All About Chai

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[P]ip’s Original, a café in Northeast Portland, built its business on two things: doughnuts and chai. The popular shop, festooned in succulents, worn books, and Americana, also serves espresso from Extracto Coffee Roasters, a company headquartered about two miles away. On a typical Portland day (meaning blustery), coffee does the trick. But Pip’s Original’s chai flight, featuring five different blends arranged on a rustic board, takes warm and cozy into the beyond.

Jamie and Nate Snell built out Pip’s about three years ago, outfitting everything from the counter to the soundproofing themselves. Part of the pull of opening a café was the ability to finance an on-site commercial kitchen, so that Jamie’s catering business, the Lamb’s Table, could reach more customers.

It also allowed her to experiment with spices, resulting in five chai concentrates with inventive flavors and ingredients from the other side of town, and the other side of the globe. Like the Snell’s miniaturized, caramel-sweet doughnuts (inspired by a style found at Pike Place Market in Seattle, and usually featuring locally sourced toppings), the concentrates—steamed with milk to order—angle for eclectic and comforting over traditional.

Nate Snell, who owns Pip's Original with his wife, Jamie, pours a chai flight at the Portland café. (Photos: Cory Eldridge.)
Nate Snell, who owns Pip’s Original with his wife, Jamie, pours a chai flight at the Portland café. (Photos: Cory Eldridge.)

“I would describe what I’m doing as Indian in that I took the basic technique and idea of sweeteners being blended with spices and milk, and outside of that it’s completely American,” says Jamie.

The chais have become a major draw for the shop. In the summer customers come in for the iced version of the King and I, a woodsy blend of cardamom, clove, anise, and pandan-rich Thai tea; in the fall the spicy and sweet Ginger Rodgers—with ginger, nutmeg, Thai chile, molasses, and Assam tea—fits admirably into pumpkin pie season.

Each chai in the flight falls onto a thoughtful flavor spectrum that Jamie describes as “masculine to feminine,” beginning with the Smoky Robinson, a lapsang souchong and clove chai, and ending with a lavender, chrysanthemum, chamomile, and honey chai named Emmylou.

Familiar-yet-apropos names (the yellow-hued, turmeric-spiked Heart of Gold nods to Neil Young) and the chais’ simple presentation in short, vintage ceramics keep the experience accessible and soothing. Though less formal than a wine or sake flight, the experience is nonetheless highly sensory; Jamie designed it that way. Each blend provides its own hue, each mug a different texture, each spice hits the nose a little differently. The unconventional blends (rarely will you find turmeric and genmaicha playing together) also broaden the drinker’s perceptions of what chai can be, one cup at a time, in succession. It’s a lot of caffeine, though, and recommended for sharing.

“I couldn’t just pick one,” says Jamie. “It is the same exact way when I go into a brewery and they have forty things on tap. I’m always getting a tasting flight because how on earth can I choose? I’m not going to sit there and drink five pints of beer. But if there is that much human creativity going on I want to inspect it. I want to experience it.”

Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.

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