Beer and tea.
Our moderately-sized northwestern berg has forty-plus microbreweries...and counting. This probably goes hand-in-hand with the "unhappiest city" part, so I won't focus on that any further. The second may seem less obvious. Two major tea companies had their starts here, Tazo (now a Starbucks minion) and Stash (now owned by the Japanese). These two well-known tea brands have two things in common. Both were Portland-based, and still have major offices here. Both, also, were co-founded by the same person; one Steve Smith.
I knew nothing about the man until a boss at my old art gallery job sent me blurb about him earlier this year. The online article he sent me was a Q/A with Smith about his return to the City of Roses and of his new tea-related venture; Smith Teamaker. After skimming the article, I tossed it aside, giving it no further thought. No dates were up as to when the place would open.
Fast-forward to October, and another co-worker at my other job (the dreaded hotel o' doom) put a printed Oregonian "Food Day" article in my box - a more in-depth interview and expose on Steve Smith and the new company. That got me excited, for there were more details to whet my brain's appetite. The place was set to open in the next few weeks!
After perusing the Smith Teamaker website, I zapped off an e-mail inquiring if there was a teashop on site with the business - similar in fashion to what Stash did. I received a very prompt and friendly e-mail indicating they opened a week after the Food Day article. To my surprise, I was told it was a shop and tasting room.
I gleamed a giddy grin. Perhaps it's a bit of the fantasy geek in me, but I love little quests; brewpubs, scenic road trips, eateries, and of course tearooms. Adagio Tea's "TeaMap" site became my bible over the years for notching off small town tearooms, shops, and B&Bs with tea-ish leanings. Sometimes there were places that escaped their notice, particularly the new spaces. Of all the local tea merchants I'd frequented, not one had a formal tasting room. This excited my inner herbal Hobbit to no end.
Now to form a posse.
I'd be lying if I said I'd never done a tea-tasting before. As luck would have it, upon a visit to Stash Tea - a mere ten-minute drive from my house - I happened upon a reserved tasting in progress. One of the merchants was kind enough to let me sample their wares as I looked around and pontificated on the finer spice properties of Chai. I ended up spending $20 more than intended. Damn you, Lapsang Souchong!
But I digress...
I put an informal invite out to whoever wanted to join me on this tiny escapade. Responses were sparse, but it perked the interest of two. For the purposes of this - and for the sake of anonymity - we'll call them FriendZero and HappyJ. The former is named so, not for a lack of value, but rather that he was (and is) the epicenter of several disparate social circles. He is "Friend Zero". The latter is referred to thus because...well...she's always so darn happy. Moving along.
After fetching FriendZero from his abode in the 'burbs, and some inevitable missteps due to my lack of sense of direction, we eventually found the place and met HappyJ indoors. I was floored by the interior; very crisp and clean, walls lined with boxes of Smith Teamaker teas. Dead center was a counter where a smiling hostess greeted us. There were back booths for sitting and sipping. But the true site to behold lay to my left perched atop the tea display - a giant, brass Samovar.
"Where on earth did you get that?" I asked to no one in particular.
The hostess responded, "Oh, it was something Steve Smith picked up in his many travels."
I was in awe of the thing. Just days before, I expounded upon the old Russian water-heater/tea machines. Their designs were ornate, slightly esoteric, bombastic even. The one before us looked a tad more practical and stove-like. Still, at a two-thirds my size and right above me, it was a sight to behold.
Once I was able to pry my gaze away from the brass monstrosity, we stood before the tasting counter. Everything about the setup reminded me of a wine-tasting room. I even vocalized as much. The hostess nodded after we described which flights we wanted to try. HappyJ went with the herbal flight. FriendZero with the white/green tea flight. Figuring we were going to be communal, I settled on the black tea flight (while black was not usually my favorite.)
When we selected, the hostess ducked out through to the back. Seconds later she re-emerged to tell us that Steve Smith himself would be presiding over the tasting. This was something I wasn't expecting at all, a real treat. After reading two articles on the guy, I wanted to pick his brain.
Upon entering the room, the first thing I noticed about the guy was his hair. For a man of 60, he had great hair. When/if I made it to then (barring a poor fast food diet), I hoped I had half the hair he did. Second, he carried himself with quiet dignity and grace, like a man who'd traveled long and found the perfect couch. He walked us through the way the tasting would unfold, told us each to take a tasting spoon. That is, except his spoon. Yes, he had a favorite. A small, silver spoon he picked up (I believe?) in the Middle East.
And like a maestro, he went through the various offerings, providing us with the backdrops and backgrounds of each blend, what went into it and why. Occasionally, I interjected with my own questions, steeped in esoterica. With the patience of a saint, he corrected me on my clumsy attempts at taster notes when I did sip something.
Of the teas we tried, our clear favorites were a Moroccan Mint variant they dubbed "Fez"; a blend of green tea, lemon myrtle and spearmint. It vaguely reminded FriendZero and I of Tazo's Zen blend but with less sharpness and more citrus; thanks to the lemon myrtle, which I loved in anything. Of the black teas, the clear winner was Kandy - a Ceylon blend from three different estate teas. One that Smith also showed us was a single estate Nuwara Eliya black varietal that they only had a limited supply of. He was kind enough to impart a few bags to us.
On the herbal infusion front, all three of our opinions were mixed. HappyJ took an instant liking to the Peppermint Leaves offering, utilizing only Oregon-grown stuff. ("Best in the world," as Steve Smith put it.) I was partial to their Big Hibiscus - a smorgasbord of various herbs, hibiscus taking point of course. Don't quite recall which one FriendZero preferred, I think it was the Meadow chamomile blend.
Both of my party members picked up multiple boxes. Being the less-affluent of us three, I went the loose-leaf route, picking up 2oz. bags of the Kandy and Fez. Half the cost of the 15-ct. sachet boxes. I was unsure of why there was a disparity between the loose and bagged types, but it wasn't a deal-breaker. My preference is loose for steeping excellence.
We left well-stocked and satisfied with promises of return visits. The evening capped out with a sushi run and a cold walk back to our cars, laughing at hipster passersby.
All in all, I would call this my second favorite tea outing to date. First still being the Portland Classical Chinese Garden for being - well - garden-like. For a first true tasting room experience, it was tops. And I can safely say that Steve Smith's knowledge-base, blending prowess, and care for tea-artisanry live up to the articles. A second round can't come soon enough.
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