After over ten years in the specialty coffee world, Thea Heilbron recently made a leap into the world of tea and spices! She's now a Community Director at Dona Chai (pronounced DON-uh) in Brooklyn, New York. I was thrilled for the opportunity to chat with Thea about spice importing and chai's important role on a cafe's menu!
ANGELA FERRARA [THE BARISTA LEAGUE]: Can you tell me about the process of spice buying? It’s something that I don’t really know anything about!
THEA HEILBRON: Yeah! We go through a local supplier here in Brooklyn. They’re a company that’s been around for a hundred years, literally. So they know a bit about where things come from, but there’s a lot of limitations on vetting where spices come from. There’s a lot more of that in the coffee industry than there is the spice industry because it’s not something that has been thought about before - similar to the way specialty coffee was even 20 years ago. So, what we’re trying to do at Dona Chai is introduce one very transparent spice to our concentrate at a time. The ones that have all the information about where it comes from, the region, who’s picking it, who’s processing it, who’s getting paid for it, that kind of stuff is really hard to find. There are maybe two people in the entire country who are doing that. We’re really trying to work on vetting all the spices we’re getting so that we can closely monitor quality and watch for any inconsistencies. It’s a really neat process. The person who is carefully buying these spices from people he knows is flying them back on an airplane so that’s another reason why it’s so expensive. It’s not like the specialty coffee industry where if you want to go on an origin trip you go with an importing company and you’ve got a group of people who already know the farmers and already know the deal about what’s going on over there. Spice buying you’re pretty much on your own.
A: Is it similar to specialty coffee in that there’s a perceived worth in being able to go there and source the spices yourself?
T: I’m not sure about that. Because it’s not something that’s being talked about a lot, I don't think that there’s a lot of marketing value on that aspect. I think it’s more of a personal goal for these people go to and make sure that certain things are being done. There’s less about that in general because not many people are working with spices the way we are.
A: Where are the spices you're currently using coming from?
T: So, we don’t actually use cinnamon. We use cassia which is the bark of a tree. We get that from Vietnam which is where the highest quality cassia comes from. And we look for a really high oil content because that produces the best flavor quality. Lower oil content produces a sharp and woody flavor. If you look at a true cinnamon stick, it’s hulled from the bark of a tree and then hand rolled. The cassia that we buy isn’t rolled. It looks like bark when it gets to us and it’s super sweet and delicious. We’ve been doing spice cuppings where we steep the spices in a french press and the cassia is like, Domino Sugar sweet. It would blow your mind. We also use cardamom from Guatemala. Guatemala is actually the highest producer of cardamom in the world. They produce 70% of the world’s cardamom. Green cardamom is in the ginger family. We also use turmeric which is another member of the ginger family for our turmeric concentrate, which we get from India. You can tell the quality based on the color. The deeper, darker tones indicate a higher grade. They come to us in what’s called turmeric fingers which are really dry and hard. So, we’ve modified a stone mill to be able to grind all of our spices in house because just like coffee, quality degrades almost immediately after grinding so we grind everything in house and then steep it all together. I was really nervous to cup turmeric because it just seems so savory and intense but it’s actually really buttery and earthy and sweet. And the spice cupping is really fun because I walk away feeling immune to everything after because all of these ingredients are really good for you! And you don’t have to spit because there’s no caffeine. It’s awesome. Oh! And then we also use a pink peppercorn - which isn’t actually a peppercorn even though it looks like one - it’s a member of the cashew family. So if you have a serious nut allergy you can’t have pink peppercorns! Pink peppercorns kind of taste like berries. Super sweet and flavorful. Mangos are another member of that family.
Spice buying is so new and it’s not something we have a manual for. Like, if we were to start a specialty coffee company right now, we would have a pretty good understanding of how to develop a direct trade relationship or at least know who to work with to establish that. But we don’t really have that with spices. We’re just trying our best to do what we can and the specialty coffee industry really paved the way for that to be something of concern. I’m eternally grateful for coffee in more ways than one!
A: Speaking of, you came from years of working in the specialty coffee industry! What do you think are the major similarities and differences between working at Dona and working in specialty coffee?
