Oprah tea: More blah than aha

Oprah chai tea

Chai tea from Oprah Winfrey is available at Starbucks. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / May 8, 2014)

I guess I prefer Hot Oprah to Iced Oprah.

Hot Oprah is comforting, rich and easy to stomach. Iced Oprah shuts you out. It seems cold and indifferent, content to coast on its promise. That said, the official name for the new Oprah Winfrey drink at Starbucks and its Teavana stores is Teavana Oprah Chai Tea Latte. It comes hot and it comes cold, and the reason for the long name, one must assume, is because Starbucks bought the Teavana teahouse chain in 2012 and wants it to do for tea what Starbucks did for coffee; serendipitously, Oprah-branded chai latte could be the ideal way to have Oprah do for Teavana and chai what she did for Elie Wiesel and Dr. Phil.

See, when talking Oprah, nothing is as simple as a cup of tea: Twenty-five cents of every Oprah Chai purchased ($3.80-$4.80) is donated to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation. And rather than slap her name across cups, Starbucks says that Oprah herself developed the drinks with "teaologist" Naoko Tsunoda, presumably straining against mountains of cinnamon dust and refusing to go home early.

Not even sitting in a Starbucks on a quiet weekday morning to sample Oprah's tea is so simple. Each cup comes with a pale olive-green sleeve and a gentle, squishy, aggressively insistent message such as "Teavana and Oprah invite you to take a few moments to pause and reflect each day. Your own personal 'steep time.'"

OK.

So I considered Oprah's drinks, one hot, one cold, then dived in. The official description for Hot Oprah is: "Spicy chai blend of cinnamon, black tea and rooibos, lightly sweetened and finished with steamed milk." The Guardian newspaper of London's description was: "Absurdly precious, unerringly pretentious, wholly underwhelming ambergris spewed from the belly of a corporate leviathan." But really Guardian, come now. ...

Neither Hot Oprah nor Iced Oprah are so offensive. Or even as insistent as the drinks' branding. If anything, Hot Oprah and Iced Oprah are the first satellites of the Oprah universe that I would describe as vague and unsure. Especially Iced Oprah, which offers only the faintest hint of chai, content to come off as a murky cold facsimile of thoughtfulness, topped with notes of artificiality, ultimately not concerned with nuzzling up.

This could be anyone's branded chai — Kate Hudson's, Zach Efron's. It's an air kiss. It doesn't need you in its life and has already forgotten you're here. Not like Hot Oprah, which at least makes an effort to seem spiritual and interested. The first thing Hot Oprah delivers is, well ... a hint of chai. Not as spicy as promised, not as bracing as good chai. But sweet and creamy noncommitment — chai without feeling that you had to make an honest call between your usual drink and an exotic blend. Which is perhaps both the strength and the problem of Oprah's Starbucks adventure: You don't know what its trying to say but it seems important.

cborrelli@tribune.com

CHICAGO
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