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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

Rishi’s Chai Tea Collection

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Milwaukee’s favorite hometown organic and Fair Trade tea purveyor, Rishi Tea, debuted its new line of loose leaf chai blends this fall, just as the cold and blustery weather had many of us craving the soothing warmth found in a spot of tea. The chai most Americans are familiar with traces its culinary origins to traditional Indian masala chai, or “spiced tea” in Hindi, a blend of spiced black tea simmered in water, milk and sugar.

Kevin Sardino, head blender at Rishi Tea, has made a career of understanding how tea and other ingredients work, both individually and combined. He started with the company over 10 years ago, when Rishi worked out of a small, windowless warehouse in the Marshall Building. In addition to developing an encyclopedic knowledge of tea and the components tea is often mixed with, Sardino has refined his palate over the last decade, honing his ability to determine whether all the ingredients in a tea blend achieve balance with the others.

The cornerstone of Rishi’s collection is its chai masala loose leaf tea, a recipe that has seen evolution through simplification. The traditional-style masala chai is made with high-quality ingredients such as shade-grown full leaf black tea, ginger, cardamom, and clove. The blend won “Best Chai” at the 2009 World Tea Championship.

The American chai market is dominated by unabashedly sweet concentrates of the traditional Indian tea, usually made with soluble tea and flavor extracts. Last June, Rishi unveiled its new masala chai concentrate in support of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program. The Jane Goodall Institute contacted the Milwaukee-based company because Rishi’s commitment to Fair Trade and sustainably grown tea matches the British primatologist’s program to inspire young people to make positive changes for communities, animals and the environment. Sardino explains the process of making the concentrate as exceptionally labor intensive because it involves brewing the spices, including real vanilla, with wild-grown black tea leaves for more than 20 hours.

Rishi’s West Cape chai offers the best of what chai has to offer—a well-balanced, sweet and spicy character—without the caffeine buzz. Instead of using tea, Sardino uses rooibos, a caffeine-free alternative to Camellia sinensis. From the legume family, rooibos is harvested like tea, and it’s also processed similarly.

“Not only does its mild, creamy sweetness taste good, it’s a great botanical ingredient to use as a base on which to build,” Sardino says. “It makes for a very pretty infusion and stores really well, making it a great blending component.”

Rishi Tea’s newest chai blends—chocolate chai, vanilla mint chai, and green tea chai—are creative and compelling extrapolations of the original masala version. Sardino and founder/co-owner Joshua Kaiser decided to use pu-erh tea, an interesting earthy tea that has its own category among white, green, oolong and black teas, as the base for the chocolate and vanilla mint blends. Rather than real chocolate, it is roasted dandelion root, cocoa nibs and cocoa shells that give the chocolate chai a dark, bittersweet undertone, while nutty coconut, smooth, sweet vanilla, and a fruity long pepper round out the flavor profile. The vanilla mint chai is sweet and peppy with a lovely combination of bright peppermint and cinnamon and vanilla. The uplifting and spirited green chai makes the most of green tea that has been pan-fried until it reaches a roasted, nutty characteristic. Ginger is added to give the chai blend a subtle spicy bite, as is lemongrass, which gives it a clean citrus finish.
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