Berkeley's Asha Tea House (2086 University Ave.) has always been a place for people with different levels of tea appreciation, including teenagers craving sweet boba drinks and connoisseurs who spend hours steeping top-grade high-mountain oolong leaves in a traditional gaiwan.
Now there's something for the boozehounds among us, too: Since August, Asha has been serving a small selection of tea cocktails. The drinks, which are available after 5:30 p.m., offer convincing evidence that tea and alcohol do, in fact, mix — better than you might imagine.
A quick survey of local beverage menus revealed that restaurants such as Berkeley's Comal and Oakland's Ramen Shop have also used tea in elaborate, multiple-component craft cocktails. But none of the local contenders have placed quite as much focus on the tea, which makes sense: Asha is first and foremost a tea house, not a bar.
Owner David Lau said he was first introduced to alcoholic tea beverages several years ago in Taiwan, where one of the most popular club drinks is whiskey green tea, which he described as a refreshing, hangover-inducing libation that basically consists of bottled green tea from 7-Eleven and Johnnie Walker. You mix the two yourself, over plenty of ice, at the table.
Lau said that because so many of Asha's iced tea drinks are served like cocktails anyway (mixed in shakers, with various house-made purées added), serving actual cocktails was an easy leap.
For now, there are two options. The first is a raspberry green tea mojito ($8), made with Asha's house Japanese green tea, a raspberry purée, soju, and fresh muddled mint. Sweet and fruity, it's a good choice for people who don't want to taste too much of the alcohol or the tea, Lau said. Real tea aficionados will want to try the oolong highball ($6.50), which is as simple as it gets: just soju and unsweetened oolong.
On a recent weeknight, I tried the highball, which comes out in a tall, skinny glass looking like a pale lager — amber-hued and slightly foamy on top. The drink was smooth and refreshing, but what stood out was how much I could really taste the tea, which was earthy and fragrant, with only a hint of bitterness.
Lau said that Asha's house oolong and green teas are both fairly mild, caffeine-wise, and the soju he uses — about two shots' worth per drink — is only about 25-percent ABV. The drinks are strong, but we're not talking Four Loko or Vodka Red Bull territory here. (That said, as a notorious lightweight, I can attest to working up a decent buzz.)
According to Lau, the intended effect is pleasant and well-balanced — not too high, not too low. In any case, Asha isn't anyone's idea of a binge-drinking kind of place.
"We don't want people getting really crazy," Lau said.
For now, the alcoholic tea menu is limited to the aforementioned options, but Lau is cooking up several new ideas. In Japan, he said, a popular drink called Oolong Hai (which mixes oolong and shochu) is often served hot, and Lau likes the idea of expanding customers' horizons with a hot cocktail. The other drink he's working on is sure to please the college crowd: an alcoholic version of bubble tea.
Coffee and Doughnuts
For the past several months, young women from East and West Oakland have been hawking coffee and doughnuts on First Fridays and at hip art events around The Town. You might call Mamacitas Cafe the latest trendy Oakland pop-up, but the cafe also touts itself as a socially conscious business dedicated to employing Oakland's young women — and, more than that, training them to become empowered leaders in the city.
Founders Renee Geesler and Shana Lancaster recently wrapped up a successful $15,000 Kickstarter campaign that will, among other things, enable them to purchase the equipment they need to take their training program to the next level: a full set of pour-over coffee gear and a portable doughnut fryer to replace their ad-hoc stovetop setup.
Geesler explained that she and Lancaster both have a background in youth training. When the two decided to start a business together, they both wanted it to have a training component — specifically one geared toward young women, whom they felt often get left out of the conversation.
The idea of a pop-up cafe made sense, especially in the context of Oakland's widely hailed food boom, which isn't, on the whole, geared toward the large number of youth in Oakland. Those young women might never set foot in any of those restaurants because, as Geesler put it, "it's just not their world." Once Geesler and Lancaster came up with their signature food product, the "doughnut kebab" — three mini-doughnuts on a stick — everything else just came together. Currently, Mamacitas Cafe employs five girls, all high school students in Oakland.
As for the pop-up's menu offerings, the fried-to-order doughnut kebabs are the star attraction, of course. Who doesn't like a warm doughnut, much less three of them speared on a stick? Geesler said she's hard at work developing new flavors, including a savory, bacon-dusted version. The coffee comes courtesy of Oakland-based Red Bay Coffee Roasters, and eventually the pour-over setup will allow the girls to brew the coffee to order. Lancaster also makes lavender-infused soda.
Geesler stressed that the point isn't to train young women to be future members of the service industry. Once the training component of Mamacitas becomes more formalized, the girls will take classes on topics including basic entrepreneurship skills, conflict resolution, and how to balance your books.
"A lot of it goes beyond just the skills of how to do pour-over coffee," Geesler explained. "We want to push them toward something bigger for themselves."
The next Mamacitas event will be a First Friday pop-up on November 7 outside of Impact Hub (2323 Broadway, Oakland).