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How to be an awesome indie tea shop customer

How to be an awesome indie tea shop customer

As I was browsing the web looking for inspiration and education (a futile effort, much of the time), I came across an interesting blog post entitled, “How Not to Be a Bad Starbucks Customer: 10 Things You Should Do.” It’s an intriguing short post that — at least in my mind — goes a long way toward clarifying the difference between the coffee world and the tea world. We can start with the easy part: it doesn’t say “coffee” in the title; it says “Starbucks.” Granted, the blog is titled, StarbucksMelody: Unofficial Starbucks News & Culture, so I guess it’s only natural to have it Starbucks-centric.

But this is the point: the U.S. doesn’t have a “coffee culture” per se, but there is a “Starbucks culture,” which comes from their undeniable domination of all things coffee. In large part, Starbucks culture is our coffee culture. And people are nervous about it. So nervous that they read blog posts about how not to be a bad Starbucks customer. They don’t want to embarrass themselves.

We need to make sure this never happens in the tea world.

Our job, as tea shop owners, barTEAstas (if I may coin a particularly ugly word), tea writers, tea growers, tea importers, and general denizens of the tea world, is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology. Unfortunately, the terminology issue has already reared its ugly head, and a big chunk of the blame falls on … Starbucks. As an example, there’s a wonderful tea drink called “masala chai.” In Punjabi, “masala” refers to a spice blend, and “chai” means tea. An obvious English translation would have been “masala tea,” but Starbucks went for “chai tea” instead, a rather boneheaded phrase that basically means “tea tea.”

But I digress (as I am wont to do) …

“Our job … is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology.”

When you walk into an independently-owned tea shop, you are not expected to know that shop’s terminology, customs, or culture. You don’t need to feel anxious about whether you’re going to commit some horrific tea faux pas. You just need to do one thing to be the customer we all love.

What you have to do to be an awesome customer

  1. Enter the tea shop with an open mind and tell us what you do and don’t like.

We’ll take it from there!

Referring back to the blog post that inspired my blog post, let me re-frame what StarbucksMelody had to say from a tea perspective.

Things you don’t have to worry about

The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing. You shouldn’t be stressed out about whether you’re properly prepared to walk in and order a cup of tea. And you really shouldn’t worry about these things:

  1. Knowing our sizes — or weird words for our sizes.
    We don’t expect you to walk in the door knowing our sizes. We’ll tell you. Or maybe we’ll have cups on the counter labeled small, medium, and large — or 8oz, 12oz, 16oz. Don’t be afraid to ask.
  2. Knowing what kind of tea we have
    Coffee shops usually have a couple kinds of coffee out. They can do many things to it (add steamed milk, add flavor shots, pour it over ice, sweeten it…), but there’s generally just coffee and decaf coffee in that decanter behind the counter.
    Tea shops usually have dozens (or hundreds) of different types of tea. Even our regulars don’t know them all, as most tea shops regularly add or drop teas. If you tell us, “I’m looking for a strong hot black tea” or “I’m looking for a fruity green tea,” we can help you find one. That’s our job, and we love doing it.
  3. Knowing how a particular tea is prepared
    You don’t have to know the proper water temperature for white tea, the appropriate steeping time for Earl Grey, how to whisk a matcha, or how to rinse a pu-erh. That’s what you’re paying us for. We do know these things.
  4. Using the right terminology
    You don’t have to know a bunch of super-secret, just-for-the-cool-kids terminology to order tea. If you ask for that floral green tea that’s rolled into balls and left in your cup while you’re drinking, we know what you mean. Often, the terminology changes from shop to shop. The tea shop back home might call that style Jasmine Pearls, and my shop might call it Jasmine Dragon Tears, and they probably come from different producers. Either way, if you can describe it, we can probably figure it out.
  5. Ordering something strange
    It’s very common for people to come into my tea bar looking for something I don’t have. With any luck, I can do it anyway. You want a super-strong ginger Earl Grey latte with soy milk? I will pick the appropriate Earl Grey, add some ginger root, and make it super strong for you. No problem. If you like it, I’ll make you a big bag of the blend and write instructions on the bag for how to prepare it. That’s what brings customers back for more.
  6. How long your drink has been sitting out
    This isn’t a coffee shop. Your tea hasn’t been sitting in a pot behind the counter for an hour. It’s being made fresh right there in front of you.
  7. Asking questions
    It’s okay to ask questions. We encourage you to ask questions. Most of the people working in indie tea shops absolutely love tea and love talking about it. If you want to know which of our teas are organic, how much caffeine they have, or what the Ethical Tea Partnership is, or where our milk oolong comes from, go ahead and ask.

The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing.

It all boils down to this: Tea shops are not a place for stress. Don’t come in worrying about how to be a good customer (although we do appreciate it if you finish your phone call before you walk up to the counter), just come in looking for some good tea and let us help you get it.


