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What is a chai latte? Everything you need to know.


banner image with "What is a chai latte? written beside a mug with  chocolate dusting reading "I heart chai"

If you were to order a “chai latte” in a coffee shop 25 years ago, you would have received strange looks and a very confused barista.

 

Today, Chai Lattes are a staple on nearly every coffee shop menu and for good reason! This aromatically spiced, tea-based drink has won over many, but do you know what a chai latte is and how it rose to be a coffee shop favourite?

 

What is a chai latte?

 

A chai latte is a spiced drink made primarily with steamed milk. It has strong spiced notes of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and often ginger. It is normally sweetened with sugar or a natural sweetener such as honey or maple syrup.  

 

The word “chai” is taken from the Hindi language and translates in English to “tea”, while the word “latte” comes from the Italian word for milk. When combined, we get “milk tea”. You might be thinking, “But a chai latte is more than milky tea?” and you would be correct!


Two cups of chai on a tiled ledge

Chai Lattes could be more accurately called “Masala Chai Lattes” which means “Milky Spiced Tea”. But, ‘chai latte’ is better understood and it is unlikely to cause confusion when ordering at a coffee shop.

 

One misconception we often hear is that chai lattes contain coffee. This isn’t true. Chai lattes do not traditionally contain any coffee but instead have a tea base. Coffee can however be added, which is commonly referred to as a “dirty chai”. While chai doesn't normally contain coffee, it does contain some levels of caffeine. You can find out more about caffeine in chai here.

 

While there are many brands of chai powder, syrup and loose-leaf chai, not all chai lattes are created equally, which you may have already discovered! But more on this below.

 

The Origins of the Chai Latte

 

Masala Chai has been enjoyed in India in its current form since the 1830s when cheaper spices were ground and mixed with more expensive tea. This created a drink which was affordable to make and matched the palate of the Indian subcontinent population. If you are interested in the history of chai, you can read more here.

 

It is true that there were some who had brought chai back to the West, often by those who had moved from India to the United Kingdom and the USA. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that large coffee shop chains decided to start serving chai to the masses.


A graphic with a chai latte in the centre and the word "chai" repeated along the outside edge

What is the difference between a chai tea and a chai latte?

 

Something that might surprise you to know is that chai can also be enjoyed without milk (or very little as would be taken in a normal black tea). This type of variation is often called “chai tea” in the West.

 

You might be thinking, but doesn’t that just mean “tea tea”? Well yes, yes it does!

 

While we are very much in favour of accuracy when it comes to the education of chai, we also appreciate that it can get confusing.

 

Chai, chai tea, masala chai and chai latte have become interchangeable in the West. It is difficult therefore to distinguish the difference due to both the water-based chai and milk-based chai being called Masala Chai.

 

The key differences include:


Chai Latte:


  • A richly spiced, milky drink.

  • Infused with tea, spices, ginger and sweetener (honey or sugar).

  • Frothy and silky milk.


Chai Tea:


  • A strong and complex water-based drink.

  • Boiled water is infused with spices, tea and ginger.

  • Refreshing and lower in calories than the latte version.

 

Given that there are so many interchangeable words for chai, I suggest using the terms ‘masala chai’, ‘chai latte’ or simply just ‘chai’. While chai does mean tea, it is widely associated with spiced tea and shouldn’t cause any confusion.

 

If you want to enjoy a water-based chai, you are going to find it difficult to order this in a coffee shop as they most often use powders and syrups. These cannot be used to make a water-based chai. You will need to find a loose-leaf chai mix (this can be made yourself DIY style or if that sounds like a hassle, you can order some here).

 

  


What ingredients are in a chai latte?

 

The beauty of chai is that it doesn’t have to follow a set recipe. It can even differ depending on the day for someone as they might choose to add more of one spice or less of another. But regardless of the exact recipe, there are a number of spices which do appear in the vast majority of chai recipes.

 

Common chai ingredients:

 

-       Cinnamon

-       Cardamom

-       Cloves

-       Fennel

-       Nutmeg

-       Star Anise

-       Pepper Corns

-       Allspice

-       Ginger

-       Turmeric

-       Sugar/honey/other sweetener

 

This is not an extensive list and many other ingredients find their way into chai such as vanilla, rooibos (a naturally caffeine-free plant) and even mint or cocoa.

 

Each spice plays it’s own part in the creation of the unique flavour chai is loved for. Warm, sweet and lightly spiced notes are often described when someone enjoys a chai.


One of my favourite things is to play around with my own chai recipe and see what new flavours I can create with the flavour profiles. It can however be expensive to gather all of the spices and time-consuming to find a blend you like. Thankfully, there are numerous recipes available online or as mentioned above, you can try a pre-blended chai to give you an idea of what a chai can taste like.

 

How to make the perfect

chai latte

 

A chai latte with pumpkins around it and dry autumn leaves

If you do decide to make your own chai at home, here are a few tips:

 

1.     Add one-half cup of water and one cup of milk (milk alternatives work great, particularly oat milk) to a pot on medium heat.

 

2.     Add your spices to the pot.

 

3.     Continue to stir the chai consistently every 10-15 seconds

 

4.     Add 3-4g of black tea to the pot (you can tear open a tea bag and use this if you don’t have any loose-leaf tea).

 

5.     Add your sweetener.

 

6.     Allow the mixture to infuse and heat up. Once the chai starts to bubble, turn down the mix and allow to sit for 2-3 minutes extra.

 

7.     Strain your mix into a cup and enjoy.

 

Top tip: Patience is so important while making chai. You don’t want the chai to heat up too quickly and burn, but you also want it to bubble. Keep stirring as this will allow for the flavours to be drawn out perfectly.

 

For a less time-consuming method, try using a pre-made chai like this one.

 

Variations of the traditional Chai Latte

 

While traditional chai isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, there are some chai variations which are growing in popularity.

 

Some chai variations worth

checking out:

 

-       Iced chai latte

-       Rooibos/herbal chai

-       Turmeric chai

-       Hot chocolate chai

-       Peppermint chai

-       Vanilla chai

-       Berry chai

-       Pumpkin chai

 

The rising popularity of chai

 

Over the last 25 years, chai has been steadily growing as a firm and favourite drink choice for many avoiding coffee. It is perfect for those looking for a low-caffeine drink and has all of the cosy vibes that you want on those cooler days.

 

Up until very recently, the choice of chai for coffee shops has been limited. As mentioned above, not all chai is equal. Many coffee shops still use powdered or syrup-based chai mixes. These are often high in sugars and artificial flavours. The worst part is that they don’t taste like a true, loose-leaf, whole-spice masala chai.


A coffee shop bench with a cup and laptop on it

Will Chai remain popular?

 

With the continued rise in expectations of high-quality products, I believe it is inevitable that coffee shops will have to ditch the syrups and powders in favour of higher-quality chai soon.

 

So the, next time you go into a coffee shop after having tried a high-quality, loose-leaf chai, I think you may be surprised at the very different experience. If you are, why not suggest to your local coffee shop to give natural chai a go and help more people discover the world of amazing chai.


Andrew McGuire

(Founder of Chala Chai)

Comments


ANDREW MCGUIRE

CHALA FOUNDER & CHAI EDUCATOR

Hello there!

If you want to learn more about chai, you have come to the right place!

 

With chai continuing to grow in popularity, there are lots of questions to be answered.

In my blog posts, I answer the questions that I receive daily from customers and those who come across Chala at markets or online.

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