We wanted to delve more into tea culture to find out the origin of tea, how it should be consumed, stored and what the benefits are when drinking it. We talked with Steve Schwartz, the founder of Art of Tea which is known for their 100s of options that they have available on their site, their hospitality partnerships with Wolfgang Puck, Aria, Caesars Palace and more. He talks with us about his background in Ayurveda, how he got into the industry, how he grew his company and the importance of our individual tea rituals wherever we are in the world.
ATHLEISURE MAG: What is a master tea blender and what does that position entail?
STEVE SCHWARTZ: Great well let me first share a little bit on my background. My background entails Ayurveda. It’s a form of preventative medicine based in India. I got into that because my mom was actually diagnosed with brain cancer when I was just out of high school. I got a full paid scholarship to go to college and I ended up dropping out so I could go and move back in to take care of her. So, I took care of her for about 10 months until she passed. The whole time, we were just on Western medicine and there is nothing wrong with Western medicine, it just didn’t work for us. So we went from one doctor to another and one external treatment to another. Before she passed, it got me to thinking, “gosh, cancer must have been around for thousands of years, we have only just recently labeled it as cancer. What are the other healing modalities that are out there?” I didn’t want to stick needles in people, I didn’t want to be a massage therapist or an herbologist – there is nothing wrong with any of those, it just wasn’t my path.
So, I found this school in New Mexico called the Ayurvedic Institute and really fell in love with the alchemy of blending herbs, teas and botanicals and how those herbs and botanicals link together to create unique flavor profiles and how those flavors, their profiles, herbs and healing properties affect the body in very different ways. In both a metabolic way, but also in terms of helping with hormones, digestive fire, immunity, longevity and all these things that really rally behind how these botanicals are blended together. So it’s not 1 herb plus another herb or botanical equals 2, but rather 1 + 1 could equal 4 or 6. It could multiply and increase in terms of its strength.
So I was looking into old texts and Sanskrit while I was at school and really trying to get an understanding of the alchemy of teas and herbs and it was funny that one of the patients that was there was a gentleman by the name, Yogi Bhajan (Editors Note: he is cited as bringing his version of Kundalini Yoga to the US in the late 60’s/ early 70’s) and he would come to the facility and see the doctor. I would make the blends for him. Another thing that was requested was that their family would ask for other ingredients and ask us to blend in different ratios these different botanicals. So we would source and then send them the first samples and I would find 6 months or 9 months down the road that these blends were on supermarket shelves known as Yogi Teas. I was like, ok I know what I’m doing and at this point, there wasn’t a lot of real internet connectivity.
There was this company Amazon that was starting out. But most of what I was doing was making phone calls to origin all throughout Asia and India. I remember that I needed to source ginkgo. So I called and it was like $4 a minute, so I wanted to be respectful of budget and time and I said, “I need to order some ginkgo.” They said, “do you want a Western slope or an Eastern slope next to a river?” I told them that it didn’t really matter, I just wanted to order ginkgo. He said, “no sir, it does matter. I need you to come here yourself so you can experience it.” I was intrigued, I appreciated the invitation and I saved up my money and worked 4 different jobs, got a backpack and started traveling the world to find the best teas and the botanicals possible.
I had no idea that I was going to start a tea company. I just knew that I was a huge tea nerd and was into it. I saw the impact that it had on people’s lives – those that drink tea and those that don’t. What it means to them, whether it’s sitting down with a loved one at the end of the day, engaging in a meditation practice or needing to work out a research paper. Whatever it might be, I just saw the level of the impact that tea could have and so I started sourcing the different botanicals in my living room, started blending and started peddling my teas around town. I caught the attention of Wolfgang Puck and a hotel, a restaurant, a spa! Then I caught the attention of Caesar’s Palace and I ended up training the first Tea Sommelier in the United States. It sort of just grew from there and I ended up teaching classes at these world tea conventions and they were sold out. So I taught them 5 years in a row beginning with advance blending classes. There was no one teaching blending. In fact, when I realized they were asking me to teach it, I knew I had to look up old books and I ended up finding one from 1896 on blending!
AM: Wait what?
SS: Yeah! There was nothing at the time. So I said, “ok, if I’m asked to create a format, then I’m just going to share my failures and my wins. What’s working and what’s not and hopefully leave an impression and an impact. For people that took the classes, they’re now publicly traded companies or sold to Procter & Gamble. So, it’s awesome to see the impact on what’s happening in the tea industry.
AM: Wow, just thinking of you talking about this, are there new blends or nutrients that grow that they didn’t exist in the 18 or 1900’s? We enjoy a number of the items that we consume and feel that those have always been around, but are there new hybrids?
SS: Great question! First, let’s dive into what is tea and what was that book from 1896 all about back then? True tea comes from one evergreen shrub called Camellia Sinensis. All true tea comes from that evergreen shrub. If it’s not from this evergreen shrub, then it’s not tea. So for example White Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea, Black Tea, Pu-erh – all of these come from Camellia Sinensis. Then there are differences in terms of how they are produced, but it is very similar to wine – it all comes from grapes. Now depending on the grape that’s used, how it’s grown and processed – is it stored in an oak barrel or a stainless steel container, is the skin left on? All these play into crafting a really delicious glass of wine. The same way that tea is separated, picked at different harvest times depending on what they are looking for, put into these silos of White, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu-erh. There are some subcategories between there, different varietals of tea, those that are grown specifically for those types of teas as well.
But if it is Chamomile or Rooibos then it’s not actually a tea. It’s a totally different category known as a Tisane. It is a fancy French word that basically means botanical. You can have Mint, Chamomile and Rooibos blended together and you have a Tisane or what is called a fusion or you can blend it with tea and then you have a Tea Fusion. But Chamomile tea is actually an oxymoron as it’s not really a tea.
SS: And you now know more than 99% of the US population!
AM: Our minds are now kind of blown as we’re processing this information!
So, what do you define a Master Tea Blender as?
SS: I guess the 10,000-hour rule plays deeply into this. Having a strong sense of origin, where and how the teas are grown and when you’re tasting tea about 98% of what you are drinking is water. So what you’re looking for is the nuance within that 2% and so your tongue ends up becoming like an instrument. You’re learning how to play with the high notes and the low notes, the terroir of the different ingredients and how they will play well together. So, like an artist that is using color and a color palette to define what a painting will look like, they know where and when to add specific colors. The same thing with a blend. You want the blend to be even in terms of ingredient size so that smaller bits don’t fall into the bottom, you want that flavor profile to have a nice mouthfeel in terms of what you are looking for in terms of beginning, middle and finish. But it’s knowing your ingredients well enough to see how that symphony of ingredients will come together for that final composition.
AM: What is that process like when you’re blending the teas? As you were talking, I was thinking back to last month’s issue when we talked with a Master Winemaker and she was talking about how it’s the harvest season and what takes place during this time. You were talking about that there is that kind of season in tea as well. So what’s the blending and the harvest season like for you?
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