September 22, 2020

What Is A Chai Latte?


The chai latte is hot, milky, fragrant, gently spicy, and popular in cafés everywhere. However, despite the fact that it’s served in coffee shops and named after the latte, it actually contains no coffee whatsoever. 

Chai is one of the world’s oldest tea-based drinks. It originated in India thousands of years ago, and has spread throughout the world over the past two centuries. One big question remains, however: how did a beverage that’s been enjoyed in India for thousands of years end up becoming so popular on coffee shop menus?

Here’s an explanation of what a chai latte is, where it came from, and what its future might hold.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Qué es un Chai Latte?

How Is A Chai Latte Made?

A chai latte is made by mixing steamed milk with black tea that has been infused with spices. The drink is then topped with foam. The spices used will vary from café to café; some coffee shops create signature chai blends and keep the ingredients a secret. Others, however, will use a sweetened chai syrup or a powder, allowing them to quickly brew the drink on demand.

Sebastiaan van de Venne is a barista at ZwartWit Koffie in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. He tells me that chai is made by combining certain spices with sugar, water, and black tea.

He says that the recipe he uses was created by former ZwartWit barista Kristian Louwers. “When a customer orders a chai latte, we use something that we call an ‘elixir’,” Sebastiaan explains. “This is an extraction of all the spices we use in water, black tea, and sugar.” He notes that this is slightly different to the usual way of preparing chai.

“After that, we heat the elixir, then serve the customer’s milk of choice and foam it up as we would with normal latte. After pouring the milk and the foam, we finish it up with some cinnamon powder, give it a swirl and top it off with star anise.”

He says that while “the proportions in terms of warm milk to foam are the same”, the chai latte isn’t a “true” latte, because it contains no espresso. 

Zee is the owner of Chai Coffee Co. in Yucaipa, California. She tells me that they use a range of chais. For the chai latte, she says they “freshly steep” their chai for each cup, and add “homemade vanilla syrup” as well as the “customer’s milk of choice”.

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What Is Chai?

Chai as the Western world knows it has been grown in India for many thousands of years. The word chai originates from the Hindustani word for all and any tea, which has grown in the Assam region for millennia.

When we talk about chai in chai lattes as a specific mixture of black tea and spices, we mean masala chai. Masala chai is made by steeping black tea in water and then mixing it with sugar, ginger, and milk. However, other spices may be added, including cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, or peppercorns.

It is believed that masala chai first emerged in the Indian subcontinent somewhere between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago. Some stories point to it originating in a royal court in Siam as a beverage associated with Ayuverda, an ancient Indian form of alternative medicine. Ayurvedic therapies historically involved using herbal compounds, minerals, and metals to treat illness or pain.

In India today, masala chai is usually prepared from scratch and enjoyed either at home or on the street. Street vendors or “chaiwallahs” prepare and sell it from stalls throughout the day. It is often made in a saucepan with mashed leaves. Once boiled, it may then be strained to remove any larger chunks.

Early forms of masala chai contained only black tea combined with spices and herbs. Milk was only added in the 1800s thanks to British colonial influence in India. In an effort to undermine the Chinese monopoly on tea, the British East India Company established an enormous number of plantations to create a source of tea that they controlled.

Local consumption of tea or chai remained low until British-funded promotional campaigns encouraged Indian companies to give their workers “tea breaks”. Thanks to the high cost of even low-quality tea leaves, milk and spices were soon added to stretch out the drink. 

Today, more than 800,000 tonnes of tea are consumed in India every year. It is estimated that 30 cups of chai are consumed for every cup of coffee. Furthermore, on average, two cups of chai are drunk per person every single day. Across India, chai is prepared differently. It’s common to see it enjoyed with buffalo milk, as the cow is sacred in Hinduism.

The history of the chai latte itself is somewhat more vague. It’s believed that it started appearing on Western coffee shops in the 1990s, but there’s no firm data on when it originated. Its popularity has seen a particular spike in the past 10 to 15 years. Today, it is available in most major coffee shop chains, including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Costa Coffee, and Tim Hortons.

The Modern Chai Latte & Variations 

The modern chai latte is a drink that appeals to many people. Sebastiaan believes that there is no definitive group or demographic that prefer it. He notes that “there is no real distinction between people who order chai”. 

“We try to encourage it when people are reaching their caffeine limit but still want a hot drink,” he tells me. “It’s good to be able to offer a nice, milky, sweet, and spicy alternative to their regular cappuccino or latte, too.”

Zee adds that she finds the drink is “very popular” and ordered by a “mixed crowd”, agreeing with Sebastiaan.

As each coffee shop uses a slightly different recipe when making a chai latte, defined variations are less common. Modifications are generally made to the chai mixture by changing the type or volume of spices used. Sebastiaan says: “For now, our team and our customers are super happy with our chai, and we don’t feel the need to experiment.” 

However, Sebastiaan does note that you can make small modifications to change how the drink is served. For example, you can add amaretto to make a hot chai cocktail. Pour the ingredients over ice, instead, and you have a milkshake or frappé-like beverage.

Beyond these variations, there is one “version” of the chai latte that is noticeably more popular. The “dirty chai” is made by adding a shot of espresso to a chai latte. It’s believed this was created by accident in London in the 1990s.

Sebastiaan says that when brewing espresso to add to a chai latte, he looks for coffee with “smooth chocolate and hazelnut flavours with hints of red fruit”. “The sweetness of these beans really pair well with chai and make it a completely new drink,” he says.

The Future Of The Chai Latte

Sebastiaan tells me that he thinks the chai latte isn’t going anywhere soon. “We have a small coffee shop with an open kitchen. When we brew our chai, it fills the shop with a warm and spicy smell that attracts guests. If they’ve never heard of it before, then we make them one to win them over.

“I am sure that chai lattes will continue to rise in popularity, and I hope that more coffee shops start creating their own recipes.”

However, one area of concern about the chai latte is the amount of sugar it contains on average. Many coffee shops, especially chains, make them with a lot of sugar or use a syrup that has a high sugar level.

As it generally contains a lot of sugar, the UK charity Action on Sugar has stated that “hot flavoured drinks” like the chai latte should be “an occasional treat, not an ‘everyday’ drink”. However, with the emerging consumer focus on health and wellness, we may see more and more chai lattes that are made with less sugar and altogether different flavourings.

Chai has been popular for thousands of years. While historically it was made by steeping tea leaves and mixing them with spices, most coffee shop customers today associate the word “chai” with a sweet, milky, and decadent drink.

Will the chai latte remain popular on menus in a world where health and wellbeing are a consumer priority? That remains to be seen. Either way, the chai latte has a rich history and a flavour that will often vary from café to café. If you haven’t tried one and are curious about the flavour, maybe it’s time to visit your local coffee shop.

Enjoyed this? Then read Exploring RTD Cold Brew’s Rising Popularity

Photo credits: Theo Crazzolara, Philippe Teuwen, Scott Dexter, James Boulanger, Dona Chai, Willen Kollenburg

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