This new matcha pop-up is offering an unusually high-end experience for tea lovers in Berkeley

February 22, 2022 by No Comments


A new matcha tea pop-up in Berkeley immediately lulls you into a state of calm and quiet. The air smells warm and sweet, like a mix of Palo Santo and cedar wood. A playlist of chill jazz hums in the background and all eyes are on a woman whisking matcha tea in a small ceramic bowl.

Three sisters, Eunice, Elaine and Gigi Lam, debuted the pop-up last November with the goal of offering a high-end matcha tea experience unlike anything else in the Bay Area. Called Three Tea Bowls, it quickly gained a reputation for serving the most pristine matcha in Berkeley — high praise given the quality at nearby spots like Asha Tea House and Third Culture Bakery.

The Lam sisters obsess over the craft of brewing tea, buying handmade tools from Japan that also give customers more of a show. They source the powdered green tea from a family-run farm in Uji, south of Kyoto, which stone grinds each batch to order for maximum freshness. The sisters buy a new shipment every two to three weeks, which was going well until the pop-up’s growing popularity coincided with pandemic-related shipping delays. After deciding to extend their short-term pop-up past December, they ran out of matcha and had to shut down for several weeks. They just reopened over the weekend.

The pop-up runs out of Hong Kong-style waffle shop Gadani at 139 Berkeley Square, in downtown Berkeley. The sisters are looking for a permanent location, dreaming of a space with more seating and relaxation opportunities.

Elaine (left to right), Gigi and Eunice Lam are sisters and owners of Three Tea Bowls. The new matcha pop-up is taking a traditional, high-end approach to the Japanese green tea.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

“Every time I get a chance to serve you tea is a precious moment,” Gigi said. “We want to hone in on that special moment with every person.”

Making matcha isn’t just about steeping leaves.

Eunice, the sister focused on Three Tea Bowls full-time, starts by scooping the powdered leaves onto a strainer, which sits over a ceramic bowl, which sits over a scale. She uses a traditional chashaku, a long, handmade spoon crafted out of smoked bamboo as the scoop, while keeping a close eye on the weight for precision. After sifting it to ensure there are no lumps, she pours hot water in a circular motion to bloom the tea, similar to baristas making pour-over coffee. That water is kept at a relatively gentle 176 degrees in a cast-iron pot, which releases minerals that boost the flavor of the tea, according to Eunice. The process is the same for hojicha, a roasted green tea, except she’ll grab a white kettle set to 208 degrees. Hojicha is less delicate than matcha and can handle the heat.

Eunice Lam scoops matcha powder with a traditional chashaku at Three Tea Bowls, currently operating out of Gadani in Berkeley.

Eunice Lam scoops matcha powder with a traditional chashaku at Three Tea Bowls, currently operating out of Gadani in Berkeley.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

As soon as the water hits the tea, Eunice inhales the aroma and smiles. Then it’s time to break out the bamboo whisk.

“It’s stone-ground powder so it doesn’t totally dissolve,” Eunice explained, “so we have to whisk it very quickly to create harmony.”

Lackluster matcha lattes at other cafes often come down to not whisking the tea fast enough, creating a chalky texture. The other big issue is storage. Most businesses leave matcha out at room temperature, but the Lam sisters said that leads to oxidation and a faded flavor. Even storing it in the fridge can be a fraught situation. If you remove the matcha from the fridge and open the canister right away, you risk condensation dripping onto the tea and ruining it. Instead, you must let the matcha come to room temperature before opening it —a test of patience.

Gigi Lam holds a rose matcha latte at Three Tea Bowls.

Gigi Lam holds a rose matcha latte at Three Tea Bowls.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Three Tea Bowls sells the matcha in a few different ways. There are ceremonial shots, which are served straight up to appreciate all of the tea’s complex umami, nutty notes. There are also fizzes, which combine the grassy tea with sparkling mineral water, and affogatos, where tea shots swap in for espresso over vegan ice cream. Lattes are the most popular format, and can come with fun flavorings like black sesame and rose.

To finish the lattes, Eunice artfully pours the matcha shot above carefully weighed oat milk, ice and organic cane syrup. It’s part of her choreography, bringing the cup out from behind the counter and placing it on a wooden coaster in full view of everyone. She describes the matcha-making process as a rhythm that builds anticipation. And that moment, seeing the shot blend into other ingredients, is the final stroke in the art piece.

Eunice Lam pours organic black sesame paste into a matcha latte at a Three Tea Bowls pop-up.

Eunice Lam pours organic black sesame paste into a matcha latte at a Three Tea Bowls pop-up.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Elaine, a vegan lifestyle blogger and holistic nutritionist, first had the idea to start a matcha business. Over the years, she tasted a lot of matcha samples and found it difficult to find anything that met her standards. She and her sisters, all natives of Hong Kong, have long loved preparing matcha at home. When they went on a family vacation to Japan a few years ago, they started talking more seriously about partnering with a small farm to bring high-quality matcha to a wider audience.

It took a long time to develop their vision and figure out the logistics of running a matcha business. Gigi works as a designer full-time and, up until recently, Eunice was getting a master’s degree in education technology. When she graduated, however, she decided to dedicate herself to tea instead.

During a Three Tea Bowls pop-up, Eunice Lam mixes a matcha latte while customers watch.

During a Three Tea Bowls pop-up, Eunice Lam mixes a matcha latte while customers watch.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

“Tea is a path for me to enter the calming soul,” she said. “I whisk matcha for myself, and it helps me to think less and enjoy more.”

Elaine agreed that making matcha means so much more than brewing tea. It teaches mindfulness, she said, noting how the experience is different every time. Since the handmade utensils from Japan are all imperfect, Eunice added, the tools force her to be a perennial student of matcha.

Evelyn Chang, 4, holds a bowl of ceremonial matcha outside of the Three Tea Bowls pop-up at Gadani in Berkeley.

Evelyn Chang, 4, holds a bowl of ceremonial matcha outside of the Three Tea Bowls pop-up at Gadani in Berkeley.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Eunice originally studied education because she wanted to give back to the community, but she feels like she can do that with tea. She loves serving UC Berkeley students, and recalled how stressed out they looked during winter finals. While whisking their tea, she whispered to it.

“I hope my tea was able to refresh and empower the students for their finals,” she said. “I talk to the tea to create a kind intention.”

Three Tea Bowls. 139 Berkeley Square, Berkeley. 1 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to Thursday. 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday. www.threeteabowls.com





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