A Q&A With Master Tea Blender Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz, the CEO, founder and master tea blender of Art of Tea, got into the tea business after studying Ayurveda and traveling the world to meet farmers and expand his knowledge of tea, sourcing high quality teas and botanicals and later blending them in his Los Angeles living room. The Art of Tea, which Schwartz officially founded in 2004, has since outgrown his living room—he and his team now hand-blend their tea in a facility outside Downtown Los Angeles—and become a global brand. Schwartz has crafted custom blends and tea programs for brands, acclaimed chefs and restaurants including Google, Vera Wang, Slack, The Peninsula Hotels, Huntington Gardens, Wolfgang Puck and Adam Perry Lang—just to name a few.

I had the opportunity to ask Schwartz some questions about how he got into the tea industry, his process for crafting custom blends for clients, and what teas he’s gravitating to most these days. I’ll let him take it away from here.

Abigail Abesamis: How did you get into tea and the tea industry?

Steve Schwartz: My journey started when I was studying Ayurveda at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico. As I was learning about the alchemy of how different herbs and botanicals could combine to support overall wellness and treat myriad health issues, it resonated so deeply with me that I felt called to absorb as much information as possible. When I finished my studies, I got a backpack and traveled around the world to find the best teas and botanicals possible. I fell in love with tea and the ritual behind this timeless process while sourcing and meeting with farmers. I started bringing stuff back for friends and family and blending in my living room in Los Angeles. Then I caught the attention of Wolfgang Puck and Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica and it grew from there. 

Abesamis: What types of tea do you find yourself gravitating to these days?

Schwartz: Recently, I’ve been really into our herbal blend Breathe which features bergamot, turmeric, lemon myrtle and ginger. I put it in my water bottle at room temp and drink it all day. When I need an energy boost, I gravitate toward our Matcha Plus green tea blend or Earl Grey Créme. 

Abesamis: What, in your opinion, is one of the most common misconceptions people have about tea?

Schwartz: It’s surprising to hear how intimidated people can be by tea; it’s actually pretty common to hear folks expressing that they are afraid they are going to mess it up. Remember, it’s leaves and water, so as long as you’re starting with great tea from a solid supplier, you’ll be able to have an enjoyable experience. Supermarket tea that has been sitting in a warehouse and supermarket shelf for a longer time is easier to mess up because the flavor is dramatically impacted by these factors. At Art of Tea, we’ve also started a “Become a Tea Expert Mastermind” course online to help guide those who may want to get a bit more granular into water temperature, steep times and other tips to extract the most flavor from their leaves.

Abesamis: What is the collaboration process like when you’re creating private label teas?

Schwartz: We are really selective about our collaborations, but always excited to explore opportunities where we can help a brand or property create a blend that fits into a specific tea ritual they are looking to establish for their employees or guests. Over the years, we’ve created teas for Vera Wang, Slack, Google, the Getty Villa and LACMA in Los Angeles, the Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo, and, most recently, the Try Guys and the Surfrider Hotel in Malibu. Each collaboration is unique, so if it is for a physical location, I’ll start the process by visiting the site and getting a feel for the setting, the aromas of the grounds, while also learning more about what they are trying to accomplish with the tea. Is it to help their guests relax? Are they more focused on aroma and a tea that matches the setting? Or do they want the tea to express or capture a certain mood?

Abesamis: Any advice for someone new to tea?

Schwartz: Start with a reason why you want to start. Ritual, routine, health, flavor, getting off bean water, etc.? Pick something that smells and tastes great and play with water temperature and a favorite pot and cup for the process. Dive into the sensory experience and give yourself permission for a mini break with tea. The surprise is that the process and the ritual will have far greater lasting effects on the mind and body than simply the antioxidant properties within.

Abesamis: What’s the best part of your job, and what’s the most challenging part?

Schwartz: The best part of my job is seeing the growth and development of my team and the impact they have through our customer feedback. I’m super proud of how they continue to innovate and find new ways to improve each day. The most challenging part is breaking through the status quo of the average tea found in supermarkets and making a deeper impact on more people’s lives through a delicious tea experience. That’s ultimately my goal: that drinking tea becomes an act of self-care that can have a dramatic impact on an individual’s life. In the modern world where we are so connected, it’s more important than ever to disconnect, to take that time for a personalized tea ritual that can have a positive effect on the body and mind.

Abesamis: How has the pandemic affected your business?

Schwartz: When everything shut down in March, the majority of our business was B2B with restaurants, hotels and companies that were, overnight, forced to shut their doors. It was devastating to see the impact on our partners, one that will long be felt within the hospitality industry as those operations fight to stay open. We are fortunate to be in a position to have the means to reach our customers directly, so we’ve shifted our focus on how we can better support their needs while they are working or creating at home. We recently debuted an app to help make ordering super quick and easy, and we’re also conducting webinars and courses. Personally, I’ve taken this time to bring a passion project of mine to life. For years, I’ve been thinking about debuting a bottled tea product made with super high quality organic teas and botanicals that’s inspired by an Arnold Palmer. We’ll be introducing this product, Open Sunshine, soon in Los Angeles with select partners.

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