Good Company: Art of Tea’s Benevolent Blends
In June, the foreign dignitaries who attended the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles returned home with a wooden box housing a trifecta of specially commissioned teas in custom-designed tins. The varieties—Pacific Coast Mint, Georgia Peach, and Getty Garden Villa—were all hand-blended by local purveyor Art of Tea.
Steve Schwartz, 46, founder, CEO, and master blender of Art of Tea, was buoyed by the U.S. Department of State's discovery of the organic loose-leaf tea company he launched in 2004, but considering how Schwartz has tirelessly been championing the superior flavor and wellness benefits of quality tea for more than 20 years, it's not surprising that the White House was impressed by Schwartz's knack for fusing botanicals.
Schwartz's immersion into tea is deeply intertwined with the Ayurvedic journey he embarked on in the 1990s. The joy of a full college scholarship was quickly shattered when six months into his studies his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Back home taking care of her, he was distraught over the failures of Western medicine (she passed away 10 months later) and it stirred him to investigate less conventional paths to good health.
"It woke me up to realizing that cancer must have been around for thousands of years even though we only recently labeled it. Maybe other healing modalities were lost in time and I wanted to research them," Schwartz recalls.
During the era of the library card catalog, however, it was a challenging topic to delve into—that is until he stumbled upon a book on Ayurveda. Its exploration of the Five Great Elements—air, earth, water, fire, and space—as well as yoga and meditation resonated with Schwartz, eventually leading him to study these ancient practices at The Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico. "It was almost ashram-like, based on a traditional Indian-style way of learning, and I was chosen as the only student advanced enough to work with the masters on sourcing and blending," he explains.
Soon, Schwartz was traveling around the globe, learning how gingko, say, grown on an eastern slope differs from one found on the western side. He smuggled the teas and herbs he encountered on his sojourns into his backpack, experimenting with recipes at home until his newfound passion caught the attention of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. Myriad high-end hospitality collaborations followed, including Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where he trained the country's first-ever tea sommelier.
Schwartz has since teamed up with such heavyweights as Google and Vera Wang and penned the best-selling Art of Tea: A Journey of Ritual, Discovery, and Impact, which debuted in March.
For many consumers, a cup of tea springs from a paper bag found in boxes lining supermarket shelves, but they might want to reconsider.
"Think of a bag of unsalted, unflavored chips. On the top are beautiful uniform shapes and as you work your way to the bottom it's powder and dust," says Schwartz. "When producing teas in factories, the dust flies up in the air and falls on the ground and they sweep that into giant piles that are reserved for paper tea bags"
By contrast, Art of Tea shuns machinery, scooping out its fresh small-batch blends crafted solely from the world's top one and two percent of teas directly into bags as each order rolls in. Beyond its thoughtful private-label offerings, like the one for Getty Villa that incorporates "vegetation growing alongside the mountainside of Malibu," Schwartz says, Art of Tea's retail collections are vast, running the gamut from velvety Earl Grey Crème to Crimson Oolong harvested in Fujian, China, and redolent of aged bourbon, honey, orange blossom, and spice.
Loose-leaf teas range from US$15 for a 2 1/2 oz. tin of turmeric-ginger-bergamot Breathe, to US$221 for one pound of grassy Uji Gyokuru green tea. Sachets are US$18 for a 12-bag box to a bulk-packed 50-bag box for US$42; four two-quart iced tea pouches are US$11.
WHAT’S THE GOOD?
Biodegradable sachets and pouches spun from a corn derivative "for a whole leaf tea experience in a bag," as Schwartz puts it, mesh with Art of Tea's commitment to embracing small family farms and overseeing the entire farm-to-cup process of sourcing, blending, packaging, and distribution in-house.
Just as important as Art of Tea's eco-friendly initiatives is its determination to positively "impact people's lives through tea," says Schwartz, noting how so many are drawn to the notions of terroir and ritual and tea dovetails with those complementary desires. "Regardless of age, gender, demographics, or economic status, tea is leaves and water."
It's the mindfulness attached to preparing it that distinguishes one cup from the next. "Maybe someone enjoyed tea with their grandmother so there's a sense of legacy there," he adds. "We want to give people permission to take the time to make that cup of tea; you’ll get so much more energy back the rest of your day."
Ritzy brands like the Dorchester Collection and The Peninsula Hotels are what catapulted Art of Tea into the international limelight, and Schwartz is keen to strengthen his connections with hotels and restaurants and help reshape tea's narrative through the on-premise realm, training staff "to leave their mark," he says, via special tea menus and presentations. Over the summer, for instance, Schwartz led a workshop at Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort & Spa, where Art of Tea has a presence in the waterfront lounge.
Cocktails that showcase tea is another way of highlighting its versatility, and Schwartz hopes to maximize those applications. He singles out Art of Tea's Blue Pineapple iced tea, laden with lychee and lemongrass notes, as one especially suited to weave into breezy libations. The butterfly pea flower it stars morphs colors with a hit of citrus. "Tea is a 5,000-year-old beverage, yet it's still new and still innovating," Schwartz says.THE ITEMS THE PRICE WHAT’S THE GOOD? WHAT’S NEXT