Tea Around the World

Tea Around the World header

I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.

I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:

Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.

Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!

Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.

With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.

Pouring Moroccan Mint tea

The teapot and glasses are as much a part of the experience as the tea is, as chelle marie explains

When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.

Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.

I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).

When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.


Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.

You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).

If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.

Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!

Tea Lattes

Tea Latte header The coffee industry would have you believe that the word “latte” means “espresso with steamed milk.” That basically is what “caffelatte” means, but “latte” just means “milk” in Italian. A tea latte is every bit as much a latte as a coffee latte, and the growing popularity of masala chai lattes has been bringing that point home to coffee drinkers of late. In the coffee world, a latte is typically made by preparing the espresso, mixing in the milk, and then adding foam on top. The milk is there to add flavor and to cut the espresso so it doesn’t taste as strong. In the tea world, the milk serves a somewhat different purpose. For the record here, I am not talking about Starbucks-style chai lattes, which are made with a sweet syrup. I’m talking about tea that’s fresh-brewed in milk and water.

Flavors and nutrients from tea leaves extract well in water. That’s why a straight cup of tea tastes so good. That’s why people who like milk in their tea traditionally add the milk after the tea is brewed. A lot of other things, however, don’t extract quite as well.

Many of the flavors in a masala spice blend (no, they aren’t chai spices — chai just means “tea” in Punjabi) are lipophilic. Directly translated, this means “fat-loving,” which means that they extract much better in fats (e.g., milk) than in water. That’s why it’s important to brew the masala chai in hot milk and water instead of just adding the milk later. In my tea bar, we’ve done side-by-side taste tests of tea lattes made both ways. We use a milk heater/frother instead of using the steamer that’s found on commercial espresso machines. We tried steeping the tea in water and then adding the frothed milk vs steeping the tea in a 50/50 blend of hot water and frothed milk. In this entirely subjective set of tests using our employees and customers, the lattes brewed with milk won consistently. I realize that our production method wouldn’t work in a typical coffee shop where people are rushing in and out on their way to work. They want their drink now. They don’t want to wait four to seven minutes for a fresh-brewed cup. But in a tea bar like mine, things are different. We make a lot of lattes — close to 1/3 of all of the cups we serve. We offer a choice of milk (nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, soy, almond…), and over 150 different types of tea.

Capresso frothPRO

Capresso frothPRO milk heater and frother.

The majority of our lattes are served unsweetened. For those who want it sweetened, however, we do the same thing we do when making traditional sweet tea: we add the sweetener when we’re brewing instead of at the end. Most of our customers go for either plain sugar or agave nectar, but we offer other options there, too: flavored hail sugars, honey, stevia leaf, stevia powder, and other artificial sweeteners. You can’t do something like this in a fast-moving production line environment, but you can do it at home. A milk heater/frother is less expensive than a high-end home coffeemaker. We started out with Keurig units, but found they didn’t hold up to commercial use. There were too many fragile parts, and most of them broke in the first six months (that Keurig unit didn’t even end up on this list of the top 10 frothers). We switched to the Capresso frothPRO and we’ve been quite happy with them. They aren’t the fastest solution, but they’re solid, reliable, and easy-to-clean. It’s also easy to switch between heating/frothing and just heating. If you don’t want to invest $50-$100 in a frother/heater, there’s another solution that works great at home. Just heat the milk in the microwave. Don’t let it go to a boil, but get it as hot as you can without boiling it. There are quite a few handheld battery-powered electric whisks available if you like it frothy; the list I linked in the previous paragraph includes three of them.

Battery Powered Whisk

SCHIUMA battery operated milk frother

How do you know which types of tea work best in a latte? Experiment. One of the most popular tea lattes is called a London Fog. It’s very straightforward: just Earl Grey tea and a 50/50 mix of milk and tea. We usually start the tea steeping in water and add the milk halfway through. Make sure you use the right amount of tea leaf for the total volume of milk and water; if you’re using 8 oz of milk and 8 oz of water, use enough leaf for a 16 oz mug. Many of our blends with cinnamon make good lattes, as do fruity teas. We use sweetened matcha powder for our green tea lattes. Want something different? Try making a strong shu pu-erh latte with chocolate milk. Experiment, have fun, and then teach all of your coffee-drinking friends just how many kinds of latte there are!

Most popular teas of 2014

Most Popular Teas of 2014 header

I’m bringing back the old January tradition that I skipped last year, which is reviewing my tea bar’s most popular loose-leaf teas of the previous year. This time, it’s a little different. In the 2011 and 2012 summaries, I just looked at the overall bestsellers. This time, I’m going to break it down by category.

