The best among 4 tea houses in Berkeley

Rose tuocha at Far Leaves.
Mai Truong/Staff
Rose tuocha at Far Leaves.

What contains enough caffeine to help you plow through the midterms but also keeps your brain relaxed in a meditating state? Tea.

Tea contains theanine, which reduces mental stress and boosts cognitive functioning. But forget all that boring chemistry! Just ditch your coffee, drink tea and see for yourself how surprisingly happy you feel despite the stacking number of days you run on two hours of sleep. The next important question is this: Where in Berkeley should you get tea?

Sure, every cafe offers a few kinds of tea bags. You pour in hot water, close the lid and run to class, but comparing that to real tea — i.e., whole tea leaves in a teapot — is like comparing instant noodles to a hearty bowl of chashu ramen: There’s just no comparison. As of today, Berkeley has four tea houses that serve real tea: Asha, Far Leaves, Imperial Tea Court and Teance.

What makes them real tea houses as opposed to bagged-tea houses? Simple: They don’t serve instant tea in a bag. They also have printed tea menus, unlike tea houses that have no menu or place it on the overhead board next to croissants and bagels (no offense to croissants and bagels, but those pastries are not quite tea snacks). Their tea menus are sectioned into White, Green, Oolong, Red (or Black) and Puer. They also have someone who can explain to you what each category of tea is.

Of those four, which tea house is the best? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. For your convenience, we have tabulated our experience as follows:

Asha

Far Leaves

Imperial Tea Court

Teance

Tea variety

Smallest selection among the four, but still plenty

No white tea

Decent variety

Large variety

Large variety

Tea grade (quality of tea)

Average

Average

Average

High

Service

Great service; knowledgeable tea-maker

OK service; tea-maker not knowledgeable

Service not attentive; tea-maker not knowledgeable

Great service, knowledgeable tea-maker

Study area

Yes

Yes

More of a restaurant than a tea house

Yes

Wi-Fi

Yes

Yes

No

No

Food

Yes

Not really; nuts and a few sad cookies

Yes, but except the niu ro mien (hand-cut noodle soup with beef), everything is oily, bland and overpriced

Only tea snacks, which are artisan tea cookies and financiers

Social aspect, i.e., bar seating

Yes — enough bar seating for four or five, so you watch the tea bartender make your tea and converse with him about the process

No, but sitting on the wooden platform with thin cushions and low tables is comfortable

No, just restaurant tables

Yes — I’ve had countless enlightening conversations with other tea drinkers and made a number of good friends

Location

Conveniently on University and near everything

On San Pablo, South Berkeley and near Black Oak Bookstore

In the chic Epicurious Garden in North Berkeley, with outdoor seating to boost

On Fourth Street

Price

Affordable ($5 to $9/ per pot, +$1 extra if you share)

Affordable ($4.50 to $6 per pot)

Affordable ($5 per pot, +$3 extra if you share)

High ($7 to $10 per pot, with multiple steepings — or $5 for a single steeping)

Our conclusion? If you’re in study mode but want to stay Downtown, Asha is the best tea house. If you want to distance yourself from the crowd, go to Far Leaves (there’s seriously nobody there; it’s so quiet that I would have fallen asleep if I weren’t drinking tea). If you want overpriced, oily food, hang out at Imperial Tea Court. If you want to mingle with the tea aficionados and learn about tea, spend one afternoon at Teance.

Mai Truong is the editor of Eating Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]