When it comes to chai, local tea makers Katie Ames, Tommy Winant and Joel “Windfox” Boyle don’t cut any corners. Through their year-and-a-half old business, AppalaChai, the three owners are committed to their mission of honoring the tea’s ancient Indian roots.
The company, which currently makes its products in the kitchen at Black Mountain’s Red Radish caterers, focuses on measurable goals such as using minimal sugar to bring out the natural flavor of spices in the tea, as well as spiritual goals — Winant makes a point to bless each batch of AppalaChai tea using time-honored mantras he learned by studying religions and resonating with one that originated in India to use for his chai.
Chai is revered in India for its medicinal properties and heavy use of spices such as cinnamon and clove. Its ingredients are known to aid in digestive health, allay nausea and even calm nerves and anxiety. AppalaChai brews its chai fresh with 100 percent organic ingredients sourced as locally as possible. The company’s products are currently available in area coffee shops and at local tailgate markets.
Mountain Xpress recently spoke to Ames, Winant and Boyle about their business while sipping AppalaChai’s signature sweet and spicy tea at Louise’s Kitchen in Black Mountain.
Mountain Xpress: Can you tell me a little bit about how the three of you met and how you decided to get into business together?
Joel Boyle: Well, I had an idea that I wanted to make chai and have a business doing it. Tommy was working at the Root Bar at the time out in Swannanoa, and he and I sat down and talked one night. Tommy had spent some time in India, living on the ashrams, going on the trains, getting chai from the chai wallah. And I’ve always liked chai, and I had some ideas from teaching for the Herbal Studies School practicing herbs … so we basically just kind of rolled with it from there. We started trying to find what different ingredients everybody would use, started brewing microbatches. Tommy was taught to make chai from an Indian friend years ago, her family recipe, and that is the recipe we use today. Tommy and I fine-tuned the recipe gram by gram to make a consistent batch every time, which is now AppalaChai. We had a nice recipe going, but we were kind of at a stalemate with it until Katie came on board and helped us figure a lot of the things out, like a packaging solution, permits, etc. There’s no way it would’ve taken off if Katie hadn’t gotten involved.
Katie Ames: I mostly handle the business aspects with Tommy: the packaging, research, marketing, customer service, all that stuff. And I am Tommy’s partner.
Is that how you got involved, because of Tommy?
Ames: Yes. When Tommy and I first started dating, the first thing he taught me was how to make chai. And of course it was different every morning we’d make it, until they decided to do the business, and now we have consistent chai that’s delicious.
Boyle: In India the sugar isn’t the main aspect of the chai — it’s the flavor, the spices — so we wanted to use just enough sweetness to enhance the flavor of those spices and really bring out the flavor of the herbs more than anything else. And people have really responded to it. It’s amazed us how fast it’s taken off; it’s been kind of a whirlwind. It’s almost hard to look back because it’s been moving forward so rapidly.
And how long have you been in business?
Tommy Winant: January 2014 is when we were official, but Joel and I were working on the recipe for about three or four months before that.
Ames: Another interesting part is that I love the name we chose. One time we were out walking door to door trying to get accounts, and we were sitting outside of a possible account, and I went inside, and when I came out Tommy goes, “Look at the newspaper over there — the Appalachian newspaper.” And I’m like “OK, so what?” And he was like, “Well, don’t you see ‘AppalaChai’?” It’s so funny because I didn’t like it, it just didn’t roll off my tongue, it didn’t sound really good to me at the time. But we get so many compliments saying, “Wow, that’s so clever!” So, good job, Tommy! People love it.
So what is it about chai in particular that you think is so powerful? What do you love about it?
Winant: Well, medicinally the spices in chai are really helpful for a lot of people, and we’re also able to have it and enjoy it as a treat. Plus, [there’s] the aspect of just sitting around with some friends, drinking chai. We use 100 percent organic ingredients, we really cut down the sugar, more so than any other company, so you can feel good about having it. We’re trying to work together with Asheville. We get our sugar from Buchi, we get our black tea from Dobra, and we are working with a farmer in Swannanoa who’s growing our ginger right now. So we’re just trying to source as much local as possible and create the company sustainably and organically. A large portion of our accounts use glass growlers that can be recycled, so it’s very sustainable.
Is there anything that you do with your chai that’s not traditional or has your own twist on it?
Ames: We brew our chai every Monday, and pretty much what we brew is what goes out to all of our accounts for the week, so it’s as fresh as you’re going to get it. Once we start shipping, it will be a little different, but as far as keeping it as local as possible, you are still getting the freshest chai available as far as a concentrate goes. Right now we’re refrigeration-only because we don’t want to use any preservatives. Down the road, if we decide to change that up, we can definitely reach out to a lot more areas, but for right now we like that we’re refrigeration-only.
Winant: We’re spicier than most, but not overly spicy. We’re less sweet than most, but not too little sweet. We really just try to take all the aspects of what chai should be and make the best product possible.
Boyle: We probably do a longer brew on the spices than most other people, because we don’t add the black tea until the end, which gives it a smoother taste, and also helps make it not as astringent, not as hard on the digestive process.
Are you looking to get your own location soon, any future plans?
Boyle: I’d say we’re about halfway to that threshold.
Ames: Right now we’re still at a place where we’re still taking in a profit and not having to take any loans out. Our own space would be amazing once we’re at a point where we’re making chai three or four days a week, but I agree with Joel — I think we’re about halfway there.
Anything else that you’d like to add?
Boyle: I think it’s just a matter of loving what you do, and I think you can taste that in the flavor. I’ve always felt like the best food I’ve ever had has been at places where the people just loved what they were doing, and they were just generally happy to be in there doing it. I feel like we all kind of have that attitude about the chai.
Ames: Tommy blesses the chai each batch, too.
Winant: Yeah, I try to pay attention to the music we play each time we make it, the vibrations; I think it’s a big factor. I know some mantras that I’ve learned and I say a special mantra over each batch. We fill up a little cup for Krishna, since that’s part of that one mantra, that you offer it to Krishna and Krishna will open-handedly accept it, which sounded really great to me.
So you do that every single time?
Winant: Every batch I’ve ever made, yeah.
Boyle: All in all, we’re just three tea ninjas doing what tea ninjas do.
For more information or wholesale ordering, contact Katie Ames at 407-6659 or email her at WNCteas@gmail.com.