In 2009, I met an extraordinary man. A legend, really.
He had just opened his newest operation, Steven Smith Teamaker – aptly named after himself. He had reason for such bravado, having co-founded two of the largest tea companies ever. Stash Tea Company and Tazo (pre-Starbucks) were his brainchildren. The man had earned his stripes. And with Smith Tea, he hoped to bring the simple touch of small batch blending back to the forefront.
And – hoo-boy – did he?!
With his wife, Kim DeMent, and a dedicated team, Smith became a recognizable and reliable brand for quality. Much like the man himself. When I first met him, he presided over a tea tasting when I brought friends to the new brick-‘n-mortar Smith HQ. He was humble, humorous, and had the best head of hair of any teaman I’d met, yet.
At the time, my tea discovery was still in its infancy. But as my knowledge grew, I found myself returning to the shop time and again. On a few occasions, as I sat there minding my own business, nursing a pot, he would find time to sit with me and talk. He even let me in on some of the secrets a-brewin’ in their Wonka-esque workshop.
A particular favorite of mine was their range of barrel-aged teas. I was one of the first to sample their Methode Noir – a pinot barrel-aged black – as well as one of the first purchasers of their bourbon Assam. Naturally, I wrote about both.
If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think my odd and tangential tea journey would’ve progressed the way it did. I don’t think he was fully aware of this, but he was the reason I started honing my research regarding tea estates and gardens.
I guess one could say if it weren’t for him, his shop, the tea philosophy he cultivated, Steep Stories wouldn’t be what it is today. To date, I think I’ve done more blogs on Smith Tea than I have any other outfit. And there’s a reason for that. Or at least, there was.
On Monday, March 23rd, 2015, Steve Smith succumbed to liver cancer. I found the news out secondhand through a former employee of the company. Naturally, I was shocked. Mouth agape-type shocked, even. My gut reaction, though, was to brew something – anything. Then it occurred to me . . .
I still had some rum barrel-aged white tea Team Smith had produced.
Months back, I negotiated my way to a sample of the stuff, but I never dipped into it. What better time than this? I broke out the Bai Mu Dan leaves, and gave ‘em a good whiff. The aroma was sweet, slightly forest-like, and possessing an undercurrent of – well – rum. Six months of aging will do that to a tea.
The liquor brewed light yellow, giving off a sweet, humble aroma. On sip, it was soft, equally sweet and lingering. Probably the most poetic of the barrel-aged teas they’d released to date. It was the perfect tea to have as a memory to a modern shaman
Every Tuesday, I do cheesy tea haikus. Steve, this haiku’s for you.
Rest in teas, o’ Peppermint Prince.
Per the Oregonian article on Steve’s passing, his family suggests that those who wish to honor him donate to Mercy Corps’ School Education Retention Program, which aims to help students finish high school in Assam, India.