Tea service remains the biggest letdown in the fine-dining arena. Too often it amounts to a cup of hot (and rapidly cooling) water with a tea bag beside it. The glories of the beverage are truly revealed only when water of the correct temperature is allowed to circulate among large, well-chosen and -blended leaves for a specific amount of time. It’s no more fussy a requirement than good coffee demands, but while we’ve long since graduated from instant coffee, we have yet to leave tea bags behind. Which is why Linda Smith (pictured), founder of Schenectady-based Divinitea, tirelessly offers hands-on tastings with both the public and, especially, restaurateurs, demonstrating the benefits of brewing it loose.
This harkens back to her own experience working in restaurant kitchens, typically white-linen establishments. One such place sported silver tea service, “but they’d give you a Lipton tea bag. So one day I cut one of them open in front of the chef and asked, ‘Why are you serving dirt?’ It was very hard to convince people.”
Tea bags became popular in the early 1900s, offering an obvious convenience factor; a half-century later, Thomas Lipton patented the flo-thru bag, offering more room for water circulation in the brew. But all of this was (and continues to be) hampered by the need for smaller tea leaves to make the bag-brew work.
Here’s the way tea leaves were graded, at least years ago when I could see it firsthand.” The leaves were sent through a series of mesh screens of different sizes. “People were barefoot, and they’re working over on dirt floors. The top layer of screen got the full leaf, and they would shake it down, screen by screen, getting the different grades, and all the crap would go into the dirt. At the end, they’d shovel the little tea bits with the dirt mixed in, and that would go into the tea bags.”
After settling in Schenectady—she grew up in the area and wanted to raise her family locally—Smith began blending herbal tea with ingredients from her garden. “Our very first tea was the Nightcap,” she says, “a blend of red raspberry leaf, chamomile, rose hips and cinnamon.
I put together a blend that worked for me, that wasn’t overly chamomile. Friends I shared it with said, ‘You should really start a tea company.’ So a light bulb went off and I started looking at what other tea companies were doing and how I could fill in gaps. I went to fancy food shows and looked at the big tea companies. What did they sell? I decided early on that I didn’t want to sell scented teas.”
As she began looking for suppliers, she met a woman from India whose family owned a biodynamic tea garden. “I bought chests of loose tea from her and she asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to sell Earl Grey?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m a purist’.” She told me that her biggest sellers were Earl Grey and the other breakfast teas, and I went back to her the next week and said, OK, let’s talk about Earl Grey. I learned from her the basics, while trying to be as pure and botanical as I could be.”
Divinitea started in 1997 as a wholesaler. A year ago, the company opened a storefront on Schenectady’s upper Union Street, with a showroom where you can sniff and sample the most popular blends. Farther back are the rooms where the blending takes place, where the walls are lined with tea chests bearing exotic overseas labels and sacks of organic herbs protected to maintain their integrity.
From the start, Smith pursued an organic product, which meant not only finding suppliers who dealt in such goods but also persuading them to cut the material to the size she required. “Everything in one of my blends is identifiable,” she explains. “There already were loose-leaf tea companies offering loose-leaf tea leaves, but when it came to the herbal ingredients I was adding to mine, they only had the tiny tea bag cut.
I began working with a company called Herb Trade out of New Jersey. The fellows there were willing to cut to my specs. They said, ‘People aren’t making chunky teas like you are, but we’ll take a chance.’ We standardized a quarter-inch cut for things like cinnamon and ginger and rose hips, and they created those cuts for me. Then other companies went to them and said, ‘We saw this company somewhere that has chunky tea, can you do that for us?’ and they started sourcing out to other specialty tea companies. They told me later that we set the industry standard on the specs for the herbs for what we called chunky teas.”
As a teenager, Smith decided that she wanted to attend a hotel and restaurant school. “I looked at Amherst, but that was too big. I didn’t want to go to Cornell, but I learned about the University of Colorado at Denver. I actually moved there before I was accepted. I showed up with a check and, when I got in, I worked my tail off.”
She worked a series of back-of-house jobs during a time when Denver’s fine-dining scene was booming. “Eventually I went to New York and worked for Sheraton, helping to set up fancy restaurants for them. From there I went to Philadelphia, Florida, Puerto Rico, working and traveling and seeing the world. It was all about the food and wine, and I saw a lot of restaurants and a lot of vineyards. I figured I should do it while I could, and then I came back here to have children.”
Divinitea is very much a family business. Her husband, Cary Berliner, handles the bookkeeping, shipping and receiving, and their two sons also pitch in. “For the first two years we kind of struggled until we figured it all out,” Smith says. “Within five years, we were doing well, and it’s been that way ever since. We have a very busy wholesale business 10 months of the year. In July and August we get to relax a little bit and do iced-tea sales.”
Nothing preaches the gospel of loose-leaf tea better than a seminar by Smith herself, who hosts a Tea Club at 6:30 PM the third Monday of most months at Professor Java’s (217 Wolf Road, Colonie). This Monday (May 16), the theme is Curiosi-Tea and will take in a range of Divinitea’s offerings. RSVP by calling Professor Java’s at 435-0843.
Divinitea, 1708 Union St., Schenectady, 347-0689, divinitea.com. Open 9-5 Mon-Fri, 10-2 Sat. AE, D, MC, V.