Where Does Chai Tea Come From?
September 8, 2021
Many people are introduced to chai tea via a sweet and creamy chai latte, and even the first sip can inspire a question: “Where does chai tea come from?”
Chai has a rich, nuanced history, but its current form is still in its relative infancy. Known as “masala chai,” meaning “spiced tea” in Hindi, the combination of native spices with black tea did not begin until Britain’s colonial rule of India. Widespread domestic consumption of chai was not immediate, and its introduction to the working class was the result of a variety of historical factors.
In this short guide, we will dive into the fascinating history of chai tea, including new and traditional preparations that can deliver a bevy of health benefits and a caffeine-induced perk.
Chai Tea: An Origin Story
Chai tea originated in India during British colonial rule of the sub-continent. While the local populace had been steeping blends of local spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and fresh ginger for generations, chai as we currently understand it—a mix of spices and black tea leaves—was not enjoyed widely until the East India Company began growing black tea in the Assam region of northeast India.
A Brief History of Tea Farming in Assam
The tea industry’s presence in India is a major element of Indian chai tea history:
- Assam is a densely forested hilled region. While its tropical rainforest climate provided a fertile ground for tea growing, the East India Company referred to it as “wasteland” after securing it for an extremely low price.
- In the Assam of the mid-to-late 1800s, trees were cleared to start countless tea gardens, many of which are still operational to this day.
- Situated along both sides of the Brahmaputra River, modern-day Assam remains forested and mostly rural. Even its larger cities, like Tezpur and Guwahati, feature tree-lined streets and a generally botanical landscape.
In the early days of the East India Company’s tea-growing operation (the early-to-mid 1800s), nearly all of the tea grown in Assam was exported to Britain, where it was consumed at a frenzied rate.
Tea grown in Assam offered the British ruling class an entirely new flavor after failing to grow Camellia sinensis—a cultivar of black tea—in the region, the discovery of a native cousin of Camellia sinensis growing wildly in Assam was dubbed Camellia assamica, and a small farming and processing operation began as a test run.
After the East India Company exported a small batch to England, Camellia assamica was met with widespread praise from the British ruling class, and its cultivation became a top priority.
Black teas of all cultivars grown in both India and China remained a luxury product for nearly 100 more years. The availability of cheap sugar (also grown in Britain’s colonial territories) only enhanced its popularity among the ruling class, and tea remained cost-prohibitive for both the British and Indian ruling classes until the 1930s, when the world fell under the throes of the Great Depression.
When Did People Start Drinking Chai Tea?
As a result of the Great Depression, major world economies (including the UK) suffered massive deficits. As a result, British high society cut back on tea as a cost-saving measure. But, with a sudden drop in demand and a steadily maintained supply, the East India Company exponentially reduced their prices in an attempt to continue moving their product.
The 1930s saw the beginning of a domestic introduction of tea in India. Native people dubbed the product “chai,” derived from the Mandarin Chinese word for tea: “cha.” So, saying “chai tea” is a bit redundant, since it translates to “tea tea.”
What is in chai tea? To imbue black tea with even more flavor, Indians steeped the black tea leaves with local aromatic spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and ginger. There was no set recipe for this chai spice blend—household brewers used spices that were already on hand or had been recently harvested. As such, there remains no set recipe for today’s chai tea blends: the only required ingredient is black tea.
The widespread introduction of tea to the working class was catalyzed by the Indian Tea Market Expansion Board (ITMEB) which, in 1935, began encouraging factory and plantation owners to supply large vats of hot tea to employees and implement tea breaks. Owners of such operations overwhelmingly supported the idea, since caffeinated workers were more productive.
The East India Company still managed to sell tea during the Great Depression, but their clientele had grown and changed.
What Are the Benefits of Drinking Chai Tea?
Is chai tea good for you? Chai tea combines the health benefits of both black tea and the aromatic spices included in each specific blend. The added sugar and milk often added to a chai latte provide protein and an extra kick of carbohydrate energy.