I don’t want my blog to be a commercial for the shop, but on the other hand, I do want to provide links to the tea bar’s website, in case readers are interested in trying out any of these teas. As a compromise, if you see a regular link in this post, it goes to another post in my blog. If you see the name of a tea italicized in square brackets [like this], it goes to that tea’s page on shop’s website.

Black Tea

My Scottish breakfast blend, which I call [Gary’s Kilty Pleasure] remains the top-selling unflavored black tea for the fourth year in a row. There’s something about the complementary maltiness of the estate-grown Assam and strong traditional flavors of the Mount Kenya black teas that really works together.


The classic [organic tieguanyin], a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy, topped the straight oolong charts. It is medium-roasted and lightly-oxidized, using traditional bamboo coal baking techniques. Most of our oolong drinkers like the flavored options, however, and mango was the top flavor of choice.

Green Tea

Overall, [organic Jasmine Green] did the best. There’s something about the delicate aroma of jasmine that really adds to the flavor of a good green tea. Of the unflavored, unscented green teas, it was Dragonwell (longjing) by a big margin!

White Tea

Our new Shou Mei narrowly edged out the [Yin-Zhen Silver Needles Supreme], even though it hasn’t made it to our website yet. On the flavored side, the [Peach Blossom White] blew away all of the competition. We don’t serve many cups of it hot, but it’s far and away the most popular iced tea at the bar.


It’s really hard to pin this one down. We get one answer if we measure sales by the ounce of loose-leaf tea sold, but a very different answer if we take into consideration all of the compressed pu-erh (beeng cha, tuo cha, brick, and so forth). In total mass, this year’s winner would have to be ripe “wild” pu-erh bricks from 2005.

Earl Grey

We have nine different Earl Grey blends, but the organic, fair trade [Ancient Tree Earl Grey] has not only been the number one Earl Grey, but has held a spot in our top three sellers overall for as long as we’ve been selling tea.

Masala Chai

In 2013, we made a scary move. We dropped the Rishi organic masala chai that had been our number-one selling tea and replaced it with a house blend. Several house blends, actually. Our house chai, which is made with estate-grown Assam and our own masala spice blend, did reasonably well, but then serendipity stepped in. We were experimenting around with a caffeine-free option, and blended our spices with rooibos and caramel. The first cup we brewed, Doug looked at me and said, “Oh my God! This is a ginger cookie in a cup!” We named it [Ginger Cookie Chai], and it became our top masala chai, and one of the best-selling teas overall. It also makes a great molasses cookie recipe!

The Holly family

Yerba maté has always been a good seller for us, so we decided to add the other two members of the holly family that produce caffeine: guayusa and yaupon. [Guayusa] became a staff favorite, and soon surpassed yerba maté. It’s an amazing drink that we just can’t get enough of!


We sell a lot of rooibos, and I am still surprised that the green rooibos outsells red rooibos by a factor of three. Yes, [Green Rooibos], which most Americans haven’t even heard of, is one of the top 15 sellers out of the 150+ teas and tisanes we sell. When it comes to flavored rooibos, [Montana Gold], a caffeine-free blend from our friends at Montana Tea & Spice not only handily tops the list of rooibos-based blends, but was our #1 seller overall.

Other herbals

When you think of herbal tea, what’s the first herb that pops into your mind? Probably chamomile. Personally, I’m not a big chamomile drinker, which probably explains why none of my chamomile blends compete with [Evening in Missoula], another complex and wonderful blend from Montana Tea & Spice.

While writing this blog post, I was drinking an organic Iron Goddess of Mercy (tieguanyin), as I so often do. It’s a soft and flavorful oolong that’s lightly baked and medium oxidized. I usually use my leaves at least three or four times, brewing it with 175-degree water. I make my first infusion light (2 1/2 minutes), and then add 30 second to each subsequent infusion.

The Logic of Tea Bar Redesign

Tea bar redesign header

It all started simply enough.

Doug looked at the jars of tea behind the bar one day and said, “This cubbyhole-based system is too constricting. We have space for nine oolongs. If we want to add a new one, we have to drop one of the existing ones. What if we went to a more open system?”

Logical enough. If they are arranged in a linear system, we can drop a white tea and add a black one, and everything fits fine. But that led us to a much deeper discussion. Do our groupings make sense?

The old back bar had teas arranged by style. All of the green teas were together, including the dragonwell, sencha, raspberry hibiscus green, Moroccan mint, and jasmine green. But that’s not how people select a tea. That’s not how we select a tea. When a customer comes in that doesn’t know what he wants, we go through a decision tree.

We start with, “do you prefer straight tea, or something flavored?” If they choose straight tea, we ask if they like white, yellow, green, oolong, black, or pu-erh. If they choose flavored, we ask if they want something fruity, flowery, spicy, creamy, or minty.

So why not set up the shelves that way? Very few of the people asking for a berry tea care whether the base tea is green, black, or oolong. They just want a berry flavor. It makes more sense to put all of our huckleberry teas together instead of having one with the black teas, one with the rooibos, and one with the yerba maté.

