Steep Tea Co. for sale at Kaleidoscope Coffee. Photo: Kate Williams
Steep Tea Co. for sale at Kaleidoscope Coffee. Photo: Kate Williams

A cup of tea is more than dried leaves and hot water. It is a social experience, an afternoon escape, a ceremonial ritual, a reason to take a break. For centuries cultures across the world have been cultivating and consuming herbal remedies, spicy chais, delicate infusions and sacred simmered brews. May marks the first harvest in many of these places, making it a prime time to check in on the first fruits of the year.

Though it may be more convenient, a $4 box of teabags is often no more affordable (and certainly not nearly as high-quality) as purchasing loose leaf from a local tea purveyor, and the East Bay is rife with excellent options. From tearooms that offer table service to online retailers that produce pouches of California-grown flowers, you’re sure to find something to sip on.

Asha Tea House, Berkeley

Blood orange Oolong at Asha Tea House. Photo: Asha Tea House

Opened: July 2012 by David and Diana Lau, engineers by training and tea enthusiasts at heart.
Tagline/Mission: Asha is Taiwanese for “someone that enjoys life,” and the owners seek to remind customers of the things they enjoy about life while drinking tea. They believe there is a cup of tea out there for everyone. These drinks are not just a cup of tea, but “an all-natural, sustainably-sourced, game-changing infusion of hand-crafted deliciousness.”
What is unique about this particular tea company? The drink menu, which includes fruit tea, milk tea, matcha, pure tea, tisane, kids drinks and coffee, showcases an intentionally small but comprehensive representation of world teas. All drinks are made from scratch and flavored with house-made fruit purees, condensed milk and simple syrup, all made from natural ingredients. The teahouse features many DIY projects and unique design features, including creative chalk boards, linen lanterns, and a pour-over inspired brew bar.
Specialty: Unique interpretations of tea beverages from around the world, including Hong Kong milk tea, Masala chai, and matcha and Hojicha lattes.
Where do the teas come from? Teas are sourced directly from growers in China, India, Japan and Taiwan.
Online or in store products? Bulk teas are available online or in store; drinks can be ordered for drinking in the tea house, for pick up and for delivery.

Asha Tea House is at 2086 University Ave. (near Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m to 8 p.m. Connect with the shop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Blue Willow Tea, Berkeley

A pot of green tea during a Blue Willow Tea sourcing trip. Photo: Ali Roth

Opened: Mid-1990s by Lynn Mallard, the founder of Peaberry’s, which is now Highwire. Blue Willow was moved to Berkeley by Ali Roth in 2012. The production space is currently being converted to a teahouse, slated to open late summer 2016.
Tagline/Mission: A labor of love, Blue Willow Tea focuses on relationship-building at all points of the process, from ensuring fair wages for tea pickers to hand-stamping retail bags.
What is unique about this particular tea company? A one-woman show with a personal touch, Blue Willow personally sources teas from sustainable farms and estates worldwide, which are blended and packaged by hand. The forthcoming teahouse will serve teas in appropriate teaware using traditional preparation techniques.
Specialty: Sustainably-grown and fairly traded teas, with a bent toward organic products.
Where do the teas come from? Japan, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India.
Online or in store products? Once the shop opens, all teas will be available online and in the store, though not all will be available wholesale.
Other places to find Blue Willow tea: Algorithm Coffee (Berkeley), Guerilla Café (Berkeley), Masse’s Pastries (Berkeley)
, Duende (Oakland), Perch Coffee House (Oakland), Stag’s Lunchette (Oakland), Timeless Coffee (Oakland),
 among other locations.

Blue Willow Tea is at 1200 10th St. (at Harrison Street), Berkeley. Open by appointment only.

