Steve Smith, leading U.S. tea connoisseur and entrepreneur, dies at 65

Steve Smith, leading U.S. tea connoisseur and entrepreneur, dies at 65
Steve Smith, the cofounder of Tazo tea, in Portland, Ore., in 2005. Smith stayed on with Tazo after it was acquired by Starbucks in 1999 until he retired in 2006. (Motoya Nakamura / Oregonian)

Steven Smith, a Portland, Ore., entrepreneur whose enchantment with tea and wizardry at blending flavors helped turn the United States into a nation of tea connoisseurs, died Monday at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore. He was 65.

The cause was complications of liver cancer, said his daughter, Carrie Smith-Prei.


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 cofounder 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.

"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 United States 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 lemon grass, ginger root, cardamom, hibiscus flowers and cucumber juice.

But his contribution to the surge in tea drinking had as much to do with the personality of his brands as with their refined taste.

"I bought the best tea I could find on the planet," Smith told Imbibe magazine last year, and charged almost twice as much as most of his competitors in the mid-1990s. But he also infused his products with New Age humor.

"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.

Tazo consumers who read the fine print learned that the product's shelf life, for instance, was "Longer than milk, but shorter than a Twinkie," and that "the mumbled chants of a certified tea shaman" contributed to the flavor. The latter line, like the more conventional ingredients, received Food and Drug Administration approval.

Norwood Pratt recalled that Smith once showed him an ancient "Tazo stone" at the company's headquarters, which he claimed was used by shamans for rituals performed for every outgoing shipment of tea.

The stone was a complete fabrication, as was the name Tazo itself. Despite straight-faced assertions that Tazo referred to "the whirling mating dance of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt," it was the product of a boozy brainstorm session, "one name out of dozens we had on a blackboard," Tazo cofounder Stephen Lee said in an interview last week. But the fiction resonated with consumers who were ready for a new take on tea.

"There is a great deal of mystery and romance that surrounds this humble drink, but it had been stripped of all the romance in the hands of mass marketers.

Steve helped restore the romance of tea," Norwood Pratt said.

Traveling around the world to source his teas, Smith also was devoted to improving the lives of tea workers by sponsoring humanitarian projects in India through the Portland-based Mercy Corps.

Smith was born May 29, 1949, in Portland, one of four children of Daniel and Verla Smith. After school he would go next door to see his grandmother, who always had a pot of sweet Red Rose tea waiting.


He dropped out of Portland State University in the late 1960s and served three years in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Discharged in 1971, he returned to Portland to manage a natural foods store. Lee was one of the customers.

When the store folded, Lee bought its inventory of herbs and spices and founded Stash in 1972 but struggled with sales until Smith joined him. Packing his Volkswagen bus full of camomile, spearmint and lemon grass samples, Smith sold $15,000 worth in three weeks. "He was one of the best salespeople I've known, partly because he didn't know how good he was," said Lee, who quickly made Smith a partner.

Not long after starting Stash, they talked Oregon peppermint farmers into selling the plant's leaves for tea and wound up supplying hundreds of tons to tea giant Lipton and a newer rival, Celestial Seasonings. On mint's proceeds Stash grew into a national brand.

In 1994, the year after Stash was acquired by the venerable Japanese tea company Yamamotoyama, Smith founded Tazo with Lee and other partners. At more than $4 a box, Tazo soon was flying off the shelves.

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.

Besides DeMent and Smith-Prei, his daughter from a previous marriage, his survivors include a son, Jack, three sisters and two grandchildren.

When Smith left Starbucks, he received a free pound of coffee every week, but, as he told Huffington Post a few years ago, he drank little of it. "Often I give it away because I only drink a half a cup a day," he said. "For the rest of the day it's tea, tea and more tea."

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