Jan. 13--In much of the world, tea is an everyday beverage, whether you're slurping boba on the go or settling into a steaming cup of chai. And if the growing presence of eclectic tea shops here in the Bay Area is any clue, tea may soon give coffee a run for its caffeine.
Overall, tea in the United States is shifting from the upraised-pinky demographic to a more mainstream sip, says Victoria Boyert, a certified tea specialist and owner of Saratoga's Tipping Pot by Satori Tea Co. "Tea is the perfect conduit to connect," Boyert says. Between the steeping of tea leaves and the sheer ritual of it, tea "is naturally slower paced than coffee. So tea is the perfect counterpart to the modern age."
But tea is also incredibly current -- and Instagram-worthy. Just step into a bright, yellow-and-white hued Happy Lemon, the China-based fast-casual tea cafe with nine locations in the Bay Area, including Berkeley and Sunnyvale. There, millennials stand in long lines until 10 and 11 p.m. on weekends for a fix of -- wait for it -- creamy, salted cheese tea.
And then there's the creativity at home-grown spots, such as Pleasanton's Inklings or San Jose's Tea Lyfe, where laptops mingle with open mic nights. Husband-and-wife owners Candy and Caleb Bui opened Tea Lyfe in 2014 as an alternative to typical milk-tea shops.
Tea Lyfe specializes in natural, organic milk teas and other beverages that fuse their Latino and Vietnamese cultures. Think Vietnamese coffee horchata and a cold-brewed jasmine tea strong enough to stand up to Straus Family Creamery milk. The Buis make all their own syrups and source local and organic ingredients whenever possible.
"We wanted to do something different," Candy says, "so people could experience the two cultures in our teas."
Here's to celebrating everything different in tea. You'll find seven of our favorite Bay Area tea houses below -- minimal doilies involved.
Julie's Coffee & Tea Garden
With its driftwood mobiles, sustainable veggie-driven fare, choco-chais and herbal tisanes, this is so not your Aunt Petunia's tea salon. Laptop-tapping tea lovers perch at small tables at this Alameda cafe. Sunny yellow walls complement black-and-white checkered floors, and green shelves hold colorful tea pots and bins of Fair Trade teas to brew at home. But why would you want to, when there's a secret garden out back where you can sip that Vitality Tonic Latte or Flower Power tisane under the trees?
The cup: The tea menu offers up a full complement of 25 white, green, black and pu-erh teas, but on a chilly morning, you won't go wrong -- or risk caffeine insufficiency -- with a steaming cup of fragrant black lavender tea ($3). Feeling a bit under the weather? There's a minty Sniffles Tisane, too.
Wait, there's more: Pair that tea with something yummy from the cafe kitchen, a meltingly delicious grilled cheese and ham sandwich ($9), perhaps, or baked eggs ($7.50) topped with seasonal veggies. Be sure to peek in the pastry case, too. We're still talking about the savory cheddar-chive scone ($4).
Details: Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, from 8 am. weekends at 1223 Park St., Alameda; juliestea.com. Want more? Last spring brought the opening of a Julie's Oakland at 4316 Telegraph Ave.
Tucked in the back of San Jose Vietnam Town, Tea Lyfe is a rustic, hip tea house done up in wood, metal and succulents. The contemporary cafe specializes in organic milk teas and creative fusion drinks using high-grade loose tea leaves, organic tea blends, espresso and house horchata. The owners source local ingredients, including raw honey and Straus Family Creamery dairy, and let you pick from three sweetness levels (regular was plenty sweet for us). Even toppings are thoughtfully conceived, from aloe vera to organic chia seeds.
The cup: Depends on your mood. Cold coming on? You'll want a hot Honey Ginseng Oolong ($4.75) sweetened with raw honey. Need something refreshing? Get an iced Pineapple Lychee Jasmine ($4.50), a fresh-brewed jasmine green tea loaded with fresh pineapple and lychee. Want something creamy and caffeinated? Order a Vietchata ($4.50), house horchata made with premium rice, cinnamon and vanilla topped with a shot of Vietnamese coffee.
Wait, there's more: Waffles. Tea Lyfe specializes in creative Belgian-style waffles ($5 each) made with organic eggs, milk and coconut milk. Favorites include the Vietnamese Coffee Churro, Activated Charcoal and Pina Colada made with fresh pineapple and coconut flakes.
Details: Open from noon Tuesday-Sunday at 989 Story Road, Suite 8018, San Jose; http://tealyfe.us.
Inklings Coffee & Tea
We have an inkling this charming British library-inspired coffee and tea room in Pleasanton will appeal to literary devotees, as well as the caffeinated set. Comfy chairs and wooden tables cozy up to a wall of book-lined shelves. Between the painted-tin ceilings and framed black-and-white paintings and maps, hung against walls painted dark, moody hues, you'd almost expect to see Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien or another weaver of adventure-filled tales inking the day away among the Wi-Fi crowd. Or at least sipping some Compassion Tea Bourbon St. Vanilla rooibos ($3 and up) or Stumptown Coffee pour-over ($4.75).
The cup: Not sure if Sherlock is a chai guy, as well as a British tea traditionalist, but a nitro chai ($5) might be just the thing for a 21st-century booklover. Prefer espresso? Frodo likely prefers a milky cortado ($3.15) with his elevenses.
