The nose detects the scent at the Chico Farmers’ Market and comes hither, to the end of one of two long rows of stalls. Saffron drapes form a roof above the stall, and a saffron tablecloth covers the table. On the table sit sample spices and the loose tea, both in tins, large thermal hot beverage dispensers ready to serve the sweet, spicy tea, and, on a tray, small sampling cups. These last are frequently replenished to keep up with the folks who, drawn by the scent or the drapes or the friendly faces behind the table, come to sample Chico Chai, brewmistress Sarah Adams’ version of the Indian chai masala. Once they sample, they often buy either the loose leaf mixture in the tin or a concentrate she sells in quart-sized recycable plastic jugs.
It’s the masala, the spice mixture, that carries Chico Chai’s distinctive scent. Most Mondays, the scent lingers down the block and around the corner from the kitchen of Chico’s old Kramore Inn. That’s where Sarah brews Chico Chai. Its scent is hard to describe, so many spices contribute and blend in it, sharp and provocative, alluring, like the magic in the atmosphere of a bazaar. Although there are clearly similarities no matter what the recipe, each chai masala brewer also lends her distinctive choice and proportion of spices. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger appear in most recipes, with nutmeg, vanilla bean, star anise, and black pepper sometimes also appearing—all of which are known as warm spices. Of her own combination, Sarah says, “I wanted it to be on the spicy threshold.” The metaphor captures qualities of Chico Chai: an entrance into a complex and arresting layering of taste.
To drink Chico Chai is to enter into those layers. While it’s primarily her artisanal mixture of spices that makes it so, the secret recipe, it’s also Sarah’s commitment to freshness and her method of brewing. Sarah sources whole spices, and she grinds each spice fresh in a separate batch every time she brews. She knows the spices intimately. Star anise she calls the Supermodel of the spice industry, and as her fingers shift through the star-shaped pods and pick out this one and then that one, she muses, “Sometimes they’re so pretty I don’t even want to grind them. I pull them out and use them for decorations.” When she fingers the green cardamom, she says, “It doesn’t look as pretty as it smells,” and indeed, it is probably the most distinctive in the layer of scents.
The brewing too she conducts attentive to the threshold. She simmers the spices a full two hours before she adds the tea, because, she says, “spices are a little more stubborn than tea” in giving up their flavor to the water. For tea, she sources a Fair Trade organic Assam tea, a tea indigenous to India and named after the state in India where it first grew. It’s what she calls a robust tea, one that stands up to the spices. And, since chai masala is traditionally a sweet blend, just so much sugar completes the brew.
Sarah produces about sixty gallons of concentrate each week, simmering it for hours in a steam jacketed kettle before bottling. Larger batch commercial producers generally add citric acid to extend the shelf life of spiced chai. Sarah doesn’t. She can taste it in there, an aftertaste she doesn’t like. She’s particular about taste and about source too, which is why she chooses fair trade organic tea and sugar unrefined and raw from organic sugar cane.
These predelictions for sustainably produced ingredients she credits to an association forged when she was attending California State University, Humboldt, and got involved with their Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. For the last thirty-one years, the Center’s three-at-a-time student residents and student employees have designed and implemented projects that took the house off the grind nearly two decades ago, solar thermal panels, a photovoltaic system, pedal-powered machines, and extended outside to permaculture, an organic garden, a grey water marsh. According to humboldt.edu, “Appropriate technology is not a specific item—it’s not solar panels, or a greywater marsh, or anything. It’s a way of evaluating a technology, a way of thinking about the social, economic, and environmental impacts. . . ,” Sarah’s way if thinking. “It’s like a religion,” Sarah says. It’s even evident at the Chico Chai booth at the farmers’ market, where customers who supply their own cup for an order of Chico Chai save one dollar of the three dollar cost.
It was also at Humboldt that Sarah was introduced to chai masala at Planet Chai in Arcata. Sarah credits Jana Filcich, co-owner and self-proclaimed Chai-ma at Planet Chai, as her inspiration for developing her own chai recipe, and the two continue their mutual support. “There aren’t that many chai artisans,” says Sarah, so when the pair meet, they always chat about making the brew and running their small businesses. Sarah claims there’s more laughter than business, they’ve become such good friends. Plus, they both are dancers; Sarah teaches belly dance and performs in a local bellydancing troupe called Origin.
Dancer and brewmistress, these weren’t her training at Humboldt. Sarah had studied wildlife management there, and in her first job as a wildlife biologist, she was on a project to study garter snakes. “Fortunately,” as she tells it, “garter snakes hibernate in winter. While I was laid off, I kept experimenting to create Chico Chai. Chico just seemed like it needed its own chai.”
Once she had developed her recipe for Chico Chai, she began producing the concentrate. Chico Natural Foods and S & S Market sell quarts of the concentrate, and many Chico cafés serve it (see chicochaitea.com for a complete listing). Working with local business owners, the public part of her work compared to the private part of brewing, is something Sarah also enjoys. “They get it. They appreciate the product, and we care about each other.”
The farmers’ market stint has opened a new window. “I thought we’d be there for a few months,” said Sarah, “but I’ve learned so much from our customers there.” Her only chance to direct market, Sarah herself and often her sisters Molly or Emily—“I couldn’t do it without them”—sell both the concentrate and the loose leaf forms from her Chico Chai stall at the Saturday Chico Farmers’ Market. “Customers at the farmers’ market are the reason I now sell the loose tea. They wanted Chico Chai in a form they could use for gifts.” The loose tea combines Assam tea and the fresh ground spices packaged in a tin; people add their own sweetener to taste (some tell her they use honey or stevia) and, as with the concentrate, milk or soy milk, as they like. Sarah encourages many ways to brew loose Chico Chai: pour boiling water through the mixture in a tea strainer, add it in a tea ball to a pot and let it seep, simmer it for as long as you’d like. That last might be a favorite: it moves the whole house, even into the next day, through the threshold to spicy.
Last spring Chico Chai celebrated its fifth what Sarah calls Chaiversary, and, she says, “So far, I really love it. I still want to make chai.” She envisions a market for Chico Chai from Sacramento to Redding because, “as far as I’ve found out, there isn’t anyone making chai there.”
On Mondays, at the old Kramore Inn on Park Avenue in Chico, there’s someone making chai. As the brew simmers in its vat, Sarah stands on a step ladder, stirring the sixty gallons with a long wooden paddle, the steam rising and scenting the kitchen, the whole block. Engulfed in the heady steam, she says it’s a meditative process, “and I like the smell.” Its results linger to pleasure the streets of Chico.
Edible Shasta-Butte is the guide to local food, dining, and gardening in Northern California’s central valley from Butte County north to the Oregon border.