Many a Missoulian’s day starts with a cup of chai, the sweet and spicy tea elixir brewed at Tipu’s Tiger. Restaurant co-owner Bipin Patel calculates that locals put away 85 to 95 gallons of the stuff each week. And that’s just what’s prepared from concentrate at the eight cafes and restaurants around town that sell the Tipu’s mix.
When Tipu’s opened in 1997, Patel recalls, it was an uphill struggle to turn Missoulians on to the traditional Indian hot drink (chai just means “tea”). Now, demand is so great that the weekly preparation of the tea and spice concentrate has been moved to a Ronan-based nonprofit co-operative, Mission Mountain Market, founded to help small local food businesses manufacture and package their products. It’s a move his business was planning to make anyway, Patel asserts; the fact that the state health department recently informed Tipu’s that they would need a manufacturing license and a commercial kitchen to continue concocting the concentrate just cinched the deal.
“Unfortunately, we just don’t have the facilities we need to make it anymore,” Patel says. “We basically send [Mission Mountain] the ingredients and work with them to make it.”
Patel has also designed a label for the one-quart plastic containers Mission Mountain uses to bottle the concentrate, complete with bar code, as a first step toward moving into retail outlets in the area—and hopefully beyond. If the partnership with Mission Mountain Market blossoms, other Tipu’s specialties like chutney and enchilada sauce may soon follow.
The flavor profile of Tipu’s chai is modeled after a variant drunk in the Indian state of Gujerat, where it is traditionally served with buffalo milk. Iced chai and chai with soy milk are both American innovations, both of which Patel claims to have resisted at first.
“I actually needed some convincing,” he giggles sheepishly. “And I’ve never regretted it. It was slightly humbling to learn that we sell a lot more soy chai than we do with regular milk.”