Portland coffee gets the spreads in the airline magazines. But quietly, ever so quietly, Portland is probably the most important tea city in the nation.
Portlander Steven Smith, who died in March at age 65, was hailed in The New York Times as the "Marco Polo" of American tea, founder not only of his well-regarded eponymous brand, but also the Stash and Tazo tea companies that propelled the U.S. industry away from Lipton to subtle oolong, smoky lapsang souchong and tannic pu-erh.
But the torch is passing, with all of the city's tea players hosting major expansions, and multiple specialty tea purveyors opening. Here's the rundown.
The Jasmine Pearl Tea Co.
724 NE 22nd Ave., 236-3539, thejasminepearl.com.
This year, the 10-year-old Jasmine Pearl more than doubled the size of its clean-lined, hardwood-filled shop, adding a specialty tea bar, a smattering of sodas, tea lattes and a "tea sanctuary" area in which drinkers can hang out and drink tea. But the most important expansion is likely the one behind the scenes, with a ramp-up to 8,000 square feet: Jasmine Pearl can now accommodate more specialty teas like a recent fruity oolong and a cocoa-mint pu-erh, but it also means it can buy directly from farms. "We're able to get fresher tea," says co-founder Heather Agosta. "If you're going farm-direct, you have to buy in much larger volume." Its new event space will also host members of the currently closed Portland Japanese Garden as well as tea classes for the public. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Steven Smith Teamaker
110 SE Washington St., smithtea.com.
The eastside Steven Smith production room is the plan that lived forever. Begun two years ago under founder and teamaker Smith—before he succumbed to liver cancer—it has been left to owner Kim Smith and head teamaker Tony Tellin to finally open the 13,000-square-foot facility in the Central Eastside Industrial District. Well, the eastside blending, testing and production facility is finally in motion—and the new 20-seat tea tasting room will follow suit on December 2. "This'll be our foundry," Tellin told WW in October. "It'll be the main production center for all dry-packaged teas. It's very similar to what we have in [the Northwest] Thurman [Street facility], so you can experience the production elements, you'll see the production machines lined up, we've got the tea lab. In the current building, it's way in the back. We've pushed that up to the front so you can look through and see and be a part of what we do in the lab. The tasting room is twice if not three times bigger, it's pretty cool. Gigantic fireplace, cozy warmth throughout the design." Tellin has also started a Maker's series in collaboration with local chefs and teamakers—the first was an ice-cream oolong with Tyler Malek of Salt & Straw that tasted eerily like French vanilla ice cream. The second, made with Vitaly Paley, was a Russian-style caravan tea that was all smoke and sweetness. The next, with Gregory Gourdet, will be out when it's out; like Steven Smith, Tellin doesn't really believe in schedules.
723 NW 18th Ave., 327-3110, tprojectshop.com.
T Project is more an artist studio than a tea shop. The eclectic Northwest spot, which opened this year, is a homey crossroads of owner (and sole employee) Teri Gelber's widely varied interests, where she shares her love of tea, art and community with anyone who wanders in. Inside the small former design studio, Gelber serves tea and sells other items she loves: art, jewelry, ceramics and even a few nightgowns. In the back, she blends and packages T Project tea, which she sells to local restaurants like Nostrana and Coquine, and are also available online. Her teas are blends she creates to let the tea take center stage while still allowing for inventive flavor combinations. Gelber lives in every detail of T Project, from her organic ingredients to the names of her teas (all classic-rock songs). Stop by and try three teas ($6), as well as whatever Gelber is sampling for the day, or get a tea to go while you stroll the neighborhood. Make sure to ask for the "I Got You," a toasty genmaicha with matcha powder, and the "Marrakesh Express," a minty, citrusy herbal blend. LIZZY ACKER.
1615 NE Killingsworth St., 477-4676, teabarpdx.com.
Where there was once a barber shop and music store, Tea Bar now sits in a bougie strip mall complete with a wine and cider bottle shop, Podnah's Pit barbecue, and soon a Thai fried chicken spot. As you enter Tea Bar, you are greeted by an array of magazines that include an Australian fashion publication featuring cactus embroidery, a French magazine for the modern mother, a variety of Kinfolks and something called Cereal. All is stark white or blonde wood, with a few succulents hiding on decorative shelving, while the the slimly curated, boba-heavy menu is so streamlined it can leave as many questions as answers. Still, the tea is good. The sparkling vanilla rose was sweet and pleasingly carbonated, while the smooth London Fog latte offered an interesting twist of lavender instead of vanilla as a sweetener. Consider it a wonderful place to finally dig in to Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed's new book of quotes. Sip like a motherfucker. LIZZY ACKER.
Thomas & Sons Distillery
4211 SE Milwaukee Ave., thomasandsonsdistillery.com.
Townshend's Tea added Thomas & Sons Distillery this year to its Brew Dr. Kombucha factory, making its booze directly from tea. When we checked in a few months ago, our favorite was a 70-proof sweet tea liqueur that sips easily from a summertime porch, but this fall finds the crop maturing. The new Bitter Tea liqueur may well be Portland's first true amaro, fermented from Assam tea and spiced with a pleasantly strong dose of cardamom, with a minty, peppery back end. The White Rose liqueur—made with white tea and rose petals—was stingingly hot a few months ago, but has cooled into a wonderfully floral concoction that would mix well with Dolin Blanc in a martini glass. For winter, Thomas & Sons is pushing a bracing Bluebird "alpine liqueur" with plenty of fennel, but we'll most likely be kicking back by a fireplace with some Bitter Tea stirred into our rye. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Totem owner Phil Sauerbeck's business card says, humbly, "tea researcher." But after 15 years of tea obsession, he's more like the Alan Lomax of tea, hunting out the rare and untasted from family-run farms and little merchants in Taiwan and bringing them here to you. Almost all of the small-batch teas he sells are unavailable elsewhere nearby, and every one we've tried has been exceptional. Sauerbeck doesn't feel the need to buy and sell a tea he doesn't think is really special, he says. A red-tinted snow honey chrysanthemum from China's Kunlun Mountain is the rare herbal tea that reveals its true depth only on the second steeping, while a gui fei gets its natural sweetness because it's been fed on by leafhoppers, and his mulberry tea is prepared in the style of a Japanese sencha. All are worth not only drinking, but talking about. Right now you can get them only at Coquine and Noraneko restaurants, or online through his website. We suggest, strongly, that you do so. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.