The Global Evolution of Chai

With a robust growth of 45-plus percent over the past 10 years, the tea market pattern has remained stable concerning the share out between black and green tea, with roughly two-thirds for black and one-third for green tea. Among the black tea drinkers, a vast majority will add milk, in particular the British, Irish and Dutch, as well as Indians, who often brew their tea in milk.

Plain Milk Tea vs. Spicy Milk Tea

Whilst ingrained Western milk tea drinkers follow a rather traditional consumption habit, there are those who have newly discovered the spicy milk teas from India. While the European market is just beginning to show interest, chai has been expanding in popularity throughout North America since the 1990s.

Bill Gorman, executive chairman of the UK Tea Council, Woking, England, said that per person, the UK and Ireland are the world’s largest tea markets. “In the UK, we drink black tea with milk for 96 percent of our consumption, mostly blended, with many taste varieties, and only 3 percent is green tea.”

Jane Pettigrew, a renowned British tea writer and international tea-market expert, confirmed that UK tea consumers love their many black tea blends with a robust tea taste and some milk added. However, she noted, “the Indian style, sweet and spicy tea cup does not appeal to the British palate the way it does on the US market, but most manufacturers will have a chai version in their portfolio.”

A look at the terminology shows that the word chai simply means “tea” in India and more precisely, “milk tea,” which is the usual way of drinking the cup.

There is also the masala chai, which is prepared by brewing black tea together with a mixture of spices that are simmered directly in the milk. This delicious, sweet and spicy cup, which has gained great popularity outside India in the recent years, is now often, although erroneously, called simply chai in the West, instead of masala chai. Furthermore, the term chai tea, although a tautology, since it means “tea tea,” is more commonly understood to mean spicy milk tea in the Western markets and is considered a special kind of tea preparation.

TC_April14The History of Masala Chai

Tea growing was introduced in the former British India and British Ceylon on a large scale in the 1870s in order to supply the craving in the home market for teas from origins other than far away and heavily taxed teas from China. By 1900, the imports of teas from China only represented a mere 10 percent share, the remaining supply came from the Crown Colonies.

Although wild tea trees were known to the Assam Burma tribes since antiquity, these leafs were considered herbal medicines and some of the spice mixtures used were prepared from Ayurvedic prescriptions. Tea was not a daily beverage for the local Indian population at that time.

In England, on the contrary, the working class had taken to drinking tea everyday by the beginning of the 20th century and this clearly improved their well being and performance. Hence, the patrons started to provide regular tea breaks for the factory workers and this cup of black tea was always served with milk and sugar, for better taste and some nourishment. This habit prevailed in companies throughout Britain and continental Europe until the late 1970s, with the tea lady pushing her trolley through the offices twice a day.

In India, it took some more years to realize that the local workers in the factories, the textile mills and the mines would also improve their efficiency if they were given the benefit of the tea break and a cup of tea. Patrons followed and tea consumption then developed rapidly. This generated the introduction of a typically Indian cup, the spicy milk tea brew, called masala chai, which quickly became part of the Indian way of life. Indeed, with the Indians’ innate sense for business, hundreds and then thousands of chai wallahs–small business operators–set up their street stalls for brewing and selling their masala chai from early morning to late in the night.

The traditional way of preparing chai was simmering or boiling a mixture of buffalo milk and water with loose black tea and spices, wrapped in a cloth for straining. There are many blends of spices, which will vary according to local customs, personal inspiration and availability. As a major ingredient in food preparation, spices are sold in abundance in all Indian markets.

All the masala chai spices belong to those that warm the body. The most commonly used are ginger root, green cardamom and cardamom seed, cinnamon, star anise, clover and peppercorn. One may also add fennel seed, lemon grass, licorice root, and nutmeg. These spices have important beneficial side effects, such as detoxing, cleansing and killing bacteria.

Another feature of the local Indian ways are the small, low-fired clay cups, spun out of local river clay by the local potters, sundried and half-baked in an open fire. The chai wallahs will tap the bottom of the unglazed cups to eliminate any trace of clay or dirt before pouring the hot drink. After sipping, the customer will toss the cup to the ground: this hygienic, environmentally-friendly, handmade and single-use clay cup is a true luxury and still widely used throughout India.

Rajiv Lochan, CEO of Lochan Tea, Siliguri, West Bengal, who has widely travelled throughout India and abroad said, “Masala chai in India is mainly for out-of -home consumption; a treat on the street, in the office or on the road. At home, we mainly drink plain milk tea. Approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of our country’s tea consumption will be brewed with spices.”

Chai’s Growing Popularity in Western MarketsTC_April14

In recent years masala chai has become popular outside India. Indeed in North America, where nearly 90 percent of the teas are consumed as iced tea, this hot cup has become a solid trend. There are also liquid chai concentrates, which only need to be diluted in milk, water or both, to prepare an almost instant hot or cold beverage.

Some coffeehouse chains will also use unsweetened iced tea powder as a basis, which can then be processed into tailor made beverages by adding powdered spices, sugar and dry non-fat milk or dairy creamers, for a diet masala.

Because the spicy taste appeals so strongly to many palates in North America, there are now also non-traditional ingredients added, such as vanilla and chocolate, or even a shot of espresso. In Europe, this trend has caught on slowly. Although even there, the word chai is more commonly used to describe a spicy milk tea. Most brands will offer at least one chai formula, either as traditional leaf tea blended with a mix of spices or as pre-packaged single-serve tea bags for convenience.

Whilst most British milk-tea drinkers remain attached to just tea, milk and sugar; the continental Europeans are still not really picking up milk-tea habits. Globally, tea remains a hot beverage in Europe with one traditional spicy version: Christmas teas, which are available during the winter season. These are usually black teas, which are blended with spices quite similar to those used for masala chai. However, people will mostly drink them without adding milk.

Although there is still room for new trends and fashions in the tea market in Europe, consumers are keen about using genuine ingredients. Furthermore, they do not want their teas to carry too many calories. Hence, Europeans would consider a true masala chai to be more of a dessert or a sweet treat than a cup of tea.

Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle Presse du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrê

This article was first published in the April 2014 edition of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.