of the Pack" in a story on Companies to Watch. ("Identifying a gap in a market is the easy part; creating a pioneering company to plug that gap requires a bit more skill. We present five firms that have found their niche and done the hard work, too.")