A strong, sweet and spicy liquid combined with frothed organic milk tantalizes my taste buds and forms a party in my mouth. I am drinking Free Bird Café’s homemade chai, a labor of love by Aaron Abrams and his staff. The many five-star reviews from visitors and locals alike for Free Bird Café’s chai keeps Abrams experimenting with ways to brew more of his unique drinks.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s constant but you definitely get to be a part of the community and get to know people. I feel like I know everyone here.”– Aaron Abrams
If you’ve ever driven through South Lake Tahoe, you may have seen a tiny house-type café at 2753 Lake Tahoe Blvd. This is Abrams’ first Free Bird Café location; it opened eight years ago when he realized he was going to be in the area for a while.
“I wanted to do my own thing, so I found the smallest place available,” Abrams says. “It had been vacant for a long time and had been used as a coffee shop before, so it was easy to move in.”
Abrams came to Lake Tahoe around 10 years ago from Phantom Ranch, Ariz., a place nestled at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Like many of Tahoe locals, Abrams never left.
“I came here to ski and I got sucked in. Tahoe’s a good place for me. There are great people here,” he says.
In one of his early barista jobs in Tahoe, an Indian woman taught Abrams how to make chai from scratch. Years later, Abrams still had the recipe and started modifying the chai to his liking, bringing his creation to Free Bird Café. He also serves coffee and smoothies made with the finest wholesome, organic ingredients.
“My emphasis has always been to get the best stuff I possibly could and keep it simple. We use superfoods for smoothies like goji berries and chia seeds that are popular now but were hard to get back then [when Free Bird opened],” Abrams says.
While smoothies such as Green Machine and Blue Bird — I tasted the Cacao Bliss that was absolutely amazing — are popular, Free Bird’s homemade chai is a huge part of the business. It is tricky to make in bulk.
Every day, they make about 10 gallons of traditional black-tea chai concentrate made of Assam tea, smoked black cardamom, green cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Since it takes about two hours to brew a 2.5-gallon batch, he brews chai from open to close. About a year ago, Abrams opened another Free Bird Café location and keeps chai going at both.
Since the homemade chai is what Free Bird Café is known for, it is always on the verge of running out of it because 2.5 gallons is not a huge quantity. Also, it’s hard to find the spices needed in bulk. According to Abrams, green cardamom is the third most expensive spice behind vanilla bean and saffron.
“If you go into a shop, [green cardamom] is $40 to $50 a pound,” he says, adding he needs between 50 to 100 pounds at a time. “I would love to buy in bulk, like a shipping container full, thousands of pounds.”
Occasionally, the menu will offer a less traditional chai recipe like a Mate Chai, substituting the black tea with yerba mate and sweetening it with vanilla, or a Roots Chai made with black tea chai, ginger, turmeric, coconut oil and black pepper, which he says helps absorb the turmeric.
“It’s becoming one of the more popular chais, but it’s complicated tasting,” Abrams says.
You can also order a Dirty Chai, a chai latte spiked with espresso, or a Muddy Chai, a chai latte with chocolate in it. In October, Free Bird Café offers Pumpkin Spice Chai with real pumpkin steamed into the milk and spices such as nutmeg and allspice brewed into the mix.
Even though it’s a lot of work continuously making small-batch chai and running two cafes, Abrams thinks that it’s worth it.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s constant but you definitely get to be a part of the community and get to know people. I feel like I know everyone here,” he laughs.
In the time that I talked to Abrams, he did seem to know everyone, greeted people by their first names. He creates a comfortable, cozy atmosphere, he’s easy to talk to and his chai is the best I ever had.
Both locations of Free Bird Café are open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.