"N'amastay Home": My Chai Quest

“Chai Quest.”
It sounds like a really mystical role-play game, or a form of yoga, or a tacky name for a purveyor of over-dried spices. But I’m a little fond of the term because for me, it’s loaded with fragrant memories of quiet moments and good friends.

I first fell in love with an excellent chai-tea latte on a hot mid-summer day in Manitou Springs, Colorado. A local friend dragged me into “the world’s best coffee shop,” and as we slipped from a dazzling day into the cool, ornately-decorated cloister of the Orthodox-run Agia Sophia, I was in a humor to agree. I mean, books and quality coffee...can you find a better pairing? Brittany ordered a hot chai tea latte which came in a fat little clay pot. She let me have a taste. My life would be forever changed because that – the sky-scraper layers of sweet and spice and smoke and cream – was what good chai tasted like. I came home, newly-infatuated with chai tea lattes, and ordered one at Starbucks because the price I pay for living where I live is No Independent Coffee Houses. I’m not a Starbucks-coffee hater (slightly-ashamed owner of a gold-card, here), but their normal chai tea latte is a hopeless slump of watery, uncommitted spices dawdling around in hopes of being mistaken for chai. The Oprah Chai (made with whole milk) was slightly better, but still disappointing to one who had tasted of the nectar from Agia Sophia. So I set out on my “Chai Quest” to find the best chai tea lattes money can buy.

When I visit a new coffee shop in my travels, I order the chai tea latte. Sometimes I take it iced, sometimes dirty, once in a while I’ll order a chai tea milkshake (divine, folks), but my favorite way is straight-up classic latte. I rank the chai lattes at these coffee shops on a scale of 1-10, 1 being “hideous, weak-willed yuckiness,” 10 being “liquid ambrosia.” Results so far?

Agia Sophia (Manitou Springs, Colorado): 9 of 10
Aroma’s Coffeehouse Bakeshop & Café (Williamsburg, VA): 7 of 10
Ted’s Bulletin (Washington D.C.): 6 of 10
Cure Coffee (Norfolk, VA): 8 of 10
Borja Coffeehouse  (Norfolk, VA): 6 of 10
Starbucks Coffee (world-wide): 3 of 10
Shoes Cup & Cork (Leesburg, VA): 5 of 10
Demolition Coffee (Petersburg, VA): 6 of 10

I think I’m reserving the first 10-point rating for real Indian chai, if they make it into lattes down there….the next natural step for a girl who has nothing but Starbucks within a thirty-five minute radius is to make her own…and with August breaking its hold and giving me the slightest hint of autumn to come, nothing makes more sense. I adore autumn. October is my soul-month and the gypsy-winds are my favorite kind of breeze in the world. A chai tea latte is October’s ideal husband. Compared to the all-elusive perfect cup my version is “devoted boyfriend” level: a light, tingling, summery version suited to the tastes of one who dreams of autumn when she can’t quite have it. Having no cardamom on hand, I threw in mace. Black pepper was a second diversion from the inspiration-recipe, and I scrapped their measurements for the spices and created my own blend. I narrowly, narrowly missed throwing in a couple bay leaves…they’ll probably make it in there next time. Chai is all about the spice-game, so feel free to improvise! Enjoy hot or iced, or add a shot of espresso to “dirty” the blend.

Want to make your own? Here’s how:

Summer Chai Tea Latte Concentrate:
(enough concentrate for 4-6 lattes)
6 whole cloves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 pods star anise
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground mace
½ teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 bags black tea
2 cups water
1.       Bring water to a rolling boil on the stove. When boiling, remove from heat and add spices. Let steep, covered, 5 minutes.
2.       Add tea-bags and maple syrup and steep 5 more minutes. Strain into bottle or jar and keep in fridge. When ready to use, froth milk on the stovetop (I beat it with a whisk while heating) and assemble lattes with slightly more concentrate than milk for fullest flavor.


  1. Oooh, i just went to Shoes the other day! I tried their chai tea cold. I'd never had chai before, it was good. :) have you ever been to Trinity House in Leesburg? They have excellent hot chocolate.

    1. Emma, I haven't! But as I'm soon returning to NoVa, I ought to see about trying it! I really need to make it to Loco Joes as well as Beans in the Belfry. :)

  2. As a long-time chai latte drinker (iced in the summer, hot and classic in the fall and winter), this post spoke to me. ;) I've only had Starbucks chai lattes on a regular basis, but I have tried a few from other coffee shops on occasion. (We're swimming in hipster culture in my area, which produces many independent coffee shops. Unfortunately, I'm moving away from it. XD) I like Starbucks chai, but I've had chai at a private coffee shop in particular where it was much improved; I guess I've grown accustomed to the mainstream choices. I need to try out your recipe, though -- it looks amazing! Would the spices work with standard Indian chai? My friend brought me back some from India this summer, and I've been looking for ways to use it.

    1. "Chai" is, in many countries, a generalized word for "tea" so I would smell your Indian chai and see if it smells already spiced? To my knowledge, Indian chai is already a blend of spices (and tea leaves) in which case brew a really nice, strong bit of it and then go to the foaming-milk step. :) Jealous of your real chai! :D

  3. "October is my soul-month"--mine, too.

    I'll add to your list of local coffee spots to try: Happy Creek (locations in the Plains, Front Royal, and Shepardstown, I think-excellent coldbrew), Hopscotch (Stephens City-best latte I have ever had), Common Grounds (Middleburg) and Cup a Joe (also Middleburg). Also, you have successfully convinced me to try making a chai latte from scratch.

    I have actually had the stuff made by Indian friends--but I was probably 13 and didn't like it much (I also didn't like coffee). Now I wish I could have it from that family again!

    1. Thanks so much for the tips, Abigail! I will have to start crossing these shops off one by one as I make trips up here. ;)

  4. I love me some Chai. I've mixed my own in the past, I'll have to try your recipe! Thanks for sharing it. Late October/November is my favorite month. <3 I love cooler weather, layered clothes, and camping in the Autumn days. :)

    1. Autumn camping: mmmmmmmmm! Woodsmoke is a beautiful odor.

  5. I'm so annoyed with myself, I forgot to add your blog to my Bloglovin', so I've been missing posts! Never fear, I've fixed the mistake :)
    I work at an Indian Restaurant, so when you want that perfect Chai tea you can come to me!

    1. (!) How far is wherever-it-is from me? ;) I would love to try a true Indian chai.

  6. Thaaanks Rache. Now I want a GOOD chai latte. I agree with you about Starbucks. I got one from a cafe 10min away the next borough up a few months ago and it was SO rich and spicy. May have to commission my sister to run up and grab me one some day soon.

  7. Looks divine, I think I shall try making one now.