Wait, there's more: A secret door hidden in the bookcase leads to The Common Room, which hosts open mic nights, movies and other events. The rest of the time, it's a study hall where future J.K. Rowlings can work on Hogwarts 2.0 -- or study up for that AP English quiz.
Details: Open from 7 a.m. daily at 530 Main St., Pleasanton; inklingscoffee.com.
Sophie's Cuppa Tea
Passionate tea connoisseurs, take note: The variety of Chinese teas at this Montclair teahouse is so mind-blowingly extensive, there are giant chalkboard lists of them on every wall. Every. Wall.
The place itself is warm, welcoming and stylish, with black wainscoting -- to complement those giant chalkboards -- and comfy chairs in rich red and purple patterns. But the tea's the thing and the staff serves as tea sommeliers, guiding you through nearly a hundred possibilities in every hue of the tea family -- black, white, green, red, yellow and Wu Long.
The cup: Whether you opt for Golden Osmanthus or Dragon Eyes, Buddha's Reach or Taoist Eyebrows all depends on your mood and palate -- and whether you prefer your tea velvety, smoky, sweet or floral. Just don't ask for milk, sugar, lemon or honey. Tea is like wine, say owners John Brown and Xiaobei Wei.
Wait, there's more: Want to experience Chinese tea culture for yourself? The Sophie's team leads tea tours to China each year.
Details: Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 2078 Antioch Court, Oakland; www.sophiescuppatea.com.
Chef Colin Chen's new Pleasanton cafe is small and cozy, with a half dozen tables, flat-screen TV and a steady stream of regulars craving lunch with their milk teas, fruit teas and specialty drinks. They're coming in for Chen's melt-in-your-mouth bao sandwiches, Japanese-style fried chicken, fresh soups and salads.
As for sips, the menu features 10 fruit teas made with green tea and housemade purees (available blended with ice or topped with cream), 12 milk teas served hot or cold and 10 house specialties, like Organic Love, made with organic black tea, brown sugar, honey pearl and cream ($5.25).
The cup: For a jolt of caffeine, try EW Dance, assam tea with espresso, condensed milk and magic pearl ($5.05). On the fruity side, we liked the refreshing flavor of Passion Fruit (regular, $3.45; large, $3.95).
Wait, there's more: If you want a light dessert, try a cup of Ice De Soie, which looks and tastes like shaved ice mixed with rolled ice cream. Chen says it's simply fruit and ice that's been run through a machine to make those silky, paper-thin layers. Available in mango and strawberry ($4.75-$6.35).
Details: Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily at 6654 Koll Center Parkway, Suite 318, Pleasanton; http://baoteacafe.business.
This China-based shop specializes in salted-cheese tea, a boba-spinoff also known as crema or mousse. The concept -- nine different teas served with a mix of cream cheese, whipped cream, milk and rock salt floating on top -- first became popular in Asia and is now having a major moment in the United States.
While you may shudder at the thought of sipping thick, salty cheese with your tea, there is a method to enjoying this concoction. Happy Lemon suggests drinking your tea by tilting the cup 45 degrees so you can savor it in layers, starting with an initial sip of salty-sweet cream followed by the flow of tea into your mouth.
The cup: Stick to the bestseller, Black Tea with Salted Cheese ($3.75). It is familiar and provides stronger tannins and color than the weaker oolong and green tea offerings. We also liked Milk Tea with Salted Cheese ($3.75), classic boba flavor made milkier with the cheese float.
Wait, there's more: Happy Lemon offers other teas (there's a lemon series and standard bobas) if you can't get past the texture thing. Another option: Let the cheese settle and mix into the Milk Tea with Salted Cheese for a beverage reminiscent of slightly salty Thai iced tea.
Details: Open 11 a.m. daily at 20488 Stevens Creek Blvd., Suite 2040, Cupertino. Other Bay Area locations include San Jose, Burlingame, Berkeley and Fremont; www.happy-lemon.com/en.
The Tipping Pot by Satori Tea Co.
At first glance, this Saratoga spot is reminiscent of a traditional, sit-down English tea house, with its sweet crumpets and finger sandwiches. But take a closer look and you'll see that the space is a bit more chic than shabby, with mismatched tables and chairs in bold colors, a large retail section and a host of events you'd never find at Downton Abbey, including April's Game of Scones, a feast of ice and fire featuring the Three-Eyed Raven Tea Flight.
The Tipping Pot offers dozens of premium teas, from black and oolong to green, white and herbal, with a selection of single-origin teas paired to go with its British-style tea service. And while it is the perfect place for a bridal shower or Valentine's Day celebration, owner Victoria Boyert has been known to host tea-centric "Harry Potter" and "Star Wars" events too.
The cup: Go for the Tipping Teapot Trio ($25), which gets you a pot of tea and three sweet or savory accompaniments -- a seasonal soup, perhaps, salad, four tea sandwiches, a scone or traditional crumpet.
Wait, there's more: Not a crumpets guy? Opt for The Huntsman ($30), a platter of artisanal meats, cheeses and other tasty accompaniments along with a pot of tea. Kids 10 and younger can order their own tea service: Mad Hatter's Tea Whimsy ($25), which includes four peanut butter and jelly tea sandwiches with sprinkles, mac 'n cheese bites, cream scones, afternoon tea sweets and a pot of milk, hot cocoa or tea.
Details: Open at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday at 14482 Big Basin Way, Saratoga. Reservations recommended. Last seating at 4:30 p.m. Kitchen closes at 5 p.m.; https://satoriteausa.com.
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