Simultaneously sweet and spicy, bold yet creamy, a cup of chai is synonymous with comfort and delight. Chai is a crowd-pleasing cuppa with harmonious and complex flavors, but there is more to this beverage than meets the taste buds. Learn all about chai, from the origins of the drink to caffeine content, health benefits, and what makes a perfect cup of chai.
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WHAT IS CHAI?
ORIGINS OF CHAI
Chai is a beverage over 5,000 years old that originated in India and was crafted for Ayurvedic healing. In India, chai simply means tea, so when you say “chai tea” it translates to “tea tea” in Hindi. The word "chai" is derived from the Chinese word for tea, "cha." This is why it’s technically incorrect to order a chai tea latte, for example, because the “tea” is already understood. Since chai means all types of tea in India, it’s masala chai, meaning "spiced tea," that references the mix of black tea leaves and aromatic, warming Indian spices and herbs commonly thought of as just chai in the West.
Because the drink was traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine, original chai blends were purely made from a caffeine-free mixture of herbs and spices with tea leaves only added later on. Ayurvedic medicine is a traditional, holistic form of medicine that originated in India and has been used for thousands of years. It works toward the balancing of the body, mind, and spirit for well-rounded wellness using healing herbs and spices.
The rise of the East India Company eventually ushered in commercial tea farms in areas such as Assam and Darjeeling by the early 1800s. The popularity of tea rose in India due to British influence and chai became a commonly consumed drink. However, tea was expensive until the mid-1900s when the CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea processing method was invented. The spices, milk, and sugar characteristic of masala chai helped the early, expensive tea go further and made CTC black tea, which has a bold, tannic flavor, taste better.
Try out these popular traditional chai tea blends for your next cozy cuppa!
TYPES OF CHAI
Chai is a versatile treat. One sip of hot chai tea can completely transport you to a cozy fall afternoon, or it can be sweet and surprisingly refreshing year-round as an iced chai latte. While masala chai is typically made with black tea, you can find all different types of chai blends today, from herbal chai to chai green tea and more.
THE PERFECT CHAI
Chai is experimental and traditional. It’s a drink of hospitality in India, meaning if you visit someone's home you will be served a homemade cup of chai as a welcome. Or, you can get chai from a chai wallah, a street vendor who sells chai. As such, how to make the perfect chai varies by vendor or from person to person with different traditions in each home. The traditional method of preparing masala chai involves boiling a combination of water with loose tea leaves, milk, whole spices, and optional sweetener. Learn all about these essential elements and discover common alternatives so you can create your own perfect cup of chai!
Loose leaf tea with masala chai spices is traditionally simmered on the stove. A hearty and bold loose leaf black tea or CTC black tea leaves, such as an Assam blend, is typically used because strong black teas complement masala spices and hold up well with milk and sweetener.
Alternatively, any type of tea or herbal base can be blended with masala spices to make a delicious homemade chai. Green tea is often used for a lighter flavor, or common caffeine-free chai blends might use rooibos, which is a tisane made from the Aspalathus linearis shrub plant native to South Africa.
Authentic masala chai spice mix includes cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, fresh ginger or ground ginger, and black peppercorn. Star anise can also be added, as well as coriander or fennel. This Ayurvedic blend of spices contains tons of nutrients and adds to the overall health benefits of chai.
Whole cow's milk is typically used in chai but alternative non-dairy milks also pair well with the tea and spices. Try a coconut or almond milk chai, or an oat milk chai latte for a creamy and delicious non-dairy treat. If you like your chai thicker, use more milk or substitute the milk completely for water, or if you like a lighter chai use less milk and more water when brewing.
In India, chai is mostly sweetened with jaggery, an unrefined cane or palm sugar that retains more nutrients than refined sugar. Elsewhere, white sugar is the most commonly used sweetener for a classic cup of chai but popular alternative sweeteners include honey, agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar, brown sugar, or turbinado sugar.
