Chai tea: The traditional drink of the new century

By Ellen Larson

As a new generation enters the business and career world, revolutions in technology and a fast-paced lifestyle are not the only changes they bring with them. They are changing the popular beverage scene.

Ten years ago, everyone from the business man, to the stay-at-home mom or college student could be spied with a Starbucks cup of coffee in hand as they tackled their day. Today, it is likely for the Starbucks cup to remain, but the drink inside could instead be a newly-popular Eastern tea called chai.

In the recent decade, standard coffee and traditional teas have become rivals of this thick, flavorful tea hailing from India. The presence of chai in the Western world is inescapable and is now a standard menu item at coffee shops all over the U.S. Its lack of coffee and thick, milky latte substance make it an ideal substitute for those who like the concept of coffee but do not enjoy its taste or less-than-favorable side effects.

Chai began its dramatic growth in popularity during the early 2000s, when in 2002 AC Nielson data recorded its sales as up 82 percent from the previous year. This leap caught everyone’s attention, and early on, tea retailers predicted chai would be a growing phenomenon, and its popularity has yet to cease.

Domestically, there is still strong potential in certain regional markets, but the chai trend will see its continuing growth with both mass merchants and restaurants,” said Scott Lowe, president of San Francisco-based David Rio (award-winning premium tea and chai company).

The origin of chai tea as we know it started with the world-famous tea lovers — the English. In the early to mid-1800s, the English began to grow concerned about the increasing Chinese tea monopoly. To combat that growth, they decided to grow tea in their vassal nation, India. The plan was successful, and by 1900, approximately 90 percent of England’s tea was grown in India.

Now that the English regained their hold in the tea market, their main concern was that the Indians did not enjoy tea nearly as much as they did. They decided to force them to take tea breaks during which traditional, mildly-flavored English tea was served. The Indians found the English tea to be bland and boring.

Soon, chaiwallahs (in India, a wallah is a person who performs a specific task) began to add extra spices, milk and sugar to decrease the amount of actual English tea used, which in turn cut costs. The result was called “masala chai tea” and consisted of a rich, unique blend of ground spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and pepper. The Indians finally enjoyed this new rendition of English tea that swept their nation and, with time, eventually crossed the ocean to warm the hearts and stomachs of millions of Americans.

International travelers know that ordering a “chai” in Asia, Russia or Eastern Europe will most likely result in a traditional cup of tea. In the U.S. and other areas of Europe, ordering a chai could result in anything from a cold milkshake-like drink to a hot beverage in a variety of flavors.

Chai’s strongest point of separation from its traditional tea and coffee counterparts is its versatility and variety of flavors. The tea base of chai is usually a black tea that is mixed with a large amount of sugar, milk and spices that almost overpowers the tea taste entirely. The amount or kind of the milk, sugar and spices is completely up to the maker, and every variant of those ingredients can be used. For example, it is not uncommon to see someone order a chai tea with brown sugar and soy milk, while the next person orders one non-fat and sweetened with honey. In the U.S., the most common kind is vanilla flavored with foamed milk.

Another factor in chai increasingly being a popular preference over coffee is its dramatically smaller amount of caffeine. Chai tea prepared as directed contains approximately 40mg of caffeine (4 ounces of black tea) compared to roughly 120mg in an average cup of coffee. The caffeine found in chai tea is different from that found in coffee and is absorbed more slowly, which produces a calming but focused effect, rather than the typical “caffeine shock” induced after drinking coffee. So, even if one were to drink three cups of chai in hopes of gaining the caffeine effect of one cup of coffee, they would be disappointed.

As with traditional tea, the health benefits of chai are abundant. The blend of black tea with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg is said to calm the mind, revitalize the spirit and body, and aid digestion. Each individual spice has its own unique health benefits, so the combination of different spices opens the door for a healthier experience than that found in plain tea or coffee. For example, cinnamon has been associated with reducing diabetes, lowering blood pressure, and stopping or preventing the growth of bacteria and yeast.

Chai tea is made only of herbs and spices, so one can only imagine the benefits it can have on the immune system. Scientists have discovered that 7 out 10 people who drink chai tea have a 23 percent higher chance to not get sick, while in cases of people who do not drink the chai tea but live an otherwise comparable lifestyle, the probability of getting sick is higher.

Obtaining chai tea has vastly grown from its days of coming only from chaiwallahs on the streets of India (although they still exist today). For Westerners, the option of buying a chai extends from a coffee shop to buying it in tea bags, liquid concentrates, or powder from the store. Chai can be modified in whatever way suits the drinker, and today, the wide variety of chai includes, but is not limited to, the following flavors: spice, vanilla, chocolate, raspberry and gingerbread.

Chai’s fairly recent popularity and modern image make it no stranger to virtual displays of affection from its many fans. Chai tea has more than 23,000 fans on Facebook and is the inspiration for many groups, including “Those Who Love Chai Tea at Starbucks” and “I Love Chai Tea With a Fiery Burning Passion.” Its Internet popularity does not stop at Facebook. It is the topic of websites such as and has its own line of merchandise ranging from mouse pads to baseball caps to neckties.

From its ancient medicinal roots, to its rebellion against English tradition, and now modern emergence in American culture, chai clearly is not a fad and intends on remaining in the beverage arena as long as possible. Its health benefits and flavor quality beckon to doubtful and devout coffee drinkers. Despite its competition, chai continues to rise to the top while more and more people identify with their English side and agree with author Arthur Gray that “the spirit of the tea beverage is one of peace, comfort and refinement.”

From the Jan. 4-10, 2012, issue

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