If you visit the website of Berkeley, Calif., teahouse Blue Willow Teaspot, you’ll notice a couple of things. Owner Ali Roth includes a quote that might come from any lifetime lover of tea: “Every tea has a story to tell. If you pay close attention and surrender your senses to the moment, you can witness it unfold.”
But scroll down a little further and you’ll see a picture of Roth delivering bulk teas to her local customers on her ’71 Honda motorcycle, with dog Boris in goggles in the sidecar. Times have changed, grasshopper.
Roth’s tea journey started when she was 12 years old and went on a six-week trip to Japan. “I saw chadō, the matcha tea ceremony. I thought the tea was disgusting at the time, but I was fascinated by the ritual. When I came home, I began drinking green tea,” she says. Then, at 20, she took a job working for Peaberry’s Coffee and Tea in Oakland, Calif. “The tea part of the company was called Blue Willow Tea. The owner became my mentor and I worked there for five years, learning about cupping, blending, what to look for,” she continues. When the owner retired, she sold Roth the Blue Willow Tea portion of the company.
Blue Willow Tea remained a wholesaler at that point. Roth began to travel, visiting tea growers and farms and practicing chadō. Then the desire to open her own teahouse overtook her. So, with a soft opening in October 2016, the lovely Blue Willow Teaspot, which is adjacent to the company’s warehouse, opened to enthusiastic public acclaim. Roth celebrated the formal opening with multiple events last month.
Tea and ceremony
The Teaspot’s serene, industrial-meets-zendo interior features a front counter where handmade signs announce specials. Bagged loose-leaf teas line one wall of this area, including green, oolong, black, and caffeine-free. So far, the “grab-and go” 2-oz bags are selling exceptionally well, Roth reports, as customers experiment to see what they like. Green teas include, among others, Bai Mu Dan “White Peony” (1 oz, $5.75) and Organic Sencha “Morning Mist” (2 oz, $10.50). In the oolong selection, one of Roth’s personal favorites, Black Honey Oolong, sold out, despite its high price ($14 for a 2 oz bag). Black teas include Dark River Pu-erh (2 oz. $11.50) and Cameronian Gold (2 oz, $6) from the Boh Estates of Malaysia. Blue Willow is one of the main American distributors for Boh teas.
The area surrounding the counter also features handmade ceramics from local potters and the savory pastries Roth has found customers prefer with her teas.
Tables are tucked along the sides of the long room, painted a gorgeous blue-gray, and one side of the last section of the room reposes a tea room inside the tea room: the place where Roth performs and teaches the Omotesenke tea ceremony every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. “People are feeling attracted to ritual,” she says.
Since the soft opening, her sales have been “about 50/50” between selling prepared tea, which is served to tea room customers classically and beautifully, and bagged teas.
In the works are instore demos and special events, for which the Teaspot may be rented.
Still primarily wholesaling
The Teaspot is a dream come true for Roth, but as of now, Blue Willow Tea is still “95 percent” a wholesale business, she says, selling to restaurants all over the Bay Area and, in fact, all over the country. Blue Willow sells between 500 and 700 lb of 40 types of teas per month and the business is rapidly growing, primarily due to word of mouth, although she does attend trade events. “We are small, but that means my overhead is very low,” she says.
She continues to deliver tea to local clients on her motorcycle, with Boris alongside. “I like to provide good, high-quality teas that cover all the bases,” she says.
Roth also continues to travel to the tea-growing areas, going to Japan every year and planning a first-ever visit to China later this year. Like many young people in the American tea world, she looks for growers farming sustainably, practicing fair trade, and treating their employees well. “We support other businesses that support that,” she says. “It’s all connected through tea.”
Blue Willow Teaspot, 1200 10th St., Berkeley, CA 94710. (510) 524-1933, www.bluewillowtea.com