Ali Roth is a self-starter. She’s also a bit of a badass. Clad in dusty dark wash skinny jeans and a fitted black band tee, sporting big copper hoops, painted lips and sundry tattoos, she looks more rock star than zen when I meet her on the corner of Harrison and 10th Streets in Berkeley’s Gilman District. I learn that Roth has a pit bull, owns five motorcycles, raises chickens and plays drums in a band. She also runs Blue Willow Tea and is the sole force behind the soon-to-open Blue Willow Teaspot, a teahouse Roth essentially built by hand.
“I’ve been doing 95% of the work myself,” Roth tells me. “At this point in my life I can’t afford to hire other people to do things for me. There’s also the personal satisfaction. These tables are driving me crazy,” she says, gesturing to a stack of wood planks in the corner, “but they’re my tables.”
Roth constructed the aforementioned tables from imported bamboo and sheets of plywood she reclaimed from a half-pipe skate ramp that used to be in her backyard. She crafted the Teaspot’s larger community table from a sanded-down slab Redwood. DIY is nothing new for Roth, who also taught herself to play the drums, hitch-hiked through Jamaica, and built a greenhouse and vegetable garden.
But Roth’s passion isn’t construction. It’s tea.
“I’ve loved tea since I was a kid,” she says. “It’s is such a unique beverage. It’s all the same plant, but you can get so many different flavors out of it. It’s fascinating.”
The Blue Willow Teaspot is a project of Roth’s own imaginings and an opportunity for her to personally connect with customers. “Right now I don’t get to sit down and have tea with people and tell them about where it came from or how it’s made and usually served,” she explains. “The tea world is so vast. I want this to be a place where people can come together and explore.”
The Teaspot used to be the office and headquarters of Roth’s wholesale business before she began renting the adjoining warehouse space. Now her wholesale has shifted next door, which has opened the opportunity for a one-of-a-kind teahouse that pays tribute to the history, preparation and consumption of tea. The Teaspot was partially funded by a successful $15,000 Kickstarter campaign, which wrapped up at the beginning of October. Roth hopes to hold a soft opening Oct. 16.
As Roth tells me about the concept, we pass from the shipping crate tea bar and bamboo-lined retail space in the front of the teahouse to the cozy skylit seating in the back. The formerly-tiled floors are lined with sustainably-sourced bamboo and the walls are painted in shades of blue. On each table is a Blue Willow tea pot filled with succulents.
“Do you want to sit down?” Roth asks, motioning to a set of outdoor furniture. I select a spot on a loveseat. Roth moves to fill a kettle and I take in the scene. Still under construction, the Teaspot lounge is scattered with work gloves, spare planks, blue-trimmed cups and pastel bags of tea covered in Chinese characters. I hear Roth flip on the kettle and wonder how she’s been able to build out this space while keeping up with a company that’s a one-woman show.
Roth first began working and training at Blue Willow under its previous owner owner and her mentor, Lynn Mallard, in 2006. When Mallard retired five years later, she sold the company to Roth. Sourcing, blending, packaging, distributing — Roth does it all herself.
She returns to the table, steaming kettle in hand. “I actually lived with this family in Taiwan earlier this year and helped them make this tea,” Roth says as she pours hot water over a pot of Oolong leaves. “So I have a very personal connection with it.”
Tea trips and homestays are some of Roth’s favorite parts of her job. “I got introduced to foreign cultures at a very young age and I’ve loved traveling ever since,” she tells me. “A perk of my job is that I get to work and do what I love and also explore the world at the same time.” So far Roth has been on business trips to Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan, which is also the first place she really got into tea.
Roth prepares and serves my tea using a traditional gongfu set, a term which translates to “making tea artfully” or “making tea with skill.” The burnt orange pot and cups are so small they look more like toys than full-sized vessels. Roth pours tea from a tiny pot into a small cylinder and then transfers it into an equally small teacup.
“This is the aroma cup,” she explains, taking the cylinder. “You pour the tea into here, transfer it into the teacup, and then smell the empty [cylinder].” The initial whiff is called the first quiver. Then you shake the cup and smell it again. As the air hits the cup, it cools and the aroma changes, leaving a rich honey scent behind.
Teas at the Blue Willow Teaspot will be steeped and served as they would at origin, in their traditional vessels — gongfu and gaiwan for Taiwanese and Chinese teas and kyusu for Japanese teas. Matcha will be hand-whisked. Tea from colonized countries like India and Malaysia will be prepared as it is in Britain, in a pot with milk and sugar. Roth will guide people who have never used the vessels before in the process of making tea.
“I’m hoping it will just be a fun place,” she says. “People think of tea parties in one way or another. I just want to bring all of those ways [to drink tea] together.”
The Teaspot will also feature a full-scale Japanese tearoom dedicated to the practice of chado, the Japanese art of tea preparation. Roth has been studying chado for almost five years.
“It’s a tradition of preparing matcha that has been unchanged for over 500 years,” she says. “It’s pretty intense.”
A ceremonial preparation takes 15-20 minutes and includes wagashi (Japanese sweets) and a bowl of matcha for up to three participants. Other Teaspot guests will be able to watch as the ceremony takes place.
One of the few things that Roth did not build herself, the Japanese tearoom was purchased from Roth’s chado instructor, Shun Yang, who used to own the Itsy Bitsy Tea Room on College Avenue. It’s the same tearoom in which Roth learned chado.
Our pot of oolong has long since cooled when Roth dumps it over on a red slatted tea tray. She pulls through the wet brown mass to find two leaves and a bud — a flush, as it’s called in the tea business. This is the only part of the tea plant that is picked each year, always by hand — a fact that astounds me.
Roth pulls apart the pile and studies the leaves as they cling to her fingers. “I’m a total tea nerd,” she says. “I always love taking my leaves apart and seeing what part of the plant they’re from.”
One of the things that excites Roth about the Teaspot is the ability to provide education and access to more rare and lesser-known teas. Roth is the only U.S. buyer distributing a majority of the teas that she sells.
Her tea bar menu will be divided by four varieties — whites and oolongs, greens, blacks, and herbal teas. Each variety will be offered in three price tiers based on rarity — “Warm Up,” “Well-Versed,” and “Top Shelf” — by the cup or the pot. A “secret menu” will feature teas from Roth’s private stash.
“They’re teas that I only have a very small amount of and that aren’t for sale wholesale,” she says. “They’re only for people who really want to try something special.”
Roth will also serve regular and dairy-free chai made with her hand-mixed blend, as well as iced tea and Algorithm cold brew and French-pressed coffee. Pastries from Starter Bakery will be available for snacking.
A full hour has passed by the time Roth and I sip our final dregs of oolong, and I remember that this passing of time is what happens when I drink tea. I ask Roth how she feels about the level of devotion this project has required and the amount of work that this teahouse will take.
“I love blending and tasting and preparing and drinking tea,” she tells me. “It’s been great so far and I don’t regret it at all. I’m happy to devote my life to this.”
The Blue Willow Teaspot will be at 1200 10th St. (at Harrison Street), Berkeley. The Teaspot will be open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.
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