Disclosure: Travel Oregon covered my expenses for this trip. I have not, however, received any compensation for writing about it.
Portland, like its big sister Seattle, is a serious coffee town. On this third morning, we had the handsome, tattooed hipsters from Water Avenue Coffee pouring us our morning cuppa. I wanted to crawl into the cup. Even some of our most notable roasters here in the Bay Area roast a little much for my taste. Water Avenue's brew was smooth, mellow and rich. Best of all, we got a half-pound bag to take home, so I got to savor it for days after my return. (DPaul is not a coffee drinker, so MORE FOR ME.) Seriously, this stuff was so good I wanted to suck the beans.
But it wouldn't have been prudent for me to overcaffeinate. This morning's activity was a trip to Steven Smith Teamaker, where we got rockstar access.
Smith knows a thing or two about tea. He was one of the cofounders of Stash Tea, and then the founder of Tazo, both of which were acquired. With his eponymous brand, Smith set out to leverage his expertise and connections in the global market to create a superpremium collection of teas.
After a tour of the facility, they set us up with a tasting of three groupings of teas: Green, black and herbal infusions.
Our tea sherpa took us through the basics of making tea. Much of the tea you buy in the stores uses minute particles of tea leaves. This imparts a lot more flavor, but it's coarse. Smith uses whole-leaf teas for richer, more subtle flavor. When making tea, a bag or infuser should only be about 1/3 full. The water should be between 180-195ºF. Always add tea to water, not the other way around, lest the hot water scald the tea and give it a toasted flavor. Steep green tea for 3-4 minutes, black for 5, and herbals for as long as you like.
Now, here's my guilty foodie confession: I have a habit of making a pot of tea, whatever I have on hand, pouring the hot water over the tea, and then forgetting about it. Then, an hour or three later, I come back, notice the tepid pot of overextracted tea on the counter, and proceed to drink it anyway. I'm not saying I'm going to change my habits, but after this experience, I will at least know what I'm doing wrong.
Smith's teas are exquisite. We started with White Petal, a white tea with chamomile and osmanthium blossoms, which gave it a peachy, fresh flavor. (For this tea, they use only the petals of chamomile, the byproduct of their chamomile infusion, which uses only the heart of the flower.) Of the green teas, Mao Feng Shui was light and faintly kelpy. Jasmine Silver Tip was delicate and floral. Unlike most jasmine teas, Smith adds fresh flowers to the dry tea leaves, which absorb the aroma. The flowers are then separated and discarded, leaving only an elegant perfume. I swooned for Fez, a green tea with Oregon spearmint and Australian lemon myrtle. It's fresh, citric and totally refreshing.
In the black tea category, the Bungalow Darjeeling was nutty, toasty and faintly fruity. The Kandy Sri Lanka, a blend of three regions, had a balanced flavor and soft mouthfeel. By contrast, the Brahmin Assam was astringent, floral and leathery. And the Lord Bergamot is Smith's take on Earl Grey, with a refined citrus aroma.
But the herbals really blew me away, quite unexpectedly. We started with Meadow, a chamomile base with fragrant hyssop and lavender rooibos that had a honeyed flavor like moscato. Red Nectar combined rooibos and honeybush with fresh raspberries for a soothing brew. Blood-red Hisbiscus Flowers slapped you upside the head with bright acidity, notes of berries and hints of spice. I wanted to drink it forever. But the showstopper was the Peppermint Leaves, entirely from Oregon. The first sip instantly filled the mouth with intense coolness and a creamy texture. It blows every other mint tea out of the water, so to speak. Since the trip, I have made the peppermint, Fez and chamomile part of our regular rotation of teas.