Tea lattes exist in an uncomfortable place in the specialty coffee and tea worlds, a somewhat misunderstood coupling of both beverages, hampered by their popularization in big chains. The London fog, the chai latte—these are common manifestations. But can the tea latte go beyond those standbys, honoring the complexity of tea and barista craft simultaneously?
“Absolutely,” says Lucky Rodrigues, founder of Insight Coffee in Sacramento, who created the recipe for his matcha latte in 2007. “The reality is that coffeehouses tend to attract people who appreciate coffee, but what comes with that culture, and what some operators forget, is that those people bring along others who aren’t really into coffee but appreciate the craft.” From a café’s perspective, tea lattes aren’t only comforting drinks: they can act as the bridge between sugary, accessible drinks and traditional tea preparations of, say, a raw pu-erh or classic yerba mate. They also round out menu offerings and give cafés an expansive canvas for creativity.
Tea lattes are pretty simple: steeped tea with milk, either steamed or cold, and sometimes also a sweetener. The strength of the infusion depends on the tea style. Standard tea lattes include the London fog (Earl Grey tea and sweetened milk, sometimes with lavender or vanilla) and the chai latte (about which an entire volume could be written). But increasingly, bright green matcha lattes, smoky lapsang souchong lattes, and cooling mint lattes are also making their way onto tea and coffee bar menus across the country.
“From the business side of things, tea lattes really aren’t much more complicated to make than simple tea infusions,” says Kate Blackman, barista trainer, menu developer, and quality control supervisor at Parisi Artisan Coffee in Kansas City. “And the market allows you to price it much higher. So it can be a great profit item for cafés.”
Tea Chai Té, a two-location company in tea-loving Portland, boasts a massive tea menu divided into categories ranging from blacks to pu-erhs to greens to rooibos, and every tea can be made latte-style. The resulting drinks aren’t just staggering in their variety, they draw the tentative palate from the familiarity of sweet and spicy masala chai to unconventionals like coconut chai and ginger green chai, and more delicate offerings like a silver needles white tea latte. The teas are complemented, not overshadowed, by a variety of milks and sweeteners.
Each ingredient influences the end product, but Brandon Langlois of Tea Chai Té says, “The milk is the biggest part of the drink, so how you treat it is hugely important.” At Tea Chai Té, tea lattes are made by steeping the tea with a little hot water and the milk. The length of steeping time and the order in which very hot water or the hot milk are added change by the tea. A delicate white tea will be steeped in the milk alone, while a hearty Assam will be started with 190-degree water and, a minute in, the milk added.
Far more than simply a sweet, milky drink, the tea latte can fulfill its promise by beckoning customers into a deeper world of tea culture.
Erica Indira Swanson, owner of Portland’s recently opened Tea Bar, has lots of plans ahead for signature tea lattes, but finding the best brewing recipe for each tea is her top priority. “First, I get to know the tea really well, then I figure out the tea and water ratio,” she says. “Next is the brewing time and water temperature. For example, yerba mate brewed at 212 will often come out bitter. But if we flush the leaves at 175 and then brew at 212, it’s brilliant.”
Whether tea lattes are infused to order or made with tea concentrates batched ahead of time, standardized preparation is essential for quality. Blackman advises using a scale for all proportions. “One person’s teaspoon is not the next person’s teaspoon,” she says. A timer and a pre-programmed water tower also make it possible to ensure consistent steeping. Whether you are aiming the drink to be balanced or startling, experiment with the teas, the sweeteners—from simple syrups to local raw honey—and your milks (or alternative milks).
Far more than simply a sweet, milky drink, the tea latte can fulfill its promise by beckoning customers into a deeper world of tea culture. Emerging from a fog of bergamot, it may prove to be the next great drink for the specialty industry.
—Emily McIntyre is a regular contributor to Fresh Cup. She is the co-owner of Catalyst Coffee Consulting in Portland.