Being Mama: Tea Sommelier Ali Roth
For Ali Roth, owner of Blue Willow Tea in Berkeley, California, “there is an intimate connection that is achieved when sharing tea; just as the leaves open and reveal their inner truths, so do we.”
Walk into Blue Willow Teaspot on any given day and you’ll see owner Ali Roth greeting, serving and chatting with customers. You’d never know that this warm, welcoming proprietor is far more than a laid-back, multitasking tea maestro. She is, in fact, a bona fide badass Renaissance woman.
Not only does Ali juggle parenting and running a business, she also regularly traveled (pre-COVID) throughout Asia to meet directly with farmers to source single-origin, sustainably-grown teas. With the help of her husband and friends, she renovated the Teaspot’s serene, sunny interior using reclaimed materials, including vintage copper teapots for lights and sheets of plywood from the half-pipe skate ramp that used to be in her backyard to build tables. She was also instrumental in designing the website, crafting meticulous tea notes, taking photos for social media feeds, and well, just about everything and anything — while making it all look remarkably seamless.
Before becoming a mom, Ali could be seen around town making wholesale deliveries on her ’71 Honda motorcycle with her dog Boris sitting happily in the adjacent sidehack wearing goggles. Now the mama of Rowan, age 2, her motorcycle deliveries have stalled, but she’s taken off in a whole new way.
Tell me about your journey into the world of tea.
I didn’t know much about tea growing up. I drank a lot of Sleepytime tea when I was a kid. I wasn’t really introduced to good tea until I went to Japan when I was 12 with my mom. I did my first tea ceremony there and thought [the thick, green tea] was the grossest thing ever. I was more fascinated with the utensils and ceremonial preparation.
Life has this weird way of presenting these paths to you and sometimes we choose to take that leap and sometimes we don’t, but there was this weird convergence of synchronicities that happened and I was offered a job of working in the warehouse of Blue Willow when it was in Emeryville. I’d just turned 21 and started from the bottom. My job title was “Tea Bagger.”
I was the only employee for five years. Then my boss retired and moved to France and sold me the company. I ran it completely by myself for five years.
What surprised you most while learning about tea?
The real eye-opener happened when I learned that all tea came from the same plant. It’s all Camellia Sinensis. There are different naturally-occurring varietals and human-influenced cultivars, but it’s all Camellia Sinensis. Once I learned that all the different flavor characteristics are achieved from where you grow it, when it’s plucked and how it’s processed, that blew my mind. The world of tea is so beautifully intertwined, and everyone works together to lift each other up. It’s a great business model.
How did you discover which farms were sustainably operated?
It was trial and error. I started traveling in Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan and got exposed to different business structures. I view sustainability issues across three metrics: ecological, economic and social.
People will introduce me to their family and friends. “Here’s my tea, but you should check out my neighbor’s tea or the tea down the mountain.” It’s extremely organic. The more I’ve built a name for myself, the more people contact me on a regular basis. If I like their tea, I will go there and visit them and see how they operate.
How do you deal with language barriers?
I usually have a contact there who I know who will introduce me to people. There’s a lot of Google Translate. I study Mandarin and speak a little Japanese.
How has your relationship with growers affected your business and offerings?
It’s amazing. I’ve been exposed to so many people and have learned so much about what goes into making tea and running a really good business model that uplifts not only yourself but also your surroundings. Tea is a really beautiful medium for that.
There is such a rich history and level of skill that goes into crafting tea. Once you see that, you can really appreciate the tea you drink a lot more. It wasn’t enough for me to just send people tea, I really wanted to act as a direct connection to the growers and producers and prepare their teas as they would. That’s how the idea for the Teaspot was born and that’s what we hope to achieve.
What keeps you energized and passionate about being a business owner and tea maestro?
We’re like family here. I’m technically the Boss Lady, but we all work together. We’re all in the same tea boat, so to speak.
How has running and managing a business prepared you for motherhood?
I don’t think we can ever be fully be prepared for either. It’s all trial and error and a lot of thinking on your feet and adapting to the current situation, learning to plan or expect for five different outcomes at any time and having a plan for every one of those things. The shop was my first “baby” and it did help teach me a lot about responsibility that has rolled over into how I parent.
Did you make special teas for yourself when you were pregnant?
It wasn’t so much tea I craved but catfish po’boys. When I was pregnant and traveling in China and staying on tea farms, I just drank tea all day. But I did try to cut back on the amount of tea I would drink in one sitting. The only thing I was very conscious of after birth was not drinking mint, since it will lower your milk production.
How did you juggle being a new mom while running a business?
Because of the family atmosphere we built into the shop, it was relatively seamless. I brought Rowan to work with me every day for the first eight months of his life from the time he was a month old. I wore him while doing tea tastings, nursed him while making tea… Once people saw that I was a mom too, people would bring their kids by. Rowan learned to crawl and walk there. Now when he comes to work he insists on making tea for people.
How do you think being at Blue Willow his first year helped Rowan developmentally?
He is extremely social. I think it’s because he was exposed to so many people every day. He didn’t get sick for the first year of his life.
What is Rowan’s favorite tea?
He gets very diluted versions of tea, but he does like puerh. He says, “Mmm, that’s delicious!” He likes oolongs and even sheng puerh. I make him herb tea when he’s sick. We call it “witches’ brew.”
How have your son’s formative experiences promoted real-life skills and independence, two key aspects of Montessori philosophy?
Rowan uses my teapots to make tea. He’ll put the tea in the pot and fill it with water from the kettle and pour it into the cups. We’re always building and making things, fixing things, and he works with us. Now that he’s two he can drill pilot holes and drive in screws. He loves to cook and wash dishes. He helps me cook breakfast and his dad cook dinner.
What would you say is the most fulfilling part about being a mom?
One thing that amazes me is just how natural it is. You think that it’s going to be this huge, life-altering thing, and of course it is, but it’s not like a jolt. You figure it out as you go, so it’s not a shock to the system. It’s a weird juxtaposition: I feel like I’ve known him for an eternity, but it also seems that he was just born yesterday. I think my favorite thing is just seeing him learn so much and really understand things.
What the biggest lesson you’ve learned from Rowan thus far?
I’ve relearned how to be human, how to interact. A lot of it involves learning how to contain and examine my own emotions, because he drives me nuts sometimes. He’s so smart and so strong and so capable, that it’s hard sometimes to stay ahead of him. Now that he’s two, we can have full-on conversations. Things are easy, verbs and objects, but in terms of internally, emotionally what’s happening with him, it’s harder. I need that refresher too.