Back bar

The new structure puts all of the straight tea and herbs on the right, and all of the flavored blends on the left. Posing in the front is our tea plant, Tea H. White.

We went through our stock and found that if we grouped the herbs and tisanes (e.g., rooibos, yerba maté, guayusa…) with the straight tea, very close to half of our blends were flavored. So we arranged everything so that if someone says they’re looking for straight tea we take them to one side of the bar, and if they’re looking for something flavored, we go to the other.

Having an organization that customers can follow makes it less intimidating for people new to the tea world.

The straight teas are organized first by style, in order of oxidation (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, pu-erh). They are followed by the caffeinated herbs (maté, guayusa, yaupon) and then the caffeine-free herbs (rooibos, honeybush…). It’s nice to be able to point at the shelves and say, “everything from here up has caffeine, and from here down doesn’t.”

Straight teaWithin each style, the tea is arranged by origin, with blends coming first. In the picture above, you can see the black breakfast blends, and jars of black tea from China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, and Malawi. Most of our customers aren’t used to thinking about tea origins, and they’re intrigued by the diversity of sources.

“Where do you get your tea?” is one of the most common questions we get. It’s kind of difficult to answer. We deal with quite a few importers and distributors, but we also like to buy direct from estates and farms when we can; it helps us to be sure of what we’re getting. To answer the question, we included estate names on the labels where we can, and made a map to put between the two blocks of tea shelves.

Tea mapWe’ve had very positive reactions to the map. People say, “I’ve never had a tea from Vietnam. I want to try that one!” Sales of some of more obscure tea are increasing, and people seem to be enjoying comparing tea from different parts of the world. It’s a great way to learn about terroir and regional differences in processing techniques.

When we move over to the flavored side, priorities are different. Few people care about the origins, and virtually all of them are blended from geographically-diverse ingredients. We couldn’t organize those by origin if we wanted to.

flavored teaOn that side, we start with fruity teas at the top, grouping all of the berry together, the citrus together, and so forth. We then proceed down through the spicy teas (with masala chai getting its own section), flowery teas, Earl Greys, mint teas, and on through the flavor profiles. Since caffeine isn’t taken into consideration in the sorting of the flavored teas, we put codes on the labels to help people find what they want: a green O for organic, blue F for fair trade, red C for caffeine-free, brown M for “made in Montana” (mostly our house blends), and purple E for Ethical Tea Partnership.

Is this the perfect organization for every tea shop? Of course not. An herbalist might want to group the teas and herbs by reputed health effects, or by Linnaean classification of the plants. A tea house focused on food might group them by the foods they pair well with. A café focused on tea by the cup rather than bulk sales might group their tea based on what’s best hot, what’s best iced, what works well in a latte, and so forth.

All indications at the moment, though, are that this is going to work well for us. I shall, of course, report back when we know more…

While writing this blog post, I was drinking Lamdong Hoodoo, a Vietnamese black tea. Since I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, I prefer black teas with low astringency, but I still like plenty of flavor. This one definitely fits the bill. A nice spicy flavor and aroma, but no bitterness. I steep it for 2:30.

Masala Chai Molasses Cookies

Masala Chai Molasses Cookies

I’m just getting around to posting the recipe for the cookies that my wife, Kathy, made for the Red Lodge Christmas Stroll, but here you go, just in time for Christmas!

Sometimes when you’re cooking with tea, the objective is to be subtle. In this case, it’s not. Kathy wanted to add ginger to her molasses cookie recipe, and it takes something strong to stand up to all of the flavor in these cookies. She selected the Ginger Cookie Chai from our shop, which is a caffeine-free, rooibos- and caramel-based blend with lots of ginger. You could use pretty much any masala chai blend for this, but if you want to duplicate these delicious results, pick one with caramel that’s heavy on the ginger!


  • 4 tbsp ginger cookie chai (use loose tea, not syrup, powder, or tea bags!)
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp margarine
  • 1 cup white sugar (to mix with other ingredients)
  • 1/2 cup white sugar (to roll cookies in)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground ginger


  1. Melt the margarine, stir in the loose tea, and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Water is good for extracting flavor from tea leaves, but the masala spices need the fats in the margarine (or butter, if you’re a purist) to pull all of the flavor out.
  2. Pour the margarine through a strainer or cheesecloth, and squeeze out everything you can. You’ll lose a bit of margarine, but don’t worry about it – that’s what the two extra tablespoons in the ingredient list is for!
  3. Mix the margarine infusion with 1 cup of the sugar and the egg. Mix until it’s smooth, and then stir in the molasses.
  4. Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger, and then blend them into the molasses/margarine mixture. Cover and chill for at least an hour.
  5. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
  6. Roll dough into walnut-sized balls, and roll them in the remaining 1/2 cup of white sugar. Place them on ungreased baking sheets about 2 inches apart.
  7. Bake for about 10 minutes, until the tops are cracked.
  8. Cool on a wire rack.

This recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Tagged! A tea background story

Oh, these silly tagging things that go around. Normally, I ignore them, but Geoffrey Norman (a.k.a. the Lazy Literatus) tagged me for a tea-related Q&A and it’s hard to resist when he looks at you with those big puppy dog eyes…


(1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced and fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

Easy. I hate coffee.

I got my start with tea as a comfort thing when I was little. Any time I got sick, Mom’s immediate response was tea and toast. Tea relaxes me and makes me feel like I’m being taken care of. It was many years later that I discovered the amazing variety of beverages you can produce with the Camellia sinensis plant. There’s a lot beyond black tea in teabags and loose green tea leaves in the Chinese restaurant!

(2) What was the very first tea blend you ever tried?

I hereby define the word “blend” to mean a combination of ingredients, thus disqualifying Lipton teabags and the aforementioned green tea in the Chinese restaurant. That means the answer is “Morning Thunder” from Celestial Seasonings (tagline: The Awakening Power of a Thousand Charging Buffalo). I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, which is where Celestial Seasonings is based, so it was ubiquitous when I was in junior high and high school. Then, my junior year in high school I got a job driving a delivery truck for an office supply store, and Celestial Seasonings was one of my stops.

(3) When did you start your tea blog and what was your hope for creating it?

The first tea-related post I wrote on my other blog was in June of 2011, shortly after opening my tea bar. About four months later, I gathered all of the tea-related posts from that blog and split them off into a new one: Tea With Gary. That’s what you’re reading now.

(4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog and one thing most discouraging.

Rewarding: I have met some awesome people through tea blogging, and I feel like I’ve debunked some myths about tea.

Discouraging: Where are my tens of thousands of screaming fans? Hey, no offense to the hundreds of readers I do have, but I had hoped for more after 2-1/2 years.

(5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

I drink a lot of different kinds of tea, but the two I’m most likely to be drinking are Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong (a.k.a. Tieguanyin) and various shu pu-erhs.

(6) Favorite tea latte to indulge in?

When I make myself a tea latte, it’s almost always masala chai. I like a nice spicy chai with frothy milk, a dash of agave nectar, and a sprinkle of cinnamon on the foam.

(7) Favorite treat to pair with your tea?

A lightly-salted big soft Bavarian-style pretzel.

(8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore tea culture at, where would it be and why?

Oh, my, that’s a rough question. For tea culture, it would have to be Japan. When I was last there I hadn’t really explored Japanese tea culture and ceremony, and I’d like to go back now that I know a little bit about it. As for tea horticulture, I’d like to visit some tea plantations in either China or Kenya.

(9) Any tea time ritual you have that you’d like to share?

Unfortunately, I don’t take the time for ritual very often. Most of the time I’m making a quick cup to consume while I do something else.

When I do observe a ritual, it really varies with the type of tea I’m drinking. I prepare and drink my pu-erh differently than my matcha, obviously.

(10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Any time. Any time at all. Being a bit ADD, the caffeine doesn’t affect me the same way it affects normal people. I do have a tendency to drink tea that’s lighter in the caffeine at night, though (e.g., houjicha), or even switch to rooibos.

(11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

That there’s never one single business and one single variety that reaches the levels of dominance that Starbucks has reached in coffee. I like tea being a different experience depending on where I go and who I’m with. I enjoy every tea shop having a unique atmosphere, a unique selection, and their own way of presenting the tea. Diversity is a great thing, and I want the diversity in the tea world to increase rather than decrease.

Making traditional masala chai at home

Masala Chai Latte

You can keep your hot chocolate. I’ll take a delicious masala chai latte on a snowy day!

Before we address the topic at hand, may I take a moment to get something off of my chest?

Today we are discussing a tea called masala chai. The word “masala” refers to a yummy blend of spices, often containing cardamom, ginger, and pepper. The word “chai” means “tea” in Hindi (and Urdu, and Russian, and Bulgarian, and Aramaic, and Swahili, and a variety of other languages). Therefore, when you refer to “chai tea,” you’re talking about “tea tea.” Although most Americans call masala chai just “chai,” they really should be calling it “masala” or “masala tea” if they don’t want to say “masala chai.”

We can thank the coffee industry for confusing our terminology a couple of decades ago, as they coined the phrase “chai latte” to differentiate masala chai (traditionally made with milk) from coffee lattes. Your other word of the week is “latte,” which just means “with milk” and has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. Tea made with heated and frothed milk is a latte, too!