T: There are a lot! I still get to use my palate and I feel like I’m really growing my repertoire of what I can taste. The thing about spice cupping that’s so wild is trying to find words to describe things that we already use as descriptors. Right? You can say a coffee tastes like cinnamon, or smells like peppercorn. But how do you describe what cinnamon tastes like? Or what peppercorn smells like?
I still consider myself part of the specialty coffee industry because our target audience is the specialty coffee industry. So I really don’t feel like I’ve been missing out. I actually feel closer and like I get to enjoy it more because I’m not linked to one particular coffee company. I get to go to all the coffee companies. And I get to try even more coffee than I would if I was working with just one roaster. So that’s super exciting as a coffee lover to really have no allegiance and to be able to just experience the industry. I sorta get to pick and choose how involved in the coffee industry I am which is a luxury I’ve never had.
Then there’s this thing that my boss calls “The Chai Complex.” Because I’m at a coffee event with a chai company, coffee people assume that I know nothing about coffee. And that’s really funny because all I have to do is throw out some buzzwords for them to be like “OH. You actually know what you’re talking about.”
A: Did the cafes you worked at before this serve Dona Chai?
T: Yes! The cafe I worked at directly before this actually served Dona Chai, which I feel really lucky about because I know how it works and how it behaves and how it is to serve it in a coffee shop. But before that I hadn’t worked with it. I’d just been an observer and friend from afar. I did coffee events for a long time and Amy from Dona Chai also worked events so we were often around each other. I always secretly coveted her event set up because she didn’t have any espresso machines or grinders or anything to lug in or out. I recently worked my first few events with Dona and got to experience that myself!
A: I’ve worked with and seen baristas who are almost offended by the idea of having to make and serve chai. How do you personally feel about chai in cafes?
T: Here’s the deal! Why would you alienate an entire group of people who are coming to your shop to spend money? They want this, so why not give them a high quality product? Especially if you can serve chai from a company that’s concerned with the same things you’re concerned with when you’re buying your coffee. The idea of making chai in-house in tough. It’s like, you’re hiring your baristas to be baristas, not chai brewers. It’s an entirely different game. And I know a lot of baristas roll their eyes at chai because it’s such a pain and something they have to add on to the incredibly long list of things that they already have to do. Instead, you can be buying a product from someone who is already doing all those things for you.
A: What do you think it would take to get regular baristas to take things like chai and tea seriously?
T: I think it’s less about making them take it seriously and more about making it easier for them. Coffee is really hard. It’s hard enough to exemplify the training you’ve received with the coffee you’re brewing. And then adding chai and tea? I’m definitely guilty of being one of those baristas who would be annoyed when I had to make tea, but I think the reason wasn’t the quality of the tea. It was the process. We didn’t stock tea bags. So it was a three minute process and in New York, people don’t want to wait. So if you can make it easier on the barista, it would be easier to get them to care about what they’re doing. You know? Cause a lot of times I would get flack from the customer because it takes extra time. And that’s not fair for the barista. Someone who orders a cappuccino knows it takes a little extra time. Well. Some of them. Some of them know that. As opposed to getting a drip coffee. And with tea that’s not always the case. So yeah, I really think that if you made it easier to serve, the barista would care more about it.
A: What are you excited about next? It doesn’t have to be chai related, but it can be!
T: I’m excited to see how spice buying changes and how we’re able to implement the ideas that we have right now. Something I was always concerned about working in coffee was to work with a socially responsible company. And I just feel so lucky to have found probably the most socially responsible company I’ve ever worked for. It just doesn’t happen to involve coffee directly.
I’m excited to judge coffee competition again. Maybe next year! I like to be involved in competition but I don’t necessarily have the time that I used to have to devote to preparing for it. Being a judge is less of a time commitment and super rewarding because we get to enjoy the thing that people work so hard preparing for. And we get to taste all the amazing coffees that we’d never get to taste otherwise.
Oh! I’m also excited for the summer. I’m excited for the beach. It’s very cold today so I’ve been thinking about that a lot.