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BENEFITS OF CHAI
Chai contains many health benefits from the tea and the spices it’s blended with that make it a popular invigorating wellness tea. However, while a cup of masala chai is healthy to sip on for several reasons, it’s important to note that classic chai recipes are often sweetened with white sugar. If you don’t want to use sugar in your chai, it can be substituted with honey, agave, or your favorite alternative sweetener with little effect on the overall taste.
With black teas such as Assam or Darjeeling as the most common tea base for chai, it’s an effective energy boost for a morning or afternoon pick-me-up. A typical cup of chai with black tea will contain around half the amount of caffeine as coffee, but still more than most other types of tea.
Research shows that chai is full of healthy antioxidants due to the polyphenols in tea and the healthy spices. Rooted in Ayurvedic medicine, the healing spices and black tea used may help lower bad cholesterol, have anti-inflammatory properties, increase metabolism, and reduce blood sugar. Chai tea is also known to have antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties that are beneficial for aiding digestion. We recommend this traditional Tulsi Masala Chai by Organic India for a delicious mix of Indian spices, black tea, and the benefits of tulsi for a sip full of goodness.
DOES CHAI HAVE CAFFEINE?
Yes, because chai is traditionally made with black, it's safe to say that most chai will have some level of caffeine. A typical cup of chai with black tea leaves will contain around half the amount of caffeine as coffee, but still more than most other types of tea. Even chai green tea will have caffeine, though around half as much as a traditional cup. Try this Chai Green Tea by Stash Tea for a robustly spiced brew. Or, explore the classic chai blends from the Chico Chai Collection for a range of high-quality original chai flavors.
However, rooibos chai blends or traditional chai made only with herbs and spices are usually naturally caffeine-free. Try out the unique Spice Dragon Red Chai for a totally caffeine-free chai with a rooibos tea base and kick of spices, or this Organic Chai Rooibos Tea by Cederbos by My Red Tea. Feel free to sip these specially crafted caffeine-free blends before bed or throughout the day!
HOW TO STORE CHAI
To maintain the freshness of your chai, you should store it in a dry, cool, odor-free environment, ideally in an airtight container made for loose leaf tea storage. This will allow the tea leaves and spices to retain their original fresh flavor and high antioxidant content for 6 months to 1 year.
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HOW TO MAKE CHAI
Authentic masala chai is a cozy drink with a rich and sweet yet spicy flavor that's simple to brew. Or, on warmer days you can steep your chai, let it cool in the fridge, and pour over ice for a deliciously creamy iced chai latte. Whichever your preference, learn a few tips for how to brew your own traditional chai from home!
HOW TO MAKE CHAI
Makes 2 servings // Prep Time: 5 minutes // Active Time: 10 minutes
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
- Small saucepan
- Loose chai blend or masala chai powder. We recommend the Original Chai by Chico Chai.
- 1 ½ cup filtered water
- ¾ cup whole milk or non-dairy milk
- Optional: sugar or preferred sweetener
STEP ONE: HEAT WATER AND MILK
- Bring the water and milk to a light boil on medium-high heat on the stove.
STEP TWO: ADD TEA
- Add about 1 tbsp of chai to the water. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 5-8 minutes.
STEP THREE: STRAIN AND SWEETEN
- Strain the steeped chai into your favorite mug or glass and sweeten, if desired.
STEP FOUR: ENJOY!
Make it iced: If you're craving something cold, we recommend making an iced chai latte. Steep your chai with the water only, then let it cool completely in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes. When it's ready, pour the chai over ice, top with milk, and enjoy!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Are you a chai fiend? Does the thought of a hot and spicy mug make your heart beat faster? Does cardamom flow through your veins? We're here to help spice up your life. We’ve curated a collection of our favorite chai blends with enough tea to keep you warm all winter.
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About Sips by: We’re a female-founded and led startup that makes discovering tea fun, personalized, and affordable. The Sips by Box is the only multi-brand, personalized tea subscription box. Each month, we match tea drinkers across the U.S. with delicious teas from over 150 global tea brands that we’re sure they’ll love. Based out of Austin, Texas, we are adept at savoring a hot mug even when it’s seasonally inappropriate.