Thank you. I feel better now. On to the aforementioned topic at hand:

I would never presume to tell you the right way to make a cup of tea. As I’ve mentioned so many times before, there is no single right way to do it. In this post, however, I will talk about one of the traditional ways to make masala chai. In India, where this concoction (or decoction, if you prefer) originated, it is almost always made with milk and sugar.

In a coffee shop, masala chai (which they usually call a chai latte) is almost always made from a pre-sweetened concentrate. It’s quick and easy to make, and it tastes pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like authentic masala chai.

In a tea shop, masala chai is usually brewed fresh from a blend of black tea leaves and masala spices. If they add milk, it is usually poured in after the tea is brewed, unless the tea shop is specifically set up for lattes. You get that fresh-brewed taste, but somehow the spices don’t seem quite right to me (my tea bar does it differently, but that’s a topic for another post).

At home, you can make it the way they do in India.

The masala spices

First of all, the masala spice mix and the tea (chai) are usually purchased and stored separately. Just as many Americans have a family chili or soup or cookie recipe, many Indian families have their own masala recipe handed down through the generations. You can research and experiment to come up with your own, or go to your favorite tea shop and see if they have a blend for sale. Many tea shops (including mine) will sell you the masala spice mix they use in-house without the tea.

If you’re really serious about it, you’ll make each batch up fresh, grinding cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and whatever other spices you use as needed. I know a few folks that do it that way, but not many. I’d recommend starting with a mix that you like.

The tea

In India, the tea leaf of choice is usually a rich black Indian tea like Assam. It’s brewed pretty strong so that you can taste the tea through all of the spice and milk and sweetener. That doesn’t mean you need to use an Assam, but it’s a good place to start.

The milk

Milk serves a definite purpose in masala chai. You can extract flavor from many spices much better in fats or oils than you can in water, as any chef will tell you. Steeping the spice blend in milk will result in a richer, more nuanced flavor than steeping it in water. In India, the milk of choice is typically water buffalo milk, which can be difficult to get hold of here in North America. The usual substitute is whole milk, although 1% or 2% is common with the more health-conscious crowd. Nonfat milk is rather pointless, as the fat is the main reason for using it.

The sweetener

Sugar. Some drink their masala chai unsweetened, but if there is sweetener, it will typically be sugar.

That said, when I’m making masala chai at home, I usually use honey or agave nectar.

The process

You’ll need a pan, a stove, and a strainer to do this. This is my recipe for making enough for you and a few friends. Adjust accordingly if you’re drinking it by yourself.

  1. Heat up a pint (16 oz) of milk in the pan, but do not bring to a boil!
  2. Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of masala spice mix and simmer for five minutes, stirring gently
  3. Bring a pint (16 oz) of water to a boil in a kettle or microwave
  4. Add the water to the pan along with 1-1/2 tablespoons of tea leaves
  5. Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey
  6. Allow to simmer for another five minutes, stirring occasionally
  7. Pour through strainer to remove leaves and spices, and serve immediately

Put out more sugar or other sweetener for your guests. That single teaspoon is a lot less than a traditionalist would use, but I prefer to let everyone choose their own level of sweetness.

For best results, enjoy with your favorite Indian foods. Masala chai does a wonderful job of cutting the spiciness of curries. You can also use your masala chai tea in your Indian cooking: see my post on Chai Rice.

NOTE: The resulting masala chai will not look like the latte in the picture above. To get that look, I frothed up some milk and placed the foam on the top of the cup, and then added a dash of cinnamon powder.


The intimidation factor in tea

In terms of consumer education, the tea industry is where the coffee industry was a couple of decades ago. When I was in college in the 1970s, going into a coffee shop and ordering a vente half-caf no-foam skinny vanilla latte with a shot of white chocolate and a half-pump of peppermint would have gotten you some very strange looks. Starbucks created the terminology and spent years teaching it to their customers — and convincing their customers that it was the standard terminology in all coffee shops. Coffee aficionados have become very comfortable with the terminology and the technology behind their drinks.

Teahouse Kuan Yin

Two Dragons pu-erh as served to me at the Teahouse Kuan Yin in Washington.

Most of my tea customers, on the other hand, are completely overwhelmed by the array of 120 different teas laid out before them. They don’t know the difference between an oolong and a green tea, they’ve never heard of pu-erh, and they think orange pekoe is an orange-flavored tea. They aren’t going to make a complex drink order, largely because the consumer terminology hasn’t standardized and partially because they don’t know what they want. Instead, we have to walk them through it question by question without sounding bothered or talking down to them.

Every day I have conversations like this one:

Customer: I’d like a chai, please.

Me: Masala chai? Okay. We have nine to choose from. Do you want something traditional, or do you want to experiment?

Customer: Experiment?

Me: We have chocolate chai, spice apple chai, rooibos chai, vanilla chai…

Customer: Wow. I think I’ll go traditional.

