Steven Smith, the iconic Portland teamaker who launched three of the best-known brands in high-end tea passed away yesterday, The Oregonian reports.
Smith was, in our words from last year, "[not] just the dean of Portland tea [but] also the ex-president and the professor emeritus... The guy imagines tea flavors for his blends like a young girl dreams of unicorns, then runs around trying to find leaves to match. "
After launching Tazo and Stash, which were both acquired by global players, Smith opened a delightful shop in outer Northwest, where you can find some of the world's best blends in a dimly lit and very Zen tasting room.
Like so many of Portland's best-loved business people, Smith was known for bringing connoisseurship and attentive sourcing to a world that only knew Lipton.
"I saw an opportunity to be a little more fearless in the way we merchandised, the way we talked about tea, even the blends and formulas we could create," he told Entrepreneur magazine in 2012.
Smith grew up in East Portland, according to the O, in a neighborhood that's today called Brentwood-Darlington, and went to Franklin High School and then to Portland State for a year before dropping out and joining the Navy. He emerged a hippie, growing long, curly hair and driving a VW bus up and down the West Coast, peddling chamomile, lemongrass and other herbs. That company, Stash, developed a market for Oregon-grown mint which underwrote his early efforts in tea.
After selling his share of Stash to a Japanese firm in 1993, Smith started Tazo, which pushed boundaries further—at one point, they even sold frozen tea popsicles known as "tea pops." After selling to Starbucks, he took a year off and then returned with his eponymous brand in 2009.
"I named it after myself so I wouldn't sell this one," he once quipped to me.
Steven Smith tea took things to the next level immediately. As the Oregonian put it: "[E]legant string-tied boxes popped up on shelves of gourmet stores nationwide. Each box bore a number to be entered on the company's web site, which detailed exactly when and where the batch was harvested, blended and packed..."
And yet Smith was no snob. He remarkably down-to-earth and generous with his time, which I discovered in 2013, when we asked him to help determine the best free tea in Portland.
WW interns spent a few weeks gathering up dry tea from Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and then invited America's foremost tea expert over to our office. Because this is Portland, he came. He brought along a fancy porcelain tea set and spent about two hours making tea, teaching us about tea and analyzing our cups.
"There are no teas here that anybody should be ashamed of as a free tea," he told us for the story, Teatime for Tightwads, "although I might question paying for some of them."
The winner, by the way, came from Yen Ha.
"Iâve actually been looking for a flavor like this in a different leaf,â Smith said.
Services will be held in The Sentinel hotel, 614 S.W. 11th Ave. at 3:30 pm on March 31 according to the Oregonian.