It is with profound sadness that I share the news of the passing of Steve Smith on Monday. As I was unaware that he had been suffering with liver cancer, I was caught completely off guard by the news of his death. I’ve felt a cloud hovering over me all day. I can’t stop thinking about this wonderful man and his contribution to tea both in Oregon, the U.S., and around the world. I was not a friend of Steve’s, but in my experience within the tea industry, I guess you could say we knew each other.
I last saw Steve in the fall of 2014, when I happened to stop by Smith Tea to pick up some tea bags for my travel to Spain. Whenever I happened to be in his shop in Portland, I would ask if he was in. When I was especially lucky, he’d be doing a formal tea tasting in his back room. Oh boy, what a back room it was. It looked out onto a courtyard which was like a sanctuary with a small fish pond and Japanese sensibilities. The room held memorabilia of tea related items from around the globe. A large central table took up most of the room with white cups standing like soldiers at attention, awaiting their tea samples. An antique tasting spoon was available for each taster. He always offered me the chance to taste the teas he was tasting that day. I wish I could say I have a sensitive palate, but I do not. His wonderful teas were wasted on me. I couldn’t identify the subtle nuances that he spoke easily of. It never felt like he thought less of me because of my palate failures.
I first met Steve when he was running Tazo in Portland. I wangled a meeting with him to pitch a tea vessel that I was working on. I was looking for investors and thought he’d be perfect. I’ll never forget his comment when he saw a CAD drawing of my vessel. “This is shit-hot-cool.” I needed some encouragement at that time and his was heartfelt. He told me he’d share the information with his partner and get back to me. I’ll also never forget my disappointment when I heard back from him. Apparently his partner reminded him that they were in the tea business, not the small appliance business.
Over the years I’ve gone to Steve with numerous questions that he always made time to answer for me. Sometimes we agreed on tea “issues” and sometimes not. He was always a gentleman and never pulled a superior attitude. I had the pleasure of meeting his beautiful wife Kim, and son, Jack. He had a lovely family who clearly adored him.
I read his obituary this morning and learned a few things that I hadn’t known. I hope you’ll all take the time to learn about this amazing man and the role he played in the U.S. industry.
I’m glad to hear that Kim will be continuing his efforts as she’s been formally involved in Smith Tea since the beginning.
Steve – may this next journey be richly rewarding. You will most certainly be missed.
This was a beautiful tribute to Steve. It brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about Steve and his passing.
Michele, after being off the internet for a few days, even though I had hear of his passing, reading yours and the Oregon paper’s story brought tears to my eyes as well. And I could not believe only Sandy has said anything so far about the passing of such a giant and innovator in the industry. These are the kind of guys and girls who are my heroes. You had much more contact with Steve, but I called him regarding out commercial tea brewer. He was so kind and humble and said he’d like to test if we’d send a prototype and, if it was all we said, he might be interested in getting involved in some way..I was hoping for an endorsement. At the time we had totally revised things and were not patent pending on them, and we waited. My experience, like yours, was that he really didn’t use his fame. I was also just thrilled to read that what I had heard so long ago was apparently the case: Steve cupped 800 teas in a day..some kind of record. Or did I read that wrong? And lots of things I didn’t know. Well, he will most definitely be missed. He reminds me in many ways of Mo Siegel of Celestial Seasonings. An inspiration to other entrepreneurs! Thanks for giving this tribute on T Ching!!
Thanks Diane. I’m so glad you had a chance to see what kind of man he was. Humble is a perfect word to describe him. I’m not at all surprised by your experience. I can easily see him tasting 800 teas. He would go through countless teas on his table, much more than I was comfortable trying. It’s like they all merged together after the first 20 or so. I’ll never forget those experiences. I’ll be going to his memorial service on tuesday. Will be hard for sure but I feel compelled to attend. Wished you lived near by and could join me.
I’d love to have been able to do a sampling session and learn from him. I’d love to be able to attend with you.