It’s difficult to measure the impact of Smith’s work. The Oregonian’s Tuesday obituary offers an in-depth portrait of a kind, charming man whose passion for tea and entrepreneurial risk-taking lead to his steady, leapfrogging success, first in the Pacific Northwest, and eventually on the global tea stage. Smith’s name was synonymous with quality tea even before he used the moniker for his Portland-based tea company, co-founded with his wife, Kim DeMent Smith.
Smith’s companies have each been a reflection of his visionary outlook on what tea could be. When he first began sourcing Oregon mint leaves in the mid-seventies to sell to Lipton and Celestial Seasonings, he was already on a path to retool tea’s image. His work with Tazo, particularly the company’s creative branding, and at Starbucks, where Tazo’s reach skyrocketed, played a role in launching the specialty tea market we know today. He desired to connect consumers to tea in a way packaged products had yet to do, to make tea exciting again, and to raise the bar for quality. With each successive venture he came closer to making that vision a reality.
When I spoke to Smith in 2013 for Fresh Cup’s annual “Life in Tea” feature, he shared some of that vision. For years, he said, he had imagined a functioning “teaworks,” a bustling facility where quality teas from around the world could be cupped, blended, packaged, and shared in a transparent process that brought the drinker into that magic. As we walked through the rooms of his Northwest Portland tea “atelier,” from its warehouse stacked high with bags of rare leaves, to its busy, glass-walled production space, its worn-in cupping lab, and its elegant tearoom, it became clear that Smith had realized his dream. In his hometown, today a tea capital thanks to much help from him, he had built an experience where tea was the star. His trusty cupping spoon in hand, he put his superb palate to work there, blending leaves he sourced on trips to the world’s fabled tea regions.
His legacy lives on in those teas, available in stores, cafes, and hotels around the world, and in the millions of cups steeped since he sourced his first chests of tea. One of Smith’s last projects, undertaken while he suffered from liver cancer, was to expand his Portland teaworks—a larger warehouse, production facility, and café is slated to open in Southeast Portland soon.
Smith is survived by his wife, his daughter, Carrie, his son, Jack, three sisters, and two grandchildren. Services will be held at 3:30 p.m. on March 31 in the Sentinel Hotel, 614 SW 11th Ave., Portland. Donations in Smith’s honor can be made to Mercy Corps’ School Education Retention Program, which helps students living on tea estates in Assam, India.
—Photo of Smith and his wife by Tiffany Talbott.