After the first sip, I couldn't believe my mouth. The tea tasted just like French vanilla ice cream.
"The heart of it is what they call a milk oolong," says Tony Tellin, head teamaker at Steven Smith, in his tiny cupping lab on Northwest Thurman Street. "It's got a buttery, milky, intense, fatty texture."
After happening across the Tazo tea office 19 years ago, Tellin spent almost half his life working alongside Portland-born tea legend Steven Smith, who founded both Stash and Tazo before starting his eponymous Teamaker company in 2009.
But since Smith succumbed to cancer in March at age 65, Tellin has steered Smith's tea. He'll oversee a huge expansion this month, with a 13,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room opening in the Central Eastside, plans Smith began almost two years ago.
Tellin, with a crisp-brimmed cap and apron, looks like a skater who grew up to be a carpenter. And he's continued Smith's tradition of innovation.
After years of making special blends and teas for other companies—spiced black teas that Rogue can blend with beer, smoked peppermint tea for Feast—Tellin says his new Maker's Series turns the tables.
"Usually people say, 'How can we incorporate your teas into our products?'" says Tellin. "This was more handcuffing people to a bench—yes, helping us make a tea, but also inspiring us."
His ice-cream oolong was a collaboration with Salt & Straw's Tyler Malek, using bourbon vanilla beans, Spanish almonds, white jasmine blossoms and Indian sarsaparilla. Tellin melted sugar candy made by Malek over vanilla beans.
The tea tastes so much like ice cream it's like sleight of hand, both exciting and unnerving.
Still, only about 200 people got to try the tea when Steven Smith released the limited-edition collaboration in July.
"We sold out in three days," says Tellin.
But though the ice-cream oolong is unobtainable by everyone but Tellin—he's got a little bag stashed away—more collaborations are on the way. On Oct. 1, Steven Smith released the second in the Maker's Series, a woodshed-smoky, hibiscus-tart Georgian Caravan tea Tellin concocted with chef Vitaly Paley.
In the old Slavic style, it comes with fresh huckleberry jam meant to mix as sweetener. Tellin doubled the batch to 475 boxes, in hopes the tea will be available for at least a week.
Paley's Georgian-born mother was the test audience, and she told them they got the Cyrillic label a little wrong. But she loved the tea so much she sent Paley down to get a box before it went on sale, saying it brought back fond memories of the old country.
With jam blended in, Paley's tea tastes like a continental breakfast in liquid form–tannic bittersweetness backed by sudden tartness, a pick-me-up for the icy depressives of Chekhov or Tolstoy.
"It was a pretty spiritual experience," Tellin says of watching Paley's mother's tea tasting.
But the same could be said for Tellin's turn as head teamaker. He spends a lot of time thinking about how best to carry on Smith's legacy.
"We were talking about this yesterday," Tellin says. "There are a lot of things we'll have to do to keep up his quality expectations on all fronts. But the biggest one is, don't work on deadlines. Do whatever you think it needs to make it the best you can."
Tellin is currently aging three holiday teas—a white tea scented with pear brandy, a spiced black tea aging in aquavit, a Moringa tea with vanilla and whiskey—but is still tweaking the recipes even with the tea in the barrels.
And although he knows he'll be working with Departure celebuchef Gregory Gourdet for his third tea collaboration, he's in no hurry to set a date—he'd rather give Gourdet time to come up with ideas.
"We're strategic, but we don't have the entire next three months mapped out," Tellin says. "When Steve founded this company, when we started this company, the idea was to follow what you want to drink. And that's what we do."
DRINK: Steven Smith Teamaker, 1626 NW Thurman St., 719-8752, smithtea.com.