Spice of Chico

Chico Chai, your only local artisan tea-maker

Chico Chai owner Sarah Adams stirs a batch of spiced-tea brew.

Chico Chai owner Sarah Adams stirs a batch of spiced-tea brew.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Tea time:
For a complete list of locations where Chico Chai is available, by the cup, quart or gallon, or in loose-leaf tins (in original, maté, chocolate and rooibos—“red chai”—flavors), visit www.chicochaitea.com.

The deliriously sweet smell of simmering chai tea wafting through the air hit my nostrils a half a block away from Chico Chai’s tiny commercial kitchen in south Chico as I was riding my bicycle there to interview owner Sarah Adams on a recent Monday morning.

When I arrived, Adams—who will turn 33 right around the time Chico Chai celebrates its seventh anniversary in May—was busy cooking up her weekly batch of chai, an increasingly popular, soothing sweet tea originating in India (where it’s called masala chai). It’s made with ginger, star anise, nutmeg (“my favorite spice of all time,” Adams said), cardamom and other exotic spices, as well as black tea and sugar.

In addition to being a familiar sight at the Saturday downtown farmers’ market, where she sells her divinely delicious chai by the cup or quart, Adams sells Chico Chai by the quart and gallon to Chico Natural Foods and S & S Produce for retail sale, as well as to a number of local cafés—Naked Lounge, Café Flo, the Upper Crust, and others—that serve it warm and milky by the cup. Adams’ one-woman operation has also branched out to Juice & Java in Paradise, as well as to two cafés in Sacramento.

She makes from 60 to 120 gallons of chai weekly, depending on the season: “In the summer, more like 60; in the wintertime, way more.”

The slender, pretty Chico native—who is also a longtime belly dancer, and founder of local belly-dancing troupe Origin Tribal Belly Dance—recalled how she got into becoming a small-batch artisan producer of chai, the only one for hundreds of miles around.

While Adams was studying wildlife management at Humboldt State University in Arcata, she worked for the university’s sustainability center—the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT)—as outreach coordinator and trainer of volunteers.

“I was also in charge of organizing free DIY workshops” on such topics as massage, candlemaking, solar power and composting, she explained as she stirred the 80-gallon tank of steamy, brewing tea with a large wooden paddle. Arcata chai-brewer Planet Chai gave one of those workshops, which Adams attended.

“After I tasted Planet Chai and I learned how to make chai, I knew I could do it,” she said of how she first got the idea to start her own business. Adams ended up giving up her job trapping and studying snakes as a U.S. Geological Survey biological technician to become a full-time chai “brewmistress” (as her business card describes her).

“There are so many ways to make chai,” offered Adams. “I had to develop my own recipe”—a recipe that she describes as “very complex” and “more spicy than most.” All of the spices Adams uses are 100 percent organic and Chico Chai contains “about half as much sugar as [industry pioneer] Oregon Chai.” Additionally, Adams uses no preservatives in Chico Chai.

“One thing that sets it apart from mainstream chais, besides the sugar content and the flavor,” said Adams, “is the freshness. I don’t have preservatives in the chai.” Preservatives, such as citric acid, she said, change the flavor of the chai: “You end up tasting the citric acid instead of the layers of spices. That changes the experience for me.”

As it is, Chico Chai maintains a shelf life of four weeks.

Adams is looking forward to attending the upcoming World Tea Expo in June in Las Vegas, where she will be taking a chai-tasting class (“the first time the Tea Expo has had a class on chai”).

“I’m curious to see what the professional tasters do when they taste chai,” she said. “I’m just watching and learning.”