Me: Here’s our most popular masala chai. It’s a house blend that uses a nice estate grown Assam tea as the base.

Customer: [sniffs] That smells great. I’ll go with that one.

Me: Hot or iced?

Customer: Oh, definitely hot.

Me: Sounds good. Then would you like it prepared as a latte with frothed milk, or just as a cup of straight tea?

Customer: A latte sounds good.

Me: What kind of milk would you like? I have nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, or coconut.

Customer: Hmmm. What would you recommend?

Me: The vanilla soy is good, but the whole milk is more traditional and makes a pretty nice froth.

Customer: I’ll go with whole milk then.

Me: And would you like it sweetened at all?

Customer: How do most people do it?

Me: In India, you’d probably get it sweetened with sugar. I tend to prefer agave nectar myself, although I don’t sweeten my own masala chais very much.

Customer: Do you have stevia? I’d like a bit of that.

Me: Sure thing. One last question: would you like that for here or to go?

Customer: I’ll drink it here, please.

Me: Okay, then. I’ll have that ready for you in about five minutes.

[This conversation is a lot longer than it would be for a typical non-latte tea, where I just check to see whether they want it hot or iced, here or to go, and they add their own sweetener and milk if they want any.]

Our job as tea experts is to make tea as friendly as possible. If the customer looks exasperated after the first question, I’ll point them at the staff favorites board or just ask if they’d like it made the way most of our customers take it.

I visited a lovely tea shop in Seattle last winter called Vital T-Leaf. Just my kind of place. They set out a gongfu set and we must have sampled a dozen different pu-erh teas. The woman doing the serving had the ceremony down pat, and all of the equipment arrayed before her: tray, kettle, cups, strainers, gaiwan, spoons, and more. We examined the dry leaf and wet leaf and tasted and discussed each tea.

To me, that was the perfect tea shop for the trained tea lover — and I spent plenty of money there in appreciation, but that would not work in Red Lodge, Montana. Most of my customers are intimidated just by the tea list itself. Add the presentation they used in Seattle, and few would even approach the tea bar. Even the way the tea is delivered to the customer matters. To me, the gonfu-style presentation when I ordered at the Teahouse Kuan Yin (see picture above) was perfect. A non-tea person wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with that. We prepare the tea and deliver it fully steeped, so our customers don’t have to worry about what kind of equipment we use and what we do with it. After all, they aren’t paying us a few bucks a cup to make them prepare their own tea!

Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve noticed more and more customers coming in and knowing what they want. Many of the regulars are starting to ask detailed questions about the equipment, the process, and the tea styles themselves. They want to know the origins of the funny names (one of the reasons I’m writing the Myths and Legends of Tea book that will hopefully be out by Christmas), the regional differences in style, and the reasons for the differences.

More customers come in knowing what they want, or asking what’s new.

One huge difference remains between coffee aficionados and tea aficionados, though. Most of the coffee people I know neither know nor care what kind of coffee beans are being used — their custom order is all about the additives and preparation methods, so it stays the same every time. Tea people, on the other hand, are more likely to come in and experiment: a longjing dragonwell from China yesterday, a gyokuro from Japan today, and a first-flush Darjeeling from India tomorrow.

We encourage this, of course. The coffee shop down the street sells dozens of different coffee beans, but on any given day they’ll only be serving one or two of them. The differences among plain coffee beans are much more subtle than the differences in tea leaves, so that works for them. If we want our customers coming in to our shop instead of buying Lipton’s in tea bags at the grocery store, that approach won’t work for us. We need to educate our customers on style, terroir, and infusing methods. But we need to do it without being snobbish or intimidating.

It’s a delicate balance, but all of the good tea shops have figured it out. Mayhaps that’s what defines a good tea shop?

Deepest Africa – The Tea of Kenya: Stop 5 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

When you think of tea, Africa probably isn’t the first place to pop into your mind, but Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world. Tea has revitalized their economy, and tea lovers everywhere became winners. Red Lodge Books & Tea works with family owned plantations in Kenya, and was the first tea bar in the United States to serve Kenya’s unique purple tea.
Kenya Title Slide
Kenya is known for its black tea, but with their expanding tea economy, the country has expanded into other styles. We tasted some green and white tea from Kenya, along with traditional estate-grown Kenyan black teas and with some fun and different tea you just can’t get anywhere else.

The teas we tasted were:

  •  White Whisper
  •  Rift Valley Green Tea
  •  Golden Safari (black)
  •  Lelsa Estate FBOP (black)
  •  Royal Tajiri (black)
  •  Purple Tea

A quick bit of background on Kenyan tea before we go any farther. As I mentioned earlier, Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world, and the third largest producer (after China and India). Largely because of the population difference, Kenya doesn’t consume as much of its product as China and India do. Kenya produces about 345,000 tons of tea per year, but consumes only about 32,000 tons of that. About 9.6% of the world’s total tea production comes from Kenya.

