Los Angles — American tea pioneer Steven Smith, who had worked to improve living conditions for tea workers in India, has died at the age of 65.
Smith died Mar. 23 at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, American media reports said. The cause was complications from liver cancer, said his daughter Carrie Smith-Prei.
His enchantment with tea and wizardry at blending flavors had helped turn the U.S. into a nation of tea connoisseurs, the reports said.
Dubbed the “All-Star Alchemist of Top-Shelf Tea” by the Wall Street Journal, Smith helped put Portland on the map as the capital of gourmet tea as co-founder of the Stash and Tazo brands, which became multimillion-dollar success stories with their emphasis on premium ingredients and whimsical aura.
Fueled by Smith creations like the minty “Zen” and the English Breakfast-style “Awake,” Tazo became such a powerful brand that Starbucks bought the company and made Smith its in-house guru for the beverage, The Los Angeles Times reported.
“Steve Smith was among those who bear much credit for today’s tea renaissance in the U.S.,” said tea historian James Norwood Pratt, noting that the U.S. not only imports and consumes four times as much tea today than it did 20 years ago, but it also surpasses both Britain and Japan in tea consumption.
“He had a masterful palate. And he was a genius of a blender.”
In the early 1970s, when most mass-market tea was either green or black and bland, Smith went after bold and unusual flavors, experimenting with ingredients like lemongrass, ginger root, cardamom, hibiscus flowers and cucumber juice.
“He made being productive very fun,” said Tony Tellin, formerly Tazo’s chief taster and now director of operations at Steven Smith Teamaker, the last company Smith founded.
Traveling around the world to source his teas, Smith was also devoted to improving the lives of tea workers by sponsoring humanitarian projects in Darjeeling and Assam through the Portland-based Mercy Corps.
After Starbucks bought Tazo in 1999 for $9 million, Smith continued to guide the brand’s marketing and development.
“He could taste a tea and say, ‘Bring it up half a percent.’ It would make a tremendous difference,” said Mike De La Cruz, Starbucks’ director of research and development.
In 2006, Smith retired from Starbucks and moved to the south of France. Then, in 2009, he launched Steven Smith Teamaker in an old Portland blacksmith shop with his wife, Kim DeMent, to make small-batch, artisanal teas.