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Chai It, You Liked It

April 05, 1998|CHRIS RUBIN

The ad copy for Starbucks' new Chai Tea Latte breathlessly declares, "Quite amazingly, [it] is a latte made with tea instead of espresso." This blend of herbs, spices, black tea and honey tastes exotic, unusual and, well, familiar--because others, notably Yogi Tea Co., have been marketing their versions for more than a few years.

Chai is an ancient Indian formula, based on the principle of the nation's ayurvedic medicine system, and Guru Simran, then-manager of the Golden Temple restaurant, introduced the beverage to Los Angeles in the early '80s. Simran blended Yogi Tea from the traditional spices--ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and cloves. When customers wanted to take the tea home, he began packaging and selling it.

Tom Kaplan, owner of Hugo's in West Hollywood, distributes Yogi Tea and, along with Simran, was responsible for creating the Yogi Tea Cappuccino. One of the first to bring gourmet coffee to Los Angeles, Kaplan began experimenting with preparing the naturally caffeine-free tea in an espresso machine, both to extract stronger flavors and to prepare it quickly to order; they then combined it with steamed milk to create a flavorful variation on cappuccino.

When Kaplan opened Caffe Latte in the mid-'80s and began roasting his own coffee beans, he and Simran created a special fine grind of the tea ("cappuccino grind") just for use in espresso machines and started wholesaling it, along with coffee beans, to cafes and restaurants around town. Today, Yogi Tea, which includes Tahitian Vanilla, Hazelnut Cream and Original Cinnamon Spice flavors of tea-based cappuccino, is now carried by dozens of coffeehouses, restaurants and health-food stores around Los Angeles and almost 500 more across the country.

Starbucks' Chai Tea Latte, introduced in Los Angeles at the end of January, begins with a dose of concentrated, premade syrup from a plastic jar, to which steamed milk is added. Will Starbucks' move into the field hurt Yogi Tea?

Kaplan, whose Yogi Tea orders doubled during the last 12 months as awareness of the beverage has grown, hopes that's not the case.

"If Starbucks makes a good product, it will help the business," he says.

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