Tipu’s Chai gains national following using a recipe passed down through generations

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Lido Vizzutti
The Tipu’s chai recipe has been passed down generations. It has traveled across countries and continents and oceans, seen civil wars, world wars, and the rise and fall of colonial rule. It contains cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, and ginger—with maybe a pinch of some other secret spices. And since Bipin Patel began boxing and selling the masala mix in the early 2000s, it has warmed hundreds of thousands of bellies. But before then, chai was just a simple part of life, something that Patel’s grandmother, Kishi Patel, made every day and nobody ever thought twice about.

A gutsy young woman, Kishi moved from western India to Uganda with her new husband, Ranchodbhai, an adventurer, in the 1920s. Uganda had fallen under British powers in the late 1800s, and the Patels joined the large diaspora of Indians who were traveling west to build infrastructure, develop the country, and serve as colonial administration. Ranchodbhai found work first as a dockworker, then as a math teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and later as the owner of a provisions store.

Ranchodbhai and Kishi had children, then their children had children, and all the while, Kishi made fresh chai for the whole family every morning with spices imported from India. But as the country collapsed into civil war in the early 1970s, when Patel was 10, his grandparents returned to India and his parents relocated to England. Their new home didn’t have a ready-made community of Indian immigrants to join, and the locals weren’t as receptive to different traditions.

“In England, they were very conflicted about Asians being there, a bit like what’s going on now,” Patel said. “It was pretty hard. We found it incredibly difficult to be welcomed … we had to put up with not having good chai or spicy food. South London didn’t have any [Indian] grocery stores.”

Bipin Patel at his home outside of Ronan

Bipin Patel at his home outside of Ronan

Patel’s mother did what she could, often ordering spices from India or setting aside a day to travel to the few Indian stores in North London. The bold, vigorous masala flavors kept their heritage alive in the dark, grimy London of the 20th century, where the drink of choice was the stalwart but pale English breakfast tea.

“Britain is a big tea drinking culture, but in Britain, you wouldn’t mix it with spices,” Patel said. “You may not be able to be taught an Indian language in school, but food and flavors you can take with you.”

The family managed, though, and Patel finished growing up happily. He eventually joined an English Buddhist group called the Western Buddhist Order, and when he was 24, he traveled to the United States to help open a retreat called Aryaloka in Newmarket, New Hampshire.

There, he met his future wife, Varada Veum, then a college student, who came to the retreat one day for meditation instruction. Patel had only planned on working in New England for one year but ended up staying for the better part of a decade to fully establish the retreat. Over time, he and Veum grew closer. Finally, in 1995, inspired by Buddhist visitors from Montana, they decided to move west together to Missoula.

“And we said, ‘Okay, where are the Indian restaurants?’” Veum remembers. “At the retreat, he was always cooking, always making Indian dishes, and people were always saying he should open a restaurant.”

Boxes of Tipu's chair Now—including the three new spice mixes espresso, cocoa mint, and chocolate

Boxes of Tipu’s chair Now—including the three new spice mixes espresso, cocoa mint, and chocolate

Though Patel mastered odd jobs like carpentry and painting at the retreat, he wanted to find a new livelihood in his new city. So he decided to take his friends’ advice and put Indian cuisine on the map, opening up a vegetarian restaurant named Tipu’s Tiger. Patel and Veum knew that Montanans liked “their furry large carnivores,” as Veum said, “but we couldn’t use grizzly bears [in the name] because they don’t have them in India.” They decided to dub their enterprise after the Indian tiger, and they liked the alliteration of adding Tipu. The restaurant was warmly welcomed, something Patel attributes to American open-mindedness.

“There isn’t a history of being stuck with a particular flavor,” he said, comparing his experiences in the United States and England. “There’s access to multiple cultures.”

Customers kept ordering one menu item in particular, until, eventually, the popularity of the chai tea at Tipu’s eclipsed interest in the restaurant itself. In 2007, Patel sold the restaurant in order to focus his efforts purely on a chai business he called Tipu’s Authentic Indian Chai.

Patel and Veum also decided to move north, to idyllic Polson, where the business is currently based. The small town hardly hindered the new company’s growth. Cafés and coffee shops in 32 states, as well as three countries, including Saudi Arabia, now serve Tipu’s. The Chai Now quick brew tea mix retails at establishments like Dean & De Luca and Whole Foods, two holy grails in the organic industry. The success of Tipu’s rests on the product, but it didn’t hurt that by the time Patel opened up shop, Oregon Chai, a popular company that sells a spiced tea bag, had already broken into the American chai market.

"Batch master" Charlene Burland seals a packet of sweetened chai

“Batch master” Charlene Burland seals a packet of sweetened chai

“What made chai popular in the United States, or what made it more accessible, is Oregon Chai,” Patel said. “They did us a favor. They introduced the idea on a national level. Then we came in saying, ‘Actually, this is the chai I grew up with, with a more robust flavor profile, and spicier. It’s not tepid or just sweet.’”

A traveler who encountered chai on a trip to the Himalayas in the early 1990s founded Oregon Chai, and as can happen when a Westerner “discovers” something with Eastern roots, she returned to the United States and spent years tinkering with her own interpretation to sell.

“Our chai isn’t as sweet as American chai,” Veum said. “But it’s for people who like authentic chai, or have been to India, or have tried a family recipe. It has a strong flavor. We don’t use extracts; we use real ground spices.”

Tipu’s products come right from the source. They’re based on the very same black tea and spice mixture that Patel’s grandmother used. And, carrying on the family tradition of shipping the proper ingredients overseas, Patel’s chai is made with the best spices the world has to offer. Tipu’s employees screen the spices every three to four months by ordering small amounts to smell and test, which Patel admits “can drive some of our suppliers nuts.” They implemented the practice for good reason, though, after once ordering a full 800 pounds of untested cardamom that was a ground mixture of the spicy seed inside the husk as well as the husk itself, which compromised the aromatic quality.

Patel is firm that Tipu’s reputation starts here, with the littlest specks of spices. This commitment, which he chalks up to a dedication to authenticity, grounds a successful, growing business model. The new “addition to tradition” line, which includes mint, chocolate, and espresso chai, has doubled the size of the quick brew tea mix. But even the newest products are tied to Patel’s childhood. As Veum joked, “Chocolate is Bipin’s favorite thing, other than chai,” and Patel’s mother loved a fresh sprig of mint in her daily tea.

The standard by which the quality of every batch of each mix is measured has never changed. The chai just has to produce a cup of milky, spicy tea that Grandmother Kishi would be proud of.