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Variety, the spice of chai

SCOTT KEELER | Times Erin Dickerson, manager of Te Bella Tea Company, Station House, St. Petersburg, prepares Masala Chai Tea, 10/25/17. The business offers various Chai Teas.

Earthy cinnamon. Spicy ginger. Aromatic cloves. These spices are laid out in heaps on the bar at Story Brooke Craft Coffee Bar in St. Petersburg. Bowls of orange-brown cinnamon and golden ginger are lined up next to whole cardamom pods and star anise, ready for a workshop on blending chai.

Owner Story Stuart created the class because she wanted to educate people about the drink, a black tea steeped with cinnamon, cardamom, clove, ginger and black pepper, plus sugar and milk. She prepares cups of the tea in china teacups, and tops them with steamed milk and star anise pods.

At the bar, we try it. There are soft hums and quiet murmurs of approval, but for a few moments the room is silent as people savor the drink. It’s delicious.

And nothing like what we’ve had at Starbucks, one woman says.

• • •

With the workshop in mind, I set out to learn more about the spiced tea.

At Station House in St. Petersburg, barrels of pumpkin spice, campfire s’mores, pumpkin chai and apple cider chai loose leaf teas are stacked front and center on the TeBella Tea Co. counter, offering a taste of fall for those who wish to indulge. And indulge I do, with a cup of iced apple cider chai in the early hours of a quiet Wednesday morning.

I am here to talk with Abigail StClair, who owns Davis Islands-based tea company TeBella, about the flavors that make up chai.

StClair is a tea sommelier, like the wine profession but for tea. I ask her if tea sommeliers do anything as drastic as licking slates to cleanse their palates (like some wine sommeliers do), and she laughs and says no, she just avoids garlic and coffee, or anything that would impair her palate. (For instance, she has never smoked a cigarette in her life.)

She takes tea seriously, especially when traveling around the world to sample and purchase it. Earlier this year, she represented the United States at a tea conference in Emeishan, in the Sichuan Province of China.

She has learned that Americans’ relationship to tea is often different from other countries’. StClair mentions that tea is the second most-consumed beverage (bested only by water) throughout the rest of the world, but it ranks fifth here in the United States.

In India, chai simply means "tea." While tea was originally brought to India by the British to get around trade with China, StClair says that chai is now widely sold by street vendors, called chaiwallas.

Indian masala chai, the most well-known kind, is similar in composition to what we’re accustomed to in America, but it is prepared differently: Ginger, clove, cardamom and cinnamon are boiled with tea leaves to open up the spiced flavors, then milk is added and boiled until thick. The resulting profile is a "phenomenally complex drink with a lot of character," StClair says.

In America, though, chai is normally prepared by combining chai-flavored powder or syrup with hot water or milk. Thus Americanized chai can sometimes taste, according to StClair, like cinnamon milk rather than the complexly spiced tea it’s supposed to be. It has become somewhat of a default for coffee drinkers or the less tea-literate.

Because American chai is not quite as layered as its Indian counterpart — its intense sweetness tends to mask the other spices — people have trouble picking up on its various flavors, making the distinctions between, say, a mate chai, with hints of vanilla, and TeBella’s Charleston herbal chai, with bits of coconut and pineapple difficult to detect.

But if chai is made correctly, customers can pick up on that complexity and develop their own palates for it, StClair says.

• • •

Back at the StoryBrooke workshop, Stuart holds up a tray of spices, pointing to each one and remarking on its properties: Cinnamon is earthier and gives chai a deeper flavor; black peppercorn and ginger will make a cup of chai spicier; star anise is a good garnish because of its aromatic properties.

When making your own chai mixture from scratch, there is room to play with the exact flavor of the finished product. StClair likes ginger "so strong it burns on the way down" in her chai, but doesn’t like the licorice notes of star anise.

Stuart doesn’t like that licorice flavor either, and uses only trace amounts in her chai blends, which she makes at her shop and can customize to order. Some of her customers know what they want, she says; one of her regulars says that it is "not a friendly chai unless it has black peppercorn in it."

She previews a new creation at the workshop, a chai spice cold brew, that will make its way onto her menu. Then, she hands out small French presses, which we take home and use to make our own chai, and bags of portioned black tea leaves. She leads us over to a table, and one by one helps spoon spices into our bags based on flavors we like.

Some people love cloves and use generous portions in their bags. Someone wants their chai spicier, so they add more peppercorns. I want mine sweeter, so I ease up on the ginger and add more cinnamon.

As we finish out the workshop with chai-flavored soft serve ice cream, or "chaice cream," we talk about how seasonal it tastes — creamy and spicy, a bit reminiscent of eggnog — and how our custom chai blends would make great gifts for the upcoming holidays. A good way to spread the word about a wonderfully complex cup of tea.

Contact Carlynn Crosby at [email protected]

Make your own

In the chai workshop I attended, Story Stuart detailed how each spice impacts the profile of chai. Adding a little more of one spice, or leaving out a spice altogether, can greatly change how a cup of chai tastes, and if you make your own blend you can experiment with what you like and what you don’t like. Portioning the tea and spices into plastic bags and packaging them with a teacup or French press would make for a great holiday gift.

To make: Start with a good tablespoon of black tea leaves in a French press or pot of hot water. You’ll want about 12 to 16 ounces of hot water, brought to between 180 and 200 degrees. Do this either in the microwave or on the stove.

Add spices depending on what flavors you prefer. (See below.)

Steep the spices and the tea together for five minutes and then press or strain well. Add warm milk and preferred sweetener.

Chai spices

Cardamom: It’s cardamom, not cinnamon, that gives chai its staple flavor, Stuart said. She recommends a heaping amount in each batch.

Cinnamon: Cinnamon makes chai taste more sweet and earthy. Stuart recommends using more cinnamon for a deeper, warmer flavor.

Black peppercorn and ginger: For someone who prefers spicier chai, Stuart suggested going heavier on the ginger and black peppercorn, steeping 4 to 5 peppercorns per cup.

Star anise: Neither StClair nor Stuart like the licorice-y notes of anise, so Stuart uses it sparingly. She said that it makes for a great garnish, however, because of its aromatic properties. Smelling it as you sip a cup of chai really adds to the experience, she said.

Cloves: In her syrups, Stuart likes to use whole cloves to get more flavor. But because you can’t steep tea as long as you can steep a syrup (tea has a tendency to get bitter over time), Stuart uses both whole and ground cloves in her tea mix to coax out that same rich flavor.