This article is part of a series on Uncommon Connoisseurships. See also:
It was twilight in Mostar, Bosnia. The sky slowly darkened, and the townspeople, who had assembled atop the hill overlooking the city to break their fast for Ramadan, had already dispersed. Fruit vendors lingered in the dark streets.
Josh, John and I entered the small tea house. The unassuming storefront hid on one side of a sloping, curving cobble-stoned street; inside, the room was small and conversation was lively. On the walls, jars ascended to the ceiling: some smelled fragrantly of vanilla, strawberry, and ginger; others contained arcane herbs. The proprietor, a tall, holy-looking man, with white hair, a white beard, and traditional Muslim white robes, recognized us and greeted us happily. Soon, tea accessories crowded our low table, music played around us, and our small chess board came out between glasses and jars.
I ordered herbal tea, of course.
I first took to herbal teas because they lack caffeine, which can disrupt sleep, study, and sanity. My interest has progressively grown. Unlike other teas – for which the plants used are chosen surely at least partly for their caffeine content – herbal teas are made solely for taste. These tastes are varied and delicate.
I set out to chart the complex world of herbal teas, and also to find the perfect tea experience. I eventually found myself at Steven Smith Teamaker, in Portland, Oregon.
Smith’s teas are excellent. I’ll begin with some preliminaries.
Many types of herbal tea – such as chamomile or rooibos – appear frequently. Smith offers pure single-herb teas, or varietals, belonging to a number of these well-known categories (as well as to few lesser-well-known ones). Each of Smith’s varietals is an exemplar of its kind. These varietals can be understood as choice representatives of their larger classes.
Steven Smith Teamaker also offers a number of blends. Each blend builds off of just one or two varietals, which serve as its primary components, and also features additional flavors and herbs. These blends are proprietary – designed and offered by Smith alone – and they, again, serve as examples for the capabilities and possibilities of blended herbal teas. Some contain secret ingredients and mixtures.
I’ll describe Smith’s herbal teas in the order recommended to me for tasting by the teashop. This ordering has the property that a varietal or varietals are followed immediately by the blend, if it exists, which incorporates that varietal or those varietals. I head each tea’s section with the description provided for it in Smith’s menu.
I’ve tried to describe tastes and flavors accurately. This is difficult, and my knowledge is weak. Generally, I’ve aimed, most of all, to offer intuitive insight to those who – like me – are comparatively unversed in the world of herbal tea. My interpretations might not reflect those of Smith Teamaker, or even the actual components of the tea.
CHAMOMILE FLOWERS – Egypt varietal. The whole, hand-sorted golden bud. Soothing with toasty apple-like characteristic.
Chamomile is perhaps the herbal tea most common in “real life”. It’s often consumed for its supposed relaxing effects, though I haven’t reliably noticed these effects.
I’ll turn to Smith’s chamomile.
The smell of the herbs is unusually deep and earthy, almost like chocolate.
The brewed tea is a transparent light yellow. The taste is clear, and one feels free to detect and perceive its characteristics. This taste, moreover, is mild and nonaggressive, and it seems to grow or accumulate in the mouth. The taste is of an herbal subtle sweetness – not fruity, but rather perhaps like grass or daisy. Chamomile’s flavor is hard to describe.
MEADOW – Blend. The flavor and aroma of flowers freshly picked.
Meadow is a chamomile-based blend offered by Smith. Meadow supplements pure chamomile’s mild and mellow sweetness with tart flavors of citrus or rooibos. These additional components “fill a missing place” – they supplement chamomile’s natural sweetness with additional perk. The result is a seamless tea with a fuller, more stimulating array of tastes.
Meadow’s additional flavors evoke acid and fruit, along with hints of spices like nutmeg or jasmine.
HONEYBUSH – South African varietal. Delicate, naturally sweet and slightly peachy with complex woody notes.
Honeybush is an uncommon varietal – I had never seen it, in fact, before encountering it at Smith’s.
The raw honeybush leaves smell somewhat fruity, but also surprisingly raw and dry, almost like flavored smoking tobacco. This smell does not appear in the smell or taste of the brewed tea.
The brewed tea smells pleasant, fragrant, and sweet, like honeydew. Like the chamomile varietal, the honeybush has a pure, clear taste, and its flavor is delicate – it almost evokes water infused with delicious fruits. There is an impression of honey: of that peculiar, difficult-to-define taste common to many honeys. The tea is very pleasant.
