The vibe in a tea shop—and in a Smith Teamaker tea shop in particular—differs greatly from that in a coffee shop. For one thing, it’s not so loud. There’s no coffee grinder abruptly roaring to life, no frantic drink names called over blending frappucinos.
Instead, there’s merely the murmur of bar staff talking tea.
Stacked tins rest next to various brewing systems that line the wall. Cushioned stools trace the tea bar’s long counter. The loudest thing in the room is a quote on the wall from Steven Smith, which reads, “The perfect cup of tea is one shared with others.”
Located on the corner of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Glisan Street, the first-ever Smith Teamaker cafe opened in May—long after its namesake rose tumultuously through the Portland tea market to iconic status.
Smith co-founded Portland-area point of pride Stash Tea in 1972. In 1994, he created Tazo Tea Company, which he eventually sold to Starbucks.
Despite retiring at age 57 and moving his family to France, Smith returned to Portland two years later, in 2010, with the idea of starting yet another tea business—this time focused on extra-small-batch, high-quality teas. Sadly, Smith died of liver cancer in 2015, but his legacy of treasuring something as meaningful and simple as the ritual surrounding a good cup of tea has surged on. The cafe serves 30 kinds of hot tea, but the curious come in for colorful lattes and aromatic tea mocktails.
The Golden Light Latte is a major favorite and can be served iced or hot. It’s made by pulling Smith Golden Light tea—with turmeric, sarsaparilla root, and black pepper—through an espresso (or “teapresso”) machine, then adding maple syrup and dousing the blend with oat milk. The result is a beautiful, complex, sweet and softly spiced drink that goes mind-bendingly well with one of the pastry case’s sea salt-sprinkled miso-peanut butter cookies.
Even the cafe’s more filling food items incorporate tea into the recipes. The Garden Sandwich, for instance, slices beets roasted in floral jasmine tea and piles them high on spelt bread with tea kimchi, cucumber, sprouts, herbs, White Petal tea-infused cheese, and avocado.
This intentional tea touch was designed by chef Karl Holl, who wanted the cafe menu to go easy on the earth while showcasing how much could be done with plants. The menu is entirely vegetarian and offers gluten-free and vegan options.
Holl also sought to incorporate plants and fruits from Oregon. The shop’s thumbprint cookie uses just the right amount of jam made from Oregon berries.
Similarly, a partnership with bakery Grano led to a chocolate chip cookie that makes unique use of lavender tea.
One of the best things about Smith Teamaker is that one can stop in to grab a special tea drink, read a chapter of a book, and then end up leaving with several pouches of tea, matcha and bottled masala chai to enjoy at home.
The staff aren’t hiding any trade secrets. They’re happy to instruct customers on how to make home versions of their favorite café drinks.
For a home version of the Golden Light, add some honey or maple syrup to a glass measuring cup. Then add tea bags. Pour in just enough hot water to cover the tea bags; then pour that mixture into another cup filled with ice. Finally, add a milk of your choice to taste.
It’s hard to come by a cafe open past 4 pm these days, since COVID zapped a lot of local businesses’ ability to fully staff their operations. So Smith’s hours—open until 6 pm!—are something of a pandemic luxury. The only thing not so ideal about the new Smith Teamaker cafe is the sometimes lengthy search for a parking spot on Northwest 23rd.
DRINK: Smith Teamaker, 500 NW 23rd Ave.,503-206-745, smithtea.com. 9 am-6 pm daily.