Tea 101 with Head Teamaker at Smith Teamaker Ravi Kroesen

Ravi Kroesen, Head Teamaker at Smith Tea (Photo credit: Smith Teamaker)

“No matter where you are in the world, you are at home when tea is served.” —Earlene Grey

There are few things in life as comforting as a freshly-brewed pot of tea. In 2021, as we look forward to wellness and health, we need grounding teatime rituals more than ever before.

Whether it’s an old-fashioned tea party with friends and fine china, or some steaming oolong in your favorite chipped teacup and frayed pajamas—with yourself or company—a cup of tea gives structure to mornings, quietude to evenings and most importantly, it is a mini ceremony. Ravi Kroesen, Head Teamaker and creator of Wellness Tea at  Portland tea company, Smith Teamaker, knows it only too well, “I drink anywhere from 2 to 10 cups of tea a day! I usually start my day with tea on its own before breakfast and then have tea midday, followed by an afternoon tea, which as of lately has been one of the three wellness teas.”

Tea was a big cultural part in Krosen’s formative years as he did his schooling from Mussoorie, a charming Indian town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. India is serious about quality tea. His tea journey started with ritualistic cups of steaming chai everyday. 

Kroesen also relished cups of fragrant golden milk (or haldi doodh as it is locally known in India) growing up, and that served as inspiration when he created the first wellness blend at Smith, called Golden Light—a warm, vibrant infusion containing Organic turmeric, organic sarsaparilla, organic cardamom, organic black pepper, and organic lemon essential oil. Kroesen went on to create the The Wellness collection next, an all-organic collection of three teas, with adaptogenic herbs: Golden Light for immunity, Lullaby for restful sleep and Soothe Sayer to sip when you have a sore throat (or not, because it is delicious anyway!).

Kroesen is all about pioneering tea education too, “there is no other beverage (i.e. coffee or beer) that I can think of that has not undergone a renaissance without increased education of the consumer. Proper tea education is a great tool for tea consumers to be able to discern the good tea from the not so good.”

If you’re a tea connoisseur, tea-curious or simply want to know more about the world’s favorite beverage (sorry, coffee!)—the at home edition of Tea 101 at Smith has you covered. This virtual class has you sipping through 6 delicious teas and learning all about the tea plant, processing methods and different kinds of tea. Just in time for Valentine’s day, here’s a special tea-and-chocolate pairing class as well. Yum!

Kroesen’s tea journey has been rather serendipitous. When he moved back to Portland to be near family, ‘tea found him’ again. Since then he has been busy sipping endless cups of tea, refining his palate through travel, and creating exceptional tea blends. At present, he’s busy upholding the momentous legacy at the Smith tea department. We spoke to Krosen about his childhood that kindled his love for tea, his work at Smith and his journey in the world of tea…

Seattleite: Could you tell me about your childhood and how it influenced your love for tea?

Ravi Kroesen: I grew up in a cult that created its own blend of Sikhism, mixed with Hindu yoga and meditation practices. I lived in several larger ashrams on the East Coast, first in New England and then in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Before leaving for school in India at age 10, there were regular moments where masala chai and golden milk were consumed, which is where the love for tea began. Once in India, the boarding school, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, served chai for breakfast and in the afternoon. Access to food and beverage was tightly controlled and hunger was a constant companion, so tea became relished as warming and as an opportunity to put something in the belly to stave off hunger. The ritual of chai carried through to all occasions outside of school and rarely was an opportunity passed up to forgo a cup of chai when it was available. 

Seattleite: Could you describe your first memories of tea? 

Ravi Kroesen: I have fond memories of drinking masala chai, which was served after the morning’s yoga and meditation practice. It was always the perfect balance of milk, spice and honey. After drinking the tea, we’d punch out the bottom of the cup and run around wearing it like a bracelet a la Wonder Woman.  Golden milk was also regularly served as a nice way to substitute for candy. Equally sweet and milky as the chai, it prepared me early for an affinity towards turmeric. 

Seattleite: When did you know that you wanted to get into tea professionally?

Ravi Kroesen: Midway through 2000, my first year working for a tea company. Trying all the teas the company had to offer, I came across a Honey Orchid Fragrance Phoenix Oolong from Guangdong Province in China. I was blown away that this tea could taste like peaches (along with the honey and orchid) without having anything added to it.