ROOIBOS – South African varietal. Full flavored, slightly woody and creamy with hints of vanilla.
Rooibos is another common herbal tea. This menu — like the packaging of many varieties of commercially distributed rooibos — describes creamy or vanilla tastes. I tend not to perceive these flavors.
The raw tea leaves smell like paprika, with hints of rope, like hemp.
Rooibos’ flavor is distinctive, but again hard to describe. Though the tea is not sharp, rooibos’ taste seems to cover or affect an acidic, bitter part of the palate. One could even point to something like rosemary or potato.
Other rooibos teas can taste more herbal and planty.
RED NECTAR – Blend. Lightly sweet and aromatic with hints of orchard fruits.
Red nectar is a blend which combines both the honeybush and rooibos varietals with additional herbs and flavors.
The raw tea smells good. The smell is strongly of jasmine, with hints of cantaloupe.
The tea itself is a testament to the power of a genius blend. Each component plays a role. The mild honeybush fills a sweet part of the palate; the rooibos adds tartness; additional flavors add fruity edges. The blend is seamless and smooth. The overall taste is pleasant and smooth, complex and tasteful.
HIBISCUS FLOWERS – North African varietal. The crimson red flower used in Big Hibiscus in its solo performance – tart, earthy, and tangy.
This is an again uncommon, and intriguing, varietal.
The tea leaves smell a bit planty and unremarkable, strongly like paprika.
The tea itself is a deep purple. The taste is sharply acidic – very sharp, somewhat like cranberry. It’s so acidic it’s almost like drinking lemon juice. This taste is very strong, exhibiting a strength of flavor entirely unusual for herbal tea.
On the other hand, it’s hard to detect much flavor beneath the tea’s acidity. The tea is not unpleasant – but perhaps not complex.
BIG HIBISCUS – Blend. The cabernet of herbal teas – luscious hibiscus flowers, ginger and elderflower. Big and powerful.
This is a blend based on the hibiscus varietal. Again, this tea exhibits the genius possible in tea blends. The overpowering sharp taste of the hibiscus flowers is supplemented by an array of subtle, softer flavors which soften and complicate the taste.
Though vanilla is not present, the tea’s newfound mildness evokes vanilla. The taste is almost like cream soda.
Nancy swears that this blend adds to the hibiscus a strong flavor of fresh tarragon.
SPEARMINT – Pacific NW varietal. Fresh and penetrating flavor and aroma.
A varietal containing spearmint leaves. It’s hard to say much more about this tea than that it smells and tastes like spearmint.
The flavor of spearmint is difficult to describe. On top of the underlying mint, spearmint adds a distinctive taste, perhaps like cut grass and sassafras root. The sassafras root might be recognizable, to us, as a taste like that of licorice or root beer. There’s an obvious aftertaste of coolness. In short: you have to experience spearmint’s flavor.
PEPPERMINT – Pacific NW varietal. Rich, intense and full mint flavor with creamy chocolate notes and lingering finish.
Another varietal, perhaps better than the spearmint.
The smell of these leaves is stronger, with a cold, minty smell that seems to shoot up the nostrils and even clear the sinuses. There are hints of hemp or sharp jasmine. The smell is so familiar that it’s hard to break it down into its constituents.
The tea itself, both in smell and taste, has an unexpected creamy quality. There’s a deeper flavor, like black tea. This deep creaminess nicely compliments the peppermint’s cold, minty taste.
A year after Bosnia, Josh and I (and Nancy) found ourselves sitting at Smith’s Tea. Three neat flights lined our table, and rows of boxes of tea covered the walls. The foreign Bosnian night was far away. It was a bright summer morning in Portland.
Smith brought back the fascinating world of herbal tea. Herbal teas collect and exhibit the world’s herbs solely for their taste. It shouldn’t surprise us that these tastes are nuanced, delicate and profound.
Herbal tea is not just a beverage. It’s a chance to explore, to taste diversity and purity – and to understand these tastes. All those who seek understanding should be intrigued. What type of understanding – what category – could be more rich, and elusive, than that of herbal tea, accessible only to our remotest, most artful senses, taste and smell, and cloistered among those colorful liquids infused by the world’s most precious herbs?
More traditional objects of connoisseurship — black tea, coffee, wine — should be recognized too. I’ll leave those for the reader.
As for the Uncommon Connoisseurships? I’ve got those covered.