Far Leaves Tea, Berkeley

Tea-infused brunch at Far Leaves Tea in Berkeley. Photo: Far Leaves/Facebook

Opened: 1998
Tagline/Mission: To foster mindfulness by making the practice of tea accessible to all. Anyone and everyone can be a tea master if they pay attention.
What is unique about this particular tea company? Everyone who comes in to Far Leaves for tea service receives a pot of hot water, like a blank canvas with which to brew their own tea creation.
Regular events: Tea classes, including a two-and-a-half-hour Tea Ninja course ($65-85) and a tea-infused cuisine class are offered monthly.
Specialty: Rare teas, oolong teas and teas that have been pressed into cakes and aged. It also carries green, black, puer, Japanese, white teas and herbal infusions.
Where do the teas come from? Japan, Taiwan, China, Kenya and Europe. Most herbal infusions are blended in-house using Oaktown Spice Shop spices and local ingredients.
Online or in store products? All teas are available online and in store, along with tea accessories.
Other places to find Far Leaves tea: The Advocate (Berkeley), Rivoli (Berkeley), Boot & Shoe Service (Oakland), Caffé 817 (Oakland), Noodle Theory (Oakland), Oliveto (Oakland), Penrose (Oakland), Pizzaiolo (Oakland). Also available at a mobile stand on First Fridays at the Johansson Projects Gallery (Oakland).

Far Leaves Tea is at 2626 San Pablo Ave. (at Carleton Street), Berkeley. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 2-7 p.m. Connect with the shop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Leaves and Flowers, Berkeley

Sweet Rush herbal tisane (lemongrass, ginger and rose) from Leaves and Flowers. Photo: Leaves and Flowers/Instagram

Opened: Launched November 2014
Tagline/Mission: Using local ingredients to provide better representation for herbal infusions within the world of tea.
What is unique about this particular tea company? Using locally sourced herbs, Leaves and Flowers produces herbal infusions by hand in small batches.
Specialty: Herbal infusions, though organic small batch teas are also available, including white, green, oolong, black, puerh and matcha.
Where do the teas come from? Fresh herbs come from local farms. Buds and leaves are handpicked, then oxidized, pan­fired, rolled or fermented in Berkeley. Small batch teas come from Japan and China.
Online or in store products? Teas and tea accessories are available online.
Other places to find Leaves and Flowers tea: Bartavelle (Berkeley), Social Studies Shop (Berkeley), Standard Fare (Berkeley), A Verve For Keeping Warm (Oakland), Boot & Shoe Service (Oakland), Cosecha (Oakland), Grand Fare (Oakland), Kosa Arts (Oakland), KronnerBurger (Oakland), Penrose (Oakland), Pizzaiolo (Oakland), Bull Valley Roadhouse (Port Costa). Online at Garibaldi Goods and Half Hitch Goods.

Leaves and Flowers is not open for retail. Connect with the company on Twitter and Instagram.

Teance, Berkeley

Teance serves teas like this Pre-Ming Dragonwell from the West Lake region of Hangzhou, harvested March 23, 2016. Photo: Teance/Facebook

Opened: 2002 on Solano Avenue. Teance moved to Fourth Street in 2006
Tagline/Mission: Teance celebrates the time-honored craftsmanship of artisanal tea farmers in China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka, bridging the gap between the ancient tea culture of the East and the tastes of the West through traditional tea service, education and storytelling.
What is unique about this particular tea company?  The 1600 square-foot teahouse provides a sky-lit environment for tea drinking with bamboo cabinetry, raked plaster walls and hand-made porcelain tiles, all surrounding a circular sampling bar embedded with fossils and semi-precious stones. With a focus on rare and connoisseur teas, Teance’s tea buyer has been sourcing teas for over two decades. Customers can enjoy educational tea flights, pots of rare oolong and tea-infused gelato, which is made in collaboration with Caravaggio. A new section of the shop will prepare cold brew tea and coffee.
Regular events: Monthly events include harvest parties, tasting competitions and antique pu-erh events.
Specialty: Farm direct, whole leaf, seasonal and handcrafted teas, including rare award-winning artisan and aged teas.
Where do the teas come from? Single origin teas (some of which come from a single tree) come from small family-owned farms in China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka.
Online or in store products? Whole leaf teas and traditional and contemporary teaware are available in store and online, with more items available in store.
Other places to find Teance tea: Iyasare (Berkeley) and Commis (Oakland)

