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Art of the Tea blends expertise with some surprises

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Art of the Tea founder and CEO Steve Schwartz could be mistaken for a tea zealot, until you hear his story
At Art of the Tea, CEO blends in his expertise with some surprises

Smell that, says Steve Schwartz, shaking what looks like dried grass out of a sealed bag. I inch my nose closer: It's fetid, with a touch of swamp and dirty socks.

"That's vetiver," he says. "It's a root with relaxing properties that we use for wellness teas, typically found in India." And, "yes, it does smell a little like dirty socks," he admits, laughing. "But we'll take this and balance it out with goji berries and other botanicals to create something pleasantly grassy."

That's the beauty of blending.

The headquarters of the Art of Tea, halfway between downtown and Monterey Park, is pretty bare bones. The black tablecloth on the conference table is wrinkled, the chairs flimsy. A whiteboard is scribbled with "Create a delicious experience," the goal this year. For a high-end tea company, I was expecting something, well, more art-directed.

Schwartz isn't what I expect either: a 6-foot-4 guy, obviously very fit, bounding through the door, electric with energy. And when he begins to talk tea, he sweeps you up into his enthusiasm. At 38, Schwartz is the founder and CEO of the 10-year-old business that creates custom teas for the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Vera Wang, Hinoki & the Bird and a host of luxury hotels and restaurants. The firm also has a robust online business at http://www.artoftea.com.

Schwartz could easily come across as a tea zealot — until you hear his story. He'd been studying Ayurvedic medicine at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico and discovered a talent for blending medicinal teas. As he got further into blending, he was curious about why certain teas and botanicals were grown on certain hillsides or at certain elevations. Fascinated that so many tastes and flavors came from one plant, Camellia sinensis, he wanted to know more.

"That same evergreen shrub grown near sea level as compared to grown at 3,000 feet can have all these different flavor profiles," Schwartz explains. "And then by changing the heating element from charcoal to an aged wood versus a young wood, you get even more flavor profiles." He could go on and on about the subject, cheerfully admitting that he's even more addicted to learning about tea than to drinking it.

He started out before the advent of the Internet, so he was trying to source ingredients for his teas by looking up businesses in old Indian or Chinese phone books. Forget that, he wanted to see for himself how tea was grown and processed. After working four jobs to save money, he finally set off with a backpack to visit the tea estates of the world. His parents and everyone he knew thought he was crazy. That trip lasted 11/2 years. And when he came back, he knew what he wanted to do: import and sell top-of-the-line teas, all organic.

He started small, blending and packing teas in his living room. A year in, his wife told him he had to get out of the living room. He rented a small space, eventually moved to a bigger one, and now, 10 years later, has 24 employees. He still keeps the business lean. He doesn't store a lot of product so that everything is as fresh as possible. It comes in, it goes out.

The lab looks like a typical office kitchen — a sink, some shelves, table and chairs. But there's also a small scale that can weigh fractions of grams. And the shelves are stacked with plastic containers labeled linden flower, licorice root, marigold, lemon grass, myrtle. This is where he makes the test blends for his teas. Though he deals with the same tea estates, before every shipment he gets a sample. He and trusted employees will taste and then decide. And then when the shipment arrives, they'll taste again.

He prepared several teas — Ancient Forest (a hand-picked black tea harvested from Jingmai Mangjing's Blue Mountains in Yunnan, China), Golden Needle (a tea he'd just gotten in) and Amore (a blend of white tea with rose petals, mint and lavender). Each is fascinatingly distinct. The large leaves of Golden Needle unfurl as it steeps, giving off a grassy, floral fragrance. Amore is delicate and refreshing. Ancient Forest tastes of iron and earth.

So many choices, so many flavors. And yet when it comes to his first cup of tea each morning, it's always the same: Ancient Forest, stern and bracing.

Irene.virbila@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter at @sirenevirbila

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