Prana – an Indian saying meaning ‘inner life force’. An appropriate name for a story and product that has so much love and life encapsulated.
This is the story of Mario Minichilli and Vincent Conti who have been friends since the age of four. Mario a chef, and Vincent having a background in hospitality, travelled the world for a few years and visited Nepal where they experienced some life changing chai. It happens.
When returning home to Melbourne, long-time friends Mario and Vincent decided to bite the bullet and buy a space to set up their own café in St Kilda, Inkr 7. In its heyday the café had a massive local following and customers loved the personal vibe that they guys genuinely brought to the space.
Serving great coffee at Inkr 7 was one thing, but after travelling overseas Vincent was inspired. With the aim of concocting his own chai blend that would be even better than what Inkr 7 had available at the time, Vincent spent some time experimenting in his mother’s kitchen and so Prana Chai was born.
Serving his chai blend at Inkr 7, local cafés soon wanted in. Demand for Prana Chai became so great in fact, that Vincent and Mario asked one of their regular Inkr 7 customers Koray Gencel, who also had a marketing/business background, if he wanted to help them out. (Their distribution at that point was about 30 shops and they wanted to take the product to the next level and share the love.) Originally delivering chai to cafés in ziplock bags, the brand grew and developed when Koray joined the duo as a partner. Today Prana Chai has eight national distributors and 300 direct customers, but all three have maintained their committed and dedicated involvement in the chai, ensuring that their personal touch remains.
Outgrowing their St Kilda location Vincent and Mario, along with a new café partner and chef Paul Davies, established themselves at Merchants Guild in Bentleigh, but that’s another story.
Utilising the Bentleigh location’s space Prana Chai continues to be packaged weekly by hand by Mario, Vincent and Koray. Roasting some of the chai spices like cloves, cardamom seeds, black peppercorns and you’ll have to guess the rest… you can taste each spice when you indulge as they’re not absentmindedly blended, rather spices are lovingly crushed by hand.
Offering two chai varieties: Prana Chai uses organic Australian bushland honey to mix through the spices, while Prana Agave uses Mexican agave syrup to cater to vegans or those with special dietary requirements. How thoughtful.
What makes Prana Chai so special? When you take a sip you firstly taste nutty creaminess and then a steady and restrained spice comes through leaving a satisfying aftertaste. It really is special and you can almost feel the love inside each cup, with each sip it feels like you’re experiencing something unique.
Also distributing their chai online at www.pranachai.com, the biggest question I had was how could I make my chai at home taste as great as a café? Koray assured me that by cooking the chai on a stove top you’ll actually get a more intense flavour as the chai has more time to infuse the milk rather than the quick heating process in a café.
Add 3-4 heaped teaspoons of Prana Chai to a small pot and cover with cold water. Top with soy or almond milk, the nuttiness works well as cows milk can be overpowering. Simmer on the stove on a low heat but don’t let the chai boil. Once warmed through, let the chai sit for a few minutes and then pour through a fine sieve and enjoy. When I tried this out at home Koray was right, I was able to control the temperature of my chai and the flavour was amazing. I also loved that I didn’t need to add any extra sweeteners.
In addition to working long hours at Merchant’s Guild each day, Mario, Vincent and Koray continue to personally make and deliver their chai to Melbourne cafés, as well as now distributing nationally. They don’t want to compromise on taste or lose that ability to create a sense of community and maintain an honest personal touch with their product. Their passion excites me and I can’t wait to see what they do next but I have no doubt it will be done with great appreciation and love.