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Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

Battle of the chai

A quest to find the best chai offered in the Cedar Valley
With fall officially upon us, Bailey Klinkhammer took to the Cedar Valley to find the best chai in town. From Cottonwood Canyon to The Savvy Bean, Klinkhammer decided Sidecar’s pumpkin chai latte with oat milk was the winner.

As of Saturday, Sept. 23, fall has officially arrived. This means that fall favorite drinks are returning to coffee shop menus around the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area. For years, fall menus have revolved around coffee, and for those who don’t enjoy coffee, prevented fall drink festivities. But, as more and more people demand chai at coffee shops, the more fall chai menu offerings there are. I am not a coffee drinker, but I am a big fan of all things chai. So, to kick off fall, I took it upon myself to tour the local coffee shops and find the best fall chai.

For the sake of science, I tried to make my orders as similar as possible. At its core, my order is an iced black chai with oat milk. Whatever a coffee shop decides to do beyond that for their fall chai is just a plus. I’m only visiting local coffee shops in Cedar Falls and Waterloo, so larger companies like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts don’t have any pull in this experiment. 

The criteria for the best fall chai falls into three categories: 1. Taste. Arguably the most important. How sweet is it? Can you taste the pumpkin? How is it made? How do the fall flavors compliment the chai? 2. Presentation. I love the look of a chai, no matter what cup it’s in. This is more subjective than the rest of the criteria, so take this category with a grain of salt. 3. Price. The price of a chai can make all the difference. How much does it cost, and is it worth it? 

These are the categories by which a chai will be judged. The coffee shops I visited included Sidecar, Cottonwood Canyon, Sarah’s Espresso, Cup of Joe and The Savvy Bean. Each shops’ chai will be rated out of 15, giving an ‘out of five’ rating for each of the categories will find who in the Cedar-loo area has the best fall chai. 

Sidecar – Small Iced Pumpkin Chai Latte with Oat Milk 

I visited the Sidecar on College Hill before class on Wednesday morning. I ordered a small iced pumpkin chai latte with oat milk, which was recommended to me by Northern Iowan Sports Editor, Caden Shea. The chai ran about $5.50, and the oat milk cost extra (this will be a running theme throughout this experiment). I can’t lie, I don’t frequent Sidecar as much as some UNI students. But recently, Sidecar has changed my mind solely with their chai. 

Their chai is sweet, I will say. But, the pumpkin they use adds a really nice nutty flavor that balances out the sweetness and brings out a great flavor in the tea. The fact that Sidecar also uses a chai powder that they made in house rather than a concentrate also gives them a couple brownie points in my book. Overall, Sidecar really surprised me with their chai. I’d give their pumpkin chai a 14/15.

Cottonwood Canyon – Small Iced Chai with Oat Milk 

As a newcomer to Cottonwood Canyon, I didn’t know what to expect. But, I did know that I was excited. While I didn’t get a pumpkin chai here, I did thoroughly enjoy the chai I did purchase, which was $4.50. It wasn’t severely great, but it also wasn’t a disappointing chai! Overall, the Cottonwood Canyon had a very pleasing chai that wasn’t too sweet but still smooth. But, there isn’t much to say about this chai. It was just a chai. I enjoyed it, but there wasn’t really much special about it. 

Right now, Cottonwood Canyon is sitting at the solid middle of my list at a 10/15. It’s just missing that “oomf” to bring it up to the top of the list. 

Sarah’s Espresso – Small Iced Maple Pumpkin Chai with Oat Milk 

I’m a longtime fan of Sarah’s Espresso and their Energy Brews. I have been going to Sarah’s Espresso since I was a freshman three years ago, and have loved almost everything I’ve gotten from Sarah’s. This is why I expected to love Sarah’s fall chai, their Maple Pumpkin Chai. I ordered this on Thursday, after a long day of class. I was really excited to try this fall chai in particular because of how much I love Sarah’s Espresso, the fact that they added maple in, and how many people have told me they’re obsessed with it. Unfortunately, I just didn’t jive with this chai. The maple was thick and overbearing, oversweetening the chai for me and putting a damper on the pumpkin. It also cost $7, and the oat milk cost a dollar extra. They also make their chai with a concentrate, similar to Starbucks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I, personally, would rather drink a chai made from an actual tea leaf. 

Maybe it’s just me, because my roommates (who I pawned off the $7 tea to) were obsessed with it. If I were to go back for a fall chai from Sarah’s, I would probably order an Iced Chai with pumpkin, no maple. Overall, Sarah’s chai is sitting towards the middle-bottom of my list at a 7/15.

Cup of Joe – Small Iced Pumpkin Chai with Oat Milk 

Cup of Joe is an acclaimed Cedar Falls coffee shop. But, as someone who doesn’t enjoy coffee, I don’t find myself frequenting Cup of Joe often. But this past Saturday, I think the Cup of Joe changed that. Their Pumpkin Chai was phenomenal, and sipping it in the environment that is Cup of Joe just made it all the better. It was sweet and nutty, the pumpkin flavors were present and abundant, and I just overall loved the flavors. I believe they also make their chai via tea powder, not through a concentrate. It was around $5.50, similar to Sidecar, but in my book, that wasn’t too pricey for the chai I received. 

Cup of Joe did a great job with their fall chai. I’d rank them pretty high on my list, and it’s definitely one of the places I’ll be returning to when I am in need of a pick me up. I’d give Cup of Joe a 13/15. 

The Savvy Bean – Small Iced Pumpkin Chai with Oat Milk 

Oh, The Savvy Bean. I was so excited to venture to Waterloo’s downtown to enjoy a cup of chai from the new local shop. The atmosphere was great, the shop was beautiful, and I was really excited to try their chai. Unfortunately, My experience wasn’t what I was hoping for. Upon receiving my chai, which I believe was made from a tea powder, it looked extremely milky to me. Upon further inspection in my car, it was almost just milk. I paid about $6.15 for a cup of iced milk. When sipping, I could not taste chai, I could not taste pumpkin, I could only really taste…milk. I brought it home to my roommate, who corroborated my feelings. I had essentially received a chai that was solely milk. I could see some powder at the bottom, but it wouldn’t mix with the large amount of milk in my cup.


Overall, I would like to return to The Savvy Bean and maybe experience something else. But, for right now, in my rankings, The Savvy Bean is unfortunately sitting at the bottom of my list at a 4/15, simply because I liked the cup and the shop. 

My standings for the best fall chai are as follows:

Sidecar – 14/15

Cup of Joe – 13/15

Cottonwood Canyon – 10/15

Sarah’s Espresso – 7/15

The Savvy Bean – 4/15 

Obviously everyone has different tastes and styles for their chai, but for me, Sidecar comes out on top. If you feel as passionately about chai as I do, feel free to contact me with more recommendations for chai in the Cedar Valley area at [email protected]

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