But, one of the most beneficial elements of tea is a compound called L-theanine.
- An amino acid that the body does not produce on its own, L-theanine is produced by a variety of edible plants.
- Its extraction in tea makes it very bioavailable, resulting in increased absorption into the bloodstream.
- L-theanine can help improve moods, reduce stress, and promote improved sleep. In addition to L-theanine, assam tea or black tea contains antioxidants and can help improve digestion.*
The inclusion of spices in your chai tea can also provide health benefits. For example, ginger is thought to decrease inflammation, and cardamom can potentially aid digestion.
How Can I Add Chai to My Tea Repertoire?
With so many health benefits, you are probably excited to add chai tea to your routine, or at least give it a test run. Does chai have caffeine? Chai tea’s warm spice blends make for a perfect comfort drink, but its caffeine content can give you a kick to get over that midday slump. And if you are feeling bloated after lunch, a chai tea blend can give your digestive system a helpful boost.
While afternoon tea with a cup of chai is divine, you can also enjoy it in the morning. Just avoid drinking it too close to bedtime and opt for a decaffeinated tea instead.
There are just as many techniques and recipes for preparing chai tea as there are reasons to add it to your daily tea docket. If you are looking for a chai experience similar to that of its first drinkers, there are two methods you can try for an authentic chai experience.
- To embody a British socialite of the 1800s, steep a chai tea bag of your choice in just-below-boiling water for four minutes. Then, remove the teabag, add a dash of milk or milk alternative like almond milk, and sweeten your beverage to taste. Enjoy!
- For a chai more akin to the Indian experience, amp up the spiciness. As your water boils, add your desired spices to loose black tea—choose from cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and ginger. Bring the water to boiling temperature and then let it cool for two minutes. Then, steep your tea with the spices for four minutes. Strain the tea and spices, add minimal milk and sugar, and drink up!
Chai has surpassed simple utility as a beverage: many recipes, like these chai shortbread cookies, incorporate the subtle (or pronounced) spiciness of chai blends into salivating sweet or savory concoctions.
But, if you are looking for a twist to the classic chai tea beverage, try a chai tea latte which can be served iced or hot.
- Steep a chai tea blend in boiling water for three to five minutes.
- While your tea steeps, you can steam milk. While it is more difficult to steam than cow’s milk, almond milk offers an excellent flavor pairing.
- Add a generous helping of milk and sugar once steeping is complete, top with your steamed milk, and enjoy!
For an iced variety, cover and chill your steeped tea in the fridge for at least two hours (or make a big batch in the morning for all-day sipping!). When you are ready for your latte, combine the chilled tea with a generous helping of milk. But consider using simple syrup instead of dry sugar, since solid sugar will not dissolve well into cold beverages. Top with whipped cream for a touch of indulgence.
Chai Tea: A History as Rich as Its Flavors
The history of chai tea is an expatriate tango of traditional Indian spice blends and the influence of Britain’s black tea addiction. With a backstory as rich as its flavors, you can not deny the nuanced story and flavor profile of this unique tea blend.
At The Republic of Tea, we love trying new recipes, and our chai teas represent a variety of flavor profiles and preparation methods. Since chai is still in its relative infancy, new chai innovations are being discovered every day.
If you are new to chai, do not be shy: take the plunge into the simultaneously sweet and savory Indian-inspired world of chai tea.
Philip Lutgendorf. Making Tea in India: Chai, Capitalism, Culture.
Government of Assam. Assam at a Glance. https://assam.gov.in/about-us/393
Dan Jurasky. Tea. https://web.stanford.edu/~jurafsky/pubs/tea.pdf
Khatri, Nhisa. The evolution of chai.
Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. The Effects of Green Tea Amino Acid L-Theanine Consumption on the Ability to Manage Stress and Anxiety Levels.