Teance is at 1780 Fourth St. (at Delaware Street), Berkeley. Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tea service is offered from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Connect with the shop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Numi Tea, Oakland

Flowering tea from Numi. Photo: Numi Tea/Facebook

Opened: 1999 in a tiny Oakland apartment. Numi moved to The Hive in 2015.
Tagline/Mission: Numi inspires well-being of mind, body and spirit through the simple art of tea, made in a way that nurtures people and honors the planet.
What is unique about this particular tea company? Founded by the brother and sister team of Ahmed and Reem Rahim, Numi uses only real ingredients in all of its tea blends. It strives to foster a thriving global community through the creation and distribution of organic and fair trade-certified products.
Regular events: Numi participates in events in and around the Bay Area, including the First Friday Garden Party at  The Hive.
Specialty: Premium organic and fair trade certified teas.
Where do the teas come from? Country of origin varies depending on blend.
Online or in store products? Teas and gift items are sold from the front reception desk in the office, as well as online.
Other places to find Numi tea: Numi teas can be found at Whole Foods, as well as most natural and organic markets.

Numi Tea is at 400 23rd St. (at Broadway in The Hive complex), Oakland. Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Connect with the company on Facebook and Twitter.

Sophie’s Cuppa Tea, Oakland

Tea tasting at Sophie’s Cuppa Tea. Photo: Sophie’s/Facebook
Tea tasting at Sophie’s Cuppa Tea. Photo: Sophie’s/Facebook

Opened: Summer 2014
Tagline/Mission: Sophie’s Chinese teas are made-to-order and prepared in the way they were meant to be tasted.
What is unique about this particular tea company? All tea is custom-steeped and prepared in one-cup servings (either 12 or 16 ounces) with no milk, honey or sugar. Owner John Brown attempts to personally meet and remember each of his customers, and he takes all newcomers through a tutorial in choosing the perfect tea, whether it be sweet, smoky, floral, herbal or otherwise in character.
Specialty: Chinese teas. Prior to opening the tea house, Brown and his business partner Xiaobei Wei spent five years building connections with farmers and studying tea in China.
Where do the teas come from? Exclusively from China
Online or in store? A wide variety of teas are available to purchase by the ounce. Teas are only available in store.

Sophie’s Cuppa Tea is at 2078 Antioch Ct. (at Antioch Street), Oakland. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Connect with the store on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Steep Tea Co., Oakland

Karina and Molly of Steep Tea Co. at a pop-up at Coloso Coffee. Photo: Steep/Instagram

Opened: 2014. Steep is currently holding pop-ups around the Bay Area, mostly in Oakland, and it partners with other small business to make creative tea beverages, including iced tea, tea soda, chai, tea agua frescas and ginger-wellness steeps. Steep is also renovating a 1967 Jeep ice cream truck for tea and tea-infused soft serve ice cream service, set to debut this summer. The truck is nicknamed Belle, the Steep Jeep.
Tagline/Mission: To help more people drink tea by bringing approachable high-quality tea products straight to consumers.
What is unique about this particular tea company? Fun playful blends offer a modern approach to tea.
Specialty: Organic, loose tea blends and unexpected tisanes.
Where do the teas come from? All over the world, including infusions made from ingredients grown right the Bay Area.
Online or in store products? Tea blends, Steep shirts and mugs, and steeping accessories are available online.
Other places to find Steep teas: Doughnut Dolly (Berkeley and Oakland), Eureka Coffee (Berkeley), Authentic Bagel Company (Oakland), Boot & Shoe Service (Oakland), Coloso Coffee (Oakland), Kilovolt Coffee (Oakland), Ramen Shop (Oakland), Kaleidoscope Coffee (Point Richmond)

Steep Tea Co. is not open for retail. Connect with the company on Instagram. 

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Freelancer Amanda Kuehn Carroll is originally from the cornfields of Nebraska, but she has spent most of her life wandering and wondering, often getting lost in the process. She is fascinated by the complexity...