Those are fascinating statistics, but let’s put some human faces on them. When I wrote my first blog post about purple tea in 2011, I was contacted shortly afterwards by a Kenyan woman by the name of Joy W’Njuguna. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2012 at the World Tea Expo, as you can see in the picture below. She’s not actually that short — it’s just that I’m six-foot-five and I’m wearing a cowboy hat, so she does look like a tiny little thing.

CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya or Joy W’Njuguna, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!


I’ve learned a lot from Joy about Kenya and its tea industry. One telling tidbit is that about half of Kenya’s tea is produced by corporate farms, and the other half by independent growers. I have a soft spot in my heart for the independents, since I own a (very) independent bookstore and tea bar. Joy, in addition to representing her own family business, is involved in a collaborative export business that represents a coalition of independent family farms in Kenya. The big producers there are focused on producing very high volumes of CTC (Crush, Tear, and Curl) tea that ends up in grocery store teabags. The independent growers are focused instead on producing high-quality handmade tea that will catch the attention of the rest of the world.

I like being able to put a face to the products I buy. I like being able to show my customers a picture and say, “See these people? These people hand-picked the tea you’re drinking. Not machines. We know where the tea came from and we know what we’re buying.”


Some of the people who picked the tea we tasted at this class.

Well, that’s probably enough of a soapbox for the day — or maybe even the month. Let’s move on to the teas that we tasted. If you’re like most of my customers, you didn’t even know Kenya produced a white tea. Heck, until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t know either. So let’s start there:

White Whisper


Silver Needle is one of the flagship teas of China. White Whisper is not a clone, but a Kenyan tea made with the same process. The vast differences in terroir make show from the first sniff. It’s richer and earthier than Silver Needle. Even at the 5:00 steep time we used, it’s less delicate. Personally, though, I love the complexity of this tea. Just pay close attention to that water temperature. You pour boiling water over these leaves and you’re going to ruin it.

Rift Valley Green Tea


The first time I tried this green tea, I wasn’t really impressed. Since it’s a pan-fired tea, I followed the general guidelines for Chinese greens and steeped it for three minutes. Next pass, I read the tasting notes from Royal Tea of Kenya, which recommend a thirty-second steep. Really? Thirty seconds? Yep. That’s all this tea needs.

I love the fact that this tea comes from the slopes of Mount Kenya. Some of my best memories of my trip to Kenya when I was in high school center around that area and the day and night we spent at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. What a wonderful place!

Royal Golden Safari


I’ve written about this tea before. It’s one of my favorite black teas. In this session, as in most of my tastings, I got raised eyebrows from people when I poured this and told them it was a black tea. It brews up pale red with just a touch of astringency and appeals to many oolong drinkers. Unlike most black teas, I regularly get four or five infusions out of Golden Safari.

Lelsa Estate FBOP


Next, we moved on to a much more traditional Kenyan black. This FBOP is one of the ingredients I use in Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (my Scottish breakfast blend). The estate in Kericho participates in the Ethical Tea Partnership program, which I appreciate, and the tea has a deep red color and characteristic Kenyan “jammy” notes. The maltiness blends well with Assam tea, and those who take their tea English-style will appreciate how well it takes milk.

Royal Tajiri


“Tajiri” is the Swahili word for “rich,” and this tea lives up to its name. The finely broken leaves mean an intense extraction. If you’re a black tea lover, this one will give you everything you’re looking for — assertive astringency, deep red (almost black) color, and a very complex flavor profile.

Royal Purple Tea


I’ve written so much about purple tea on this blog (here, here, and here) that I’ll skip the background data — although the picture on that slide is new: the tea on the left is a traditional Camellia sinensis, and the one on the right is the purple tea varietal TRFK306/1. The molecular structure in the background of the slide is the anthocyanin. I didn’t have my shipment of handcrafted purple tea yet (and the sample didn’t last long!), so we were unable to compare the orthodox to the handcrafted. I will put up separate tasting notes on that when my main shipment arrives.

I will note that we brewed the orthodox purple tea for this tasting with 170 degree (F) water instead of boiling, as I’ve done in the past. The cooler water brought out more of the complex undertones of the tea and backed the astringency down, making it more to my liking. We tasted this side by side with and without milk. If you haven’t had this tea with milk before, add a bit just to see the fascinating lavender color that the tea turns!

Nandi Chai


I confess. I was bummed that we didn’t get our handcrafted purple tea in time for this event. I kind of unloaded on Joy about it, and she was good enough to find me something else fascinating and unique for this event: an African chai. The tea (a blend of purple and traditional black) is from Kenya and the spices are all from Ethiopia.

We closed the tasting with this unique chai, and it went over very well. Instead of taking up half of this post talking about it, I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to Nandi chai in the near future.

This was the fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.

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