Chai, or more properly “masala chai” (spiced tea), is how most tea is consumed in India. And here in the U.S., it has become almost as popular, especially for the health conscious and during the frigid days of winter.
So, what teas are used to make these delicious drinkables? You’d be surprised at the variety!
Why the Shift from Assam CTC Black Tea Base
Flavor! Let’s face it… chai has come a long way. In India it is a way to use up the lower quality teas, the ones left after the higher quality teas are sold overseas. The spices (black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.) are usually pretty strong so they and the milk disguise the bitterness in the Assam CTC black tea that is used in the traditional version. However, these days, chai lovers here in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and even South America find that they want a more refined flavor, one that starts off with a great tea flavor that provides something unique to their blend, makes it special.
Tea Base Shifts
The biggest basic shift is from CTC style tea to Orthodox style tea. From there, the shift is in the type and origin of the tea.
CTC means basically “Crush (or Cut), Tear, Curl” and results in little nuggets of tea that look sort of like Grape Nuts cereal (double toasted bread that is then ground up into tiny nuggets). Orthodox tea is processed either by hand or to mimic hand processing (these days the processing machines can come very close). The CTC tea steeps up strong and bitter and fast. The orthodox style is usually not tending as much to being bitter, but still can be if oversteeped.
So how does this shift the flavor? For one thing, you can back off on the spices, which for most chais are overwhelming, especially the cinnamon. For another, you will get more of the lovely malty character of the tea coming through. Nice!
The second shift is the tea type/origin. From Assam CTC/Orthodox black teas to green teas and black teas from other growing areas: West Bengal (Darjeeling) India, China, Kenya, etc. Each of these teas will bring it’s own flavor palette to the forefront, and you will be adjusting the spices used accordingly.
Some teas now being used:
- Green Orthodox Assam – shifts to a more grassy flavor with a possibility of bitterness if oversteeped, but uses a lot less spices, since the tea is usually lighter in flavor
- Second Flush Darjeeling – the Muscatel character makes an intriguing undertaste for the chai blend
- Keemun – a rich flavor with a lightly smoky quality that makes a truly dreamy chai with a touch of cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, and some other traditional spices
- Kenya, Ceylon, and Other Black Teas – these tend not to be bitter if you avoid oversteeping, so again, you can use a lower amount of spices
Stepping Away from the Traditional
Take a walk on the wild side with a non-traditional chai (that is, a chai based on a tea other than Assam CTC black tea) and you could find yourself never going back!