Sarah Adams' Chico Chai
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photo: Michelle Smith
A laminated world map hangs on the wall of Chico Chai’s humble headquarters on Park Avenue in Chico. Scientific drawings of each spice used in the distinct blends developed in the kitchen are attached to lines that point to the country of origin for each plant - cardamom, black pepper, star anise, cinnamon and more.
The map, altered to say “World of Chai,” is a hint as to how Chico Chai lives up to its tagline: Spicy. Local. Fresh.
Sourced from organic farms using fair trade practices, the spices travel from faraway lands to Chico to be expertly blended with tea leaves by Sarah Adams into products that are gaining popularity throughout the North State. They end up in independent coffee houses in the form of a strong brew to be combined fresh with milk, and on store shelves in loose leaf form for home use.
“Our growth model so far has been slow and sustainable growth,” says Adams, 35, of the business she founded in 2004.
After experiencing chai‒ a spiced Indian tea traditionally made with milk and sugar‒ for the first time in college, she became obsessed with blending the tea and spices herself at home, trying different combinations each time. That obsession was probably foretold by her love of her tea set as a child. “I still have it,” she says. “It’s still in its original package. I didn’t break anything.”
By the time she graduated Humboldt State with her degree in wildlife biology, the seed of an idea was planted to make chai for a living. After a season out in the field with her degree, she was ready to let that seed grow. “I just kept planning it in my head while I was working,” she says.
Part of getting started was to determine which spices would be worthy of a name like Chico Chai. After experimenting with countless combinations, she whittled it down to 10 essentials. Fresh chai has a complexity of flavors that reveal themselves in layers, and Adams definitely has her favorites.
As the tagline suggests, she isn’t afraid to go bold. She uses only fresh spices, no flavorings, oils or extracts, and grinds them only when she is ready to make a fresh batch. When they are simmered into the strong brew, she adds just a bit of organic raw cane sugar.
Adams took several classes at the Small Business Development Center to get going and has been learning as she goes. “I started small enough that it took just a couple thousand dollars to start up,” she says. She was brewing just a couple gallons a week at the start.
She set up shop at the Saturday farmers’ market in Chico and began to notice that “every week it got a little larger.” People asked for samples, many of whom were introduced to chai for the first time at her booth. “It was all pretty much word of mouth and me going out to talk to people,” she says.
The company has grown to the point where Adams has hired her first employees and her list of vendors grows by the month. “Northern California is our market,” she says. “Being locally based, we have the luxury of just being able to make it and deliver it.”
The Chico Chai product line is simple: strong brew that is sold to coffee houses and in quarts or gallons for home use in select stores, and a line of four-five loose leaf blends that have a wider distribution because they do not need refrigeration. For the loose leaf, she blends Original Chai with black tea. Then there is a Chocolate Chai which adds raw cocoa nibs and powder to the Original blend. The Mate Chai uses Yerba Mate instead of black tea, while the Red Chai blends a caffeine-free Rooibos. A seasonal blend is usually available.
On the first Sunday of each month, the public is invited to Chico Chai headquarters to taste the different blends‒‒ cold in summer and hot in fall and winter‒ and learn how they are made. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the tasting room will be open every Sunday.
Chico Chai has been entered in the North American Tea Championships and placed second in 2011 and third in 2012. “Freshness makes a big difference,” says Adams, acknowledging that she plans to blend this year’s entry the day before she sends it.
There’s a hint of competitiveness to Adams when it comes to judging the quality of her teas. That trait is non-existent, however, when it comes to her philosophy of growth. “I’m a big fan of growing inward first,” she says. •
Chico Chai • 1919 Park Ave., Chico
www.chicochaitea.com • (530) 897-0822