Seattleite: What does being the head teamaker exactly entail?

Ravi Kroesen: Lots of responsibility! My job is to oversee all aspects of teas we bring in, including creating new blends, traveling to origin (when pandemics allow), along with interdepartmental support for Sales, Operations and Accounting and also acting as the face of the brand. Steven Smith was our first Head Teamaker which has been some pretty big shoes to fill!  

Seattleite: What is your academic background and how does it help with what you do?

Ravi Kroesen: I am a college dropout. There are no degrees available in the U.S. for tea, although a few colleges (UC Davis and Penn State) that have some great tea related programs. If you want to learn about tea the best way is to work in it (unless you speak Chinese and want to spend a few years in China, where you can get several different types of degrees for tea).   

Seattleite: Tell me a bit about your work at Smith. How did you conceptualize and create the wellness collection?

Ravi Kroesen: I started with creating our Golden Light, drawing from the inspiration of enjoying Golden Milk as a child. I wanted to be sure the tea tasted like a treat rather than a savory dish, which is where many Americans have first come into contact with turmeric, through curries.  With the great response we got from releasing this tea combined with the onset of COVID, we knew we had to develop a proper line of Wellness teas. I drew on the wealth of knowledge that is available in traditional medicine, where herbs and spices have been used for a millennia to treat a variety of ailments and created Lullaby and Soothe Sayer. 

The inspiration for Lullaby was a proper East meets West nightcap, leaning heavily on Ashwagandha and Chamomile.

Soothe Sayer was inspired by the 19th century bath houses of Europe, imagining the tonic you be handed after a round of sauna, followed by a cold plunge and a brisk oak branch beating. 

All three teas were conceived using conventional ingredients, but since we wanted to also make sure our Wellness line was certified organic, we then had to find organic versions for each ingredient.  We are very intentional with how we select our ingredients, so after a few months of hand wringing, we finally found good sources for each ingredient and were able to launch the Wellness Line.

Seattleite: How does your personal tea making philosophy align with that of Smith Tea?

Ravi Kroesen: Smith Tea has been built on the promise of craft, creativity and transparency all values which I have cherished for my entire tea career. 

Seattleite: What do you think of the tea culture in the PNW?

Ravi Kroesen: Having lived on both coasts, it has one of the best tea cultures in the U.S. Both Seattle and Portland host annual tea festivals catering to the consumer, which allows for the sharing of information and teas.   

Seattleite: How’s your journey in the tea world been like?

Ravi Kroesen: Absolutely amazing. I have had the opportunity to travel the world, meet amazing people and drink the finest crafted teas, all under the guise of doing tea business. I can’t imagine how many people would love to have the same opportunity and call it a job. 

Seattleite: What’s your personal favorite tea of all time, and what would you pair it with?

Ravi Kroesen: That would be like picking a favorite child! If I had to choose, it would have to include the maker of the tea and I would say drinking Rou Gui, which translates as cinnamon, and is a cultivar (cultivated variety) of roasted yancha (rock tea) Oolong from Wuyi Shan in northwest Fujian, made by Liu Guo Yin, who has been declared by the government of China as a living national treasure for his efforts in sharing his knowledge and skill of making this type of Oolong.  I had the fortune to drink some of his best made tea that costs thousands of dollars per pound served by him at his house one evening a few years back. Truly a memorable experience.

I would not pair this tea, so as to enjoy its flavor to the fullest. Instead I would share this amazing tea with a group of friends and watch the conversation unfold between each steeping.

Seattleite: What do you wish people knew about tea?

Ravi Kroesen: That there are many opportunities to enjoy amazing tea in the U.S. that do not require spending hundreds of dollars. Good tea does cost money, but when you often break down the cost per cup, many of these teas are generally cheaper than the cost of buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks or beer at your local craft brewer. With a good understanding of tea (through education), a buyer can open the doors wider to the world of tea and all it has to offer. Oh, and water. The tea you drink is only as good as the water you use. At very least, you should be using a filter. If you have access to fresh spring water, provided it is not too hard, even better.