Rating the Chai Lattes of St. Andrews

November 21, 2021

Not a stock photo! This is the chai latte from Taste.

Several weeks ago, I posted a review of every London Fog in St. Andrews. In the introduction to those reviews, I fear that I was too accusatory to those of you who had never tried a London Fog, because I've now had a similar experience of my own. Recently, some friends suggested we take a study break for chai lattes. I had never tried a chai latte before then, living in blissful ignorance that such a wondrous warm beverage existed. When I took my first sip, I experienced a shock of euphoria, followed by all 5 stages of grief in quick succession. How had I never tried this before? What was I thinking all those years pretending I only liked iced tea? Was I about to develop a college caffeine addiction after all? When I reached the acceptance stage and the bottom of my takeaway cup, I had resolved to try every chai latte in St. Andrews to make up for all the years I misspent spurning the drink for the saccharine simplicity of hot chocolate.

If you've never had a chai latte, first of all let me encourage you to make or buy one as soon as possible. Second, let's discuss the Platonic ideal of a chai latte so we're all on the same page when it's time for ratings. Obviously, the main ingredient of a chai latte is chai, a variety of black tea blended with spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and black pepper. To make the latte, the chai is brewed strong and mixed with steamed milk. Most places also sprinkle some cinnamon and/or nutmeg on top for an extra bit of spice. A good chai latte should have a strong tea flavor, should be sweet but not too sweet, and should have a warm spice from the cinnamon et cetera. It's the beverage you want to be drinking on a cool autumn day, as sit in your coziest sweater, reading your favorite novel and watching the leaves falling from your window.

One more thing: the word chai is the Hindi word for tea, so please don't be an ignoramus and call it a chai tea latte. You might as well call it a tea tea latte, and that would be silly, no? Ok, now that we've had our linguistics lesson, let's get to the reviews.

  1. Taste

Imagine that you had never heard music before, and then someone played Beethoven's 9th Symphony for you. One of my favorite professors likes to say that falling in love is "better than chocolate, but not as good as music," so while this is an extreme analogy, it's the best way I can describe trying my first ever chai latte from Taste. Holy moly, it's good. The tea is strong, it's nice and sweet, and the fresh cinnamon gives it a beautiful warm flavor, perfect for sipping on a stroll through town on a chilly day.

Dr. Cary, I know that it will never be as good as music, but I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this chai latte. Taste, you can just go ahead and take all my money. 5 stars.

2. Rector's Cafe

This chai latte had a few major problems that need troubleshooting. First of all, my takeaway cup had no lid. This created a situation in which I had to immediately drink the top few centimeters of chai latte upon leaving the cafe, so as not to slosh it on myself while walking through town. If the drink had been hot, I certainly would have burnt my tongue, but I did not, highlighting the second problem with this chai latte. Upon arrival, it was... tepid, and that's a charitable description. The barista could probably tell by looking at me that I'm the kind of person who spills a hot drink on herself, gets third degree burns, sues the cafe, and is the reason there are warnings printed on all takeaway cups in the United States. And now I'm feeling self-conscious because of this chai latte.

The third and final problem with this chai latte was the absolute motherload of cinnamon sprinkled on top. How do I begin to describe the sheer volume of cinnamon I had to get through to reach chai latte? I'm taking archaeology right now, and I think I could have performed stratigraphic analysis on this dense layer of cinnamon for extra credit. That, or I could have choked in the middle of St. Andrews from inhaling a big whiff of it. Now I know why my first-grade teacher taught us to waft anything we needed to smell in science class: she knew I would need to avoid unwittingly participating in the cinnamon challenge on this chai latte. (It also could have prevented Elijah Smith from sucking a bean up his nose, but that's another story.)

The best part of this chai latte was the adorable Christmas sweater pattern printed on the takeaway cup, for which I will add some merit. Were it not for the aforementioned fatal flaws, it probably would have been quite good. I'll give it 2 stars.

Oh look, we're back to stock photos.

3. Starbucks

We're getting the chain coffee shop out of the way early on this time, and I'm glad of it. Yikes. This chai latte was full of flavor, but it was full of only one flavor and that flavor was sweet. This is coming from someone with a pretty sizeable sweet tooth. I will eat buttercream frosting on a spoon by itself and call it an afternoon snack, and this chai latte was too sweet for me. There is no tea, no cinnamon, only sugar. God is dead and we have killed Him, and there is nothing now but sugar.

To add insult to injury, this chai latte became cold after about ten minutes and rang up for the typical Starbucks price: too much. I won't be getting another one of these for the sake of my wallet and my health, because Holy Type 2 Diabetes, Batman! was this sweet. 1 star.

4. Cottage Kitchen

I didn't expect to find a chai latte that would be hyped up more than the one at Zest, but Cottage Kitchen proved me wrong. When I ordered my drink, the barista informed me that I would be enjoying a red chai latte brewed with Cottage Kitchen's own special blend of red chai and mixed lovingly with texturized milk. All this specialness would take a few minutes to make, so could I please remove the wreckage of my presence and wait outside?

