Chai is just black tea, spice, and everything nice, right? Not quite!
With the advent of sticky chai’, ‘dirty chai’—not to mention ‘chai concentrate’—it’s become clear to The Tea Centre that form is just as important as flavour when it comes to our favourite spiced tea.
Why does chai come in bottles now? What makes a chai ‘dirty’? We answer all of these questions and more in our deep dive to demystify chai below!
The OG chai
To explain all the remixes, we need to take define what chai is first. And this may surprise you…the original chai blends from 5,000–9,000 years ago didn’t have tea in them!
Chai has come to mean ‘tea’ in English, but the original masala chai blends were an infusion of hot milk with aromatic spices. What the original spices were is also unclear. However, the story goes that a king on the Indian subcontinent once requested an Ayurvedic beverage to give him energy, resulting in chai!
This is why chai blends today contain Ayurvedic herbs like the three C’s (cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves), ginger, peppercorn, liquorice root, and star anise.
While black tea has always been on the Indian subcontinent (Assam is indigenous to north-eastern parts), it wasn’t part of the chai wallah’s repertoire until the 1900s.
This introduction was a conscious move on the part of the British colonial administration via the Indian Tea Association Board. To boost tea sales from colonial plantations, the administration would encourage locals to take their chai with Assam. They brought about the concept of tea time for this same reason!
However, because tea was originally an expensive product, chai with black tea did not become popular until the 1960s. This decade saw the introduction of CTC (crush, tear, curl) machinery, which made tea affordable to all classes. Each region came up with their own variation, which is why so many different flavours of chai exist today!
What is chai concentrate?
Embarking from India, we make our way to the United States where chai concentrate was born. As seen with the progression of iced tea, the United States love to bottle their beverages. Chai is no different.
A more recent invention, homemade chai concentrate brews small batches of black tea with spices that are then bottled for later consumption. Made with convenience in mind, this whole idea with chai concentrate is to ‘just add milk’ and have chai ready to go.
However, commercial chai concentrate differs from this again. Since commercial chai needs to stay fresh for longer, they often contain excess preservatives and artificial flavours. The end result is a liquid that more closely resembles a syrup than a chai. Coffeehouses often favour this type of chai concentrate as it allows them to make chai lattes quickly.
Given The Tea Centre champions living slow and creating healthy rituals around tea, we don’t retail commercial chai concentrate. Although, if you’re after convenience, our Masala Chai and Mumbai Chai tea bags have you covered.
However, if you enjoy iced chai lattes, we think you should definitely try brewing chai concentrate at home! It’s not dissimilar to brewing tea normally. The only change is this: after brewing your chai, allow it to cool. Then, use a cone strainer to pour the tea into a sanitised bottle and refrigerate! The concentrate will remain fresh for up to five days.
As for what type of chai to use? Any of our chai with a black tea base—such as Masala, Mumbai, Vanilla or Oriental—will taste wonderful as a chai concentrate. You could also make a concentrate out of green chai too! Just note that the resulting brew will taste more earthy than sweet and spicy.
What is dirty chai?
Dirty chai is a fun name to describe a chai spiked with a shot of espresso; a la the chai latte! Given dirty chai is most commonly found on café menus, you can more often expect the chai to be brewed akin to coffee (steamed milk and using an espresso machine) than traditional stovetop chai.
Many coffee shops will have this drink on the menu, although make note that the best-tasting dirty chai is made using chai loose leaf or small-batch homemade chai concentrate! If a café is using a commercial chai concentrate, syrup or chai latte powder, those used to sipping traditional chai may find the brew too sugary or less nuanced in flavour.
Dirty chai is the perfect drink for those who love their coffee but are looking to explore the world of tea more…and vice versa! Moreover, caffeine lovers will adore that dirty chai can be made with a doppio shot of espresso too.
The caffeine-sensitive need not miss out either. If you have a milk frother at home, you could easily DIY a caffeine-free dirty chai (sans the espresso shot) with our rooibos chai, which is a delicious black tea chai substitute. The only change is you need to brew rooibos chai for one minute longer to ensure the flavour permeates well.
If you really want the espresso taste in your dirty chai, then we would recommend switching out the espresso shot for a decaf coffee version. Luckily, decaf coffee is readily available online and at your local grocery store.
Let’s talk chai latte powder
Another popular form of chai that’s been making waves lately is chai latte powder. Just like chai concentrate, this form of chai is super popular because brewing time is cut in half.
Most chai latte powders are made in the same way you would make hot chocolate from a powdered sachet; add it to hot milk and you’re ready to go! However, commercial chai latte powders face the same issues that chai concentrates have; preservatives and added flavours for extending shelf life.
Moreover, not everyone is able to enjoy chai latte powders as a large majority of them contain milk solids or other dairy thickeners. Therefore, many powders on the market are not suitable for vegans and the lactose-intolerant.
What is sticky chai?
As you’ve probably noticed throughout this list, The Tea Centre has a bias towards loose leaf chai brewed the traditional way! However, if we had to choose our second favourite option, it would definitely be sticky chai.
The ‘sticky’ in sticky chai refers to the appearance of the blend, which is wet and clumped together due to the addition of honey or agave nectar (vegan-friendly) prior to packaging. While those unfamiliar with sticky chai may need time to get used to the texture, there are actually a lot of benefits to this form of spiced tea.
Not only does honey come with its own health benefits, but it’s also one of the few food products in existence that doesn’t go bad (so long as it’s kept in airtight packaging). Therefore, it avoids the issues that commercial chai concentrates and powders have.
Why doesn’t The Tea Centre retail sticky chai then? Because we think it tastes better when you make it at home! Simply choose your favourite Tea Centre chai fusion and mix it in a jar with honey (a 1:2 ratio of chai to honey should do the trick) until the chai takes on a granola-like consistency.
Our top tip? Make sticky chai using our Australian honey infused with ginger to give the blend an extra kick!
Once that’s been achieved, simply seal your jar and refrigerate until you’re ready to enjoy sticky chai again! It will still taste as fresh and delicious as sealed for up to one month. Sticky chai is also brewed the same way as traditional stovetop chai.
Our consensus? Traditional stovetop chai
Despite all the bells and whistles that come with all the new forms of chai out there today, The Tea Centre best prefers brewing spiced tea the same way that chai wallahs do: with chai, milk, a stove, a pot, and a strainer.
While it’s the slowest method of brewing chai, that time is well spent! Slowly simmering your chai on the stovetop ensures that the spices and black tea are fully incorporating with the milk, resulting in a perfectly aromatic and tasty brew.
What’s more, the routine of brewing chai is the perfect way to start the day. Be mesmerised by the steam and small bubbles rising to the surface of the pot and there’s nothing more satisfying than pouring the chai from high up, through the strainer, and into your cup! For a step-by-step guide on how to brew traditional stovetop chai, click here.
Demystify chai and make it at home on the stovetop today! You can find all the blends, kits, and utensils you need on our chai collection page.