My obsession with chai began a few years ago as I began searching for more palatable alternatives to coffee, which I still struggle to enjoy without the aid of unhealthy amounts of sugar and half-and-half. A few weeks ago, just as I ran out of chai mix a friend brought from home, I lamented to another friend about Manndibles’ decision to switch its chai halfway through the semester. Naturally, and given the fact that she is an editor at The Sun, she suggested I test out all of the other options on and around campus. So here I am, with a list!
Readily prepared chai in the U.S. consists of variations on the following combination: black tea, sugar, milk and warming spices. The warming spices used are typically cinnamon or cardamom, but can include others such as ginger, nutmeg, saffron and star anise. My ideal cup of chai is a cardamom chai with oat milk and not too much water, all sweetened with honey. And before I move on, two disclaimers: I only put soy or oat milk in my drinks, but have been told whole milk is the best way to bring out spices in any tea. There are also a few options I may have overlooked in my search for the optimal cup, such as Chatty Cathy — I have only had their matcha chai drink, which I would not particularly recommend (it was quite diluted). Friends have also told me Green Dragon offers an equally inadequate option.
Thus, my rankings are below: all prices are for the smallest available sizes, pre-tax.
Drink: Manndibles’ most recent rendition of chai is a strong cardamom mix with a generous amount of water and a frugal amount of soy milk. It tastes the most watery out of all the drinks I have tried above, and I always regret paying money for it as I sip.
Ambiance: Manndibles is not the best place to study, a cramped space with minimal seating — another grab-and-go.
Wait: Manndibles is speedy nine out of 10 times in delivering most of its menu orders, although if you catch the long and winding line right before late morning and early afternoon classes, you will be devastated: Either skip class or the drink.
4. Starbucks (Collegetown + Libe Café)
Drink: Sweetened with honey and sugar, Starbucks’ famous rendition of chai is overly sweet and full of flavor, with plenty of ice and soy milk. The brand uses as concentrate that consists of “black tea, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, natural flavours [and] star anise.” I remain mystified by the “natural flavours” ingredient, but whatever it is, the drink has too much of it.
Ambiance: Both Starbucks outlets are preferred spots for most students, for cramming or ranting.
Wait: The Starbucks in Collegetown allows for mobile orders (a real timesaver!) but I would say I have had to wait more often and for longer in Collegetown than in Libe.
3. Temple of Zeus
Price: $4.60 (but $1 off if you bring your own cup!)
Drink: Zeus offers a ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom chai with lots of oat milk over water. The aftertaste is quite clean, but there always seems to be too much milk.
Ambiance: Despite how busy it usually is, I do love the light in Klarman atrium, and if you want to bask in as much natural light as possible, despite how unforgiving the weather looks like outside, Klarman is your best bet.
Wait: Considering how long the lines are usually at Zeus, the wait time for beverages is never horrid, but I have never gotten my drink within less than five minutes.
2. Gimme! Coffee (Gates Hall + Mac’s Cafe)
Drink: I tried chai from both on-campus locations, and they tasted about the same. Overall, the drink had a balanced taste — not too strong or sweet — but there was too much water and too much ice. I did not finish both drinks; after the ice melted, I found that I would rather drink plain water.
Ambiance: Gates Hall is a beautiful building and lovely spot to chat and get some work done, although it is often difficult to find seats. Mac’s reminds me of my high school cafeteria; I would not designate it as a place to savor a cup of anything. It is also typically too crowded for my taste, very much a grab-and-go location.
Wait: If you get to Gates or Macs around noon, both have terribly long waits to checkout, but not necessarily to craft the actual drink. However, if pressed to choose, I would recommend Macs over Gates in terms of speedy service.
1. Café Jennie
Drink: After rave reviews from a handful of friends, I had high expectations for Café Jennie’s chai, and my expectations were met. In addition to offering oat milk, Café Jennie’s blend was strong without being overpowering, sweetened with honey. The amount of ice leans on the lesser side, ensuring that the drink does not taste bland in the span of a few minutes, and you can see the cinnamon floating throughout. Overall, the best chai I have bought around campus!
Ambiance: Café Jennie is actually a great place to study, hold one-on-one meetings or have a chat with a friend during the day while on central campus, with just enough noise and not too many people. The food and snack options are various, an added bonus.
Wait: Long wait times for drinks are quite unusual for Café Jennie — no complaints here.
To any chai lovers out there, I hope my little quest was of some help. Instant chai can only go so far, but making tea in the morning as I struggle to get to my classes on time is currently an unrealistic dream, definitely up there with cooking myself breakfast and waking up early to go to the gym. Café Jennie is fairly conveniently located and brings me a decent level of satisfaction — see you all there!