When the chai latte was delivered to me a few minutes later, I was deeply disappointed. There was not enough chai flavor present for me to notice whether it tasted special or not. It had the insinuation of chai, but mostly tasted like hot milk. This chai latte made me feel like Ben Wyatt watching Lil' Sebastian at the Pawnee Harvest Festival: "I don't get it. At all. It's kind of a small horse. I mean, what am I missing? Am I crazy?" I give it 1 star.

Stock photo, but make it Christmas-y

5. Zest Cafe

Zest Cafe has my favorite London Fog in St. Andrews, so I was optimistic about this chai latte experience. Furthermore, Zest advertises this beverage as a ginger chai latte; far more gingery than a normal chai latte, wouldn't you say? Zest cannot be accused of false advertising, since I did taste a strong note of ginger, but its flavor was not enough to compensate for the watery tea underneath. Alas, the chai in this chai latte should have been steeped longer, or perhaps mixed with less milk, because the flavor was not at all strong enough for my taste. This ginger chai latte reminds me of myself in middle school: deeply insecure with a thick layer of "I'm not like other girls" slapped on top. Calm down, ginger chai latte. Stop acting like you have something to prove, work on yourself, and don't you dare buy another Doctor Who t-shirt that will end up in the yard sale a couple years from now.

If I had a nickel for every time a chai latte has made me feel self-conscious, I'd have two nickels--which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it's happened twice. I'll stick to a London Fog when I go to Zest from now on. 3 stars.

6. Gorgeous Cafe

No chai flavor whatsoever. Literally just a cup of hot milk.

Disgusting.

Zero stars.

7. Mitchell

If there was ever a day in need of a good chai latte, it was the day I tried this version from Mitchell. I had just said goodbye to my sweet roommate earlier that morning, my favorite Great British Bakeoff contestant had been eliminated the night before, I had a metric ton of work to get through in the afternoon, the B on my keyboard was sticking, and John Knox (my maidenhair fern) was slowly dying. To quote the inimitable Jon Bon Jovi, I was livin' on a prayer, and this chai latte was the only thing standing between me and a full-blown come apart. Thank goodness, it did not disappoint.

The flavor of this chai latte was more subdued than other versions, which is something I usually don't like. However, the flavor here was not weak or watered down, but delicate and balanced. The chai and cinnamon were discernable without being oppressive, and the blend of flavor and texture in the milk was so smooth--smooth like a smooth jazz Christmas album smooth. My one critique is that it was a tad sweet, but that's an easy fix.

I owe this chai latte a debt of gratitude for turning a bad day into a less bad day. I believe it has the power to make John Knox live again (the fern, not the Scottish reformer), but it sadly won't bring Jürgen back on GBBO. 4-and-a-half stars.

8. North Point Cafe

I'm glad that the most famous coffee shop in St. Andrews serves a chai latte, because I wasn't able to try it for my London Fog reviews. This cozy restaurant on North Street advertises itself as the place "Where Will met Kate (for coffee)", and their chai latte is certainly fit for royalty. Like the one from Mitchell, North Point's chai offering is on the subtle side, but the chai flavor was still noticeable and sweetened perfectly. I would tweak only two things: add more cinnamon, and add less heat. Burning my tongue was not the vibe this day.

All things considered, if I were omnipotent, I would change more things about the royal family than I would about this chai latte, so I'll give it 4 stars.

9. Old Union Cafe

Well, well, well. If it isn't our old friend the Rector's Cafe doppelganger. You may remember from my last venture into food criticism that Old Union's London Fog is the evil twin of the one from Rector's. When it comes to chai lattes, however, Old Union Cafe has done something unexpected, mysterious, and wonderful to behold: it has redeemed the sins of Rector's chai latte.

Everything that was wrong with the chai latte at Rector's Cafe has been put right in this lovely libation. My takeaway cup had a lid, and the temperature was just right, allowing me to appreciate the chai flavor and sweetness. However, there was one sin that did not receive absolution in this chai latte: the heavy sprinkle of cinnamon on top. Thanks to the takeaway lid, this was not a safety hazard, but it was still rather unpleasant to get so much dry cinnamon in every sip. I'm grateful that the baristas at Rector's and Old Union have committed themselves to practicing generosity, but their virtue has slipped away from the golden mean and into the excess of prodigality (see Aristotle's Ethics). That, or maybe they should invest in cinnamon shakers with smaller holes.

I give this chai latte 4 stars.

Stock photo, but add espresso beans for some reason.

Chain Coffee Shops Not Represented: Costa, Pret a Manger, Greggs

Local Coffee Shops Not Represented: Con Panna, The Canny Soul, Combini

If I discover another local shop that serves a chai latte, I will publish an addendum.