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Comprehensive Guide to Chai: What is Chai?

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Comprehensive Guide to Chai: What is Chai?

Chai for the people of India is an eternal love; consumed by 80% of the Indian population on a daily basis, this deeply respected beverage is the second most commonly offered beverage when visiting someone’s home.

Chai is a humble agent of social interaction - sitting amongst friends, family or acquaintances with a chai in hand leads to endless discussions about politics, gossip, advice on any topic, and even marriage proposals. 

Kimbala Founder, Madhu, was born and raised in India and is an avid chai drinker. His passion for the beverage lead him to the founding of Kimbala, so he could help others experience and share in his love for authentic chai. For Madhu, Chai is so much more than just a cup of tea. Within each cup there is history, perseverance, culture, tradition, and love. When it comes to authenticity of chai, it's important to first note the proper terminology.

What is Chai and why saying “Chai Tea”, is incorrect

When we speak about chai, it is important to know we are not referring to a loose leaf tea but instead speaking of a composed beverage traditionally made from combining black tea, spices, milk, and sugar. A drink that represents a way of life in India.

In Hindi, a primary language in India, the word chai literally means, “tea”. Chai is derived from the Chinese word, “cha” that also means “tea”. In the United States the phrase “chai tea” has become the common name for what should be referred to simply as chai, or masala chai. 

The word “masala” translates to “spice” in Hindi; when combined with the word chai, the literal translation is “spice tea.”

Anyone confused yet?! Let’s recap and simplify:

  • CHAI = tea → this is the proper name for the traditional beverage that combines black tea, spices, milk, and sugar (could also be called, Indian Chai)
  • MASALA CHAI = spice tea → this is another proper name for the traditional beverage that combines black tea, spices, milk, and sugar
  • CHAI TEA = translates to “tea tea” → a phrase created by American consumers and validated by Starbucks, Oprah, major chai concentrate brands and specialty coffee shops around the USA.

The origins of Chai

As one of the oldest drinks in history and the most famous beverage in India, the origins are steeped in legend and some accounts of its roots are contradictory. The earliest chai did not contain any tea leaves and depending on the seasons and available ingredients, the recipes would differ.

Based on Indian folklore, a spiced beverage was concocted by a king in the royal court of India. This king wanted to create a drink with healing, Ayurvedic (a very traditional form of Hindu medicine) properties and gathered ingredients based on their known benefits. The result was a water based elixir that combined cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, and cloves. There are other stories and beliefs around chai's origin, which can be found in further detail in a recent post on chai's history and stories of origin from the Kimbala blog.

Must have components of Chai

There is not one single, absolute recipe for chai. Regions and communities of India have developed chai recipes based on spice availability and their unique tastes and preferences. At the core of chai, however, the following (4) components will always be present:

  • TEA: Black tea from Assam and Darjeeling are the (2) most common choices for brewing chai. Rooibos may be used to brew a caffeine free option.
  • SPICES: The selection of spices (“masala”) used in chai will vary by region, climate and cultural preference. The most traditional and readily available in India are cinnamon, cardamom, clove, black peppercorn, and ginger. You may also see nutmeg, fennel, star anise, or vanilla in some recipes.
  • MILK: In India buffalo milk may commonly be used, as well as a pure whole cow’s milk. Milk in India is less processed than what we find in the US and yields a thicker, creamier consistency for the chai. Some recipes may call for steeping the tea in milk only, water only with milk added afterward, or a mixture of milk and water. No matter the type of liquid, boiling the mixture of tea and spices is a MUST!
  • SUGAR: Jaggery (an unrefined sugar native to India) or white sugar are the most common sweeteners added to chai. You may also see turbinado, coconut sugar, or sweetened condensed milk added to make chai complete.

How much caffeine is in a cup of Chai?

Caffeine content is one of the most common questions we hear from Kimbala customers. This seemingly invisible ingredient is indispensable for many of our morning routines in order to kickstart the day. Whether you typically get your caffeine kick from coffee or tea, chai is a healthy, clean option to consider to help you keep that pep in your step throughout the day.

In general, there are many factors that affect the caffeine content of tea:

1. Which part of the tea plant is used. Research from The TRES suggests the leaf nearest the bud of the tea plant contains just under 40% more caffeine than the leaves away from the bud and the stalks/stems will have even less caffeine. 
2. Time of harvesting. Summer yields the highest caffeine levels, followed by spring, fall and winter in that order.
3. Production process. Leaves that are roasted allow the caffeine to break and evaporate easily in steaming water during the process.
4. Plant variety. There are high and low ranges based on variety, Assam tea used to make chai falls on the high end of the spectrum.
5. Preservation. Aging the processed tea leaves will also contribute to increasing the caffeine

According to Tuula Vintage, for a 237ml (about 8oz) cup of tea from Assam, you can expect anywhere between 60-112mg of caffeine depending how long it was steeped.

Considering the steeping time associated with chai, you can estimate 85-90mg caffeine per 8oz. Let’s assume 90mg per 8oz of chai and take a look at what the caffeine content would be for a few other portion sizes in comparison to coffee:

Serving Size Chai Coffee
 8oz 90mg 95mg
10oz 112.5mg 118.75mg
12oz 135mg 142.5mg
16oz 180mg 190mg


It is typical in India to enjoy a 4oz cup of chai multiple times throughout the day. This smaller portion does not overwhelm your body with caffeine but still provides the pick me up you may need. Many correlate beverages made with tea to having much less caffeine than coffee but as we just learned above, and particularly with black tea from Assam, the caffeine levels are very similar!

For those who want to enjoy chai without the caffeine, Rooibos tea is the perfect substitute and still maintains a delightful taste and sensory experience. When using Rooibos, adding spices (masala) that are on the simpler side will be a better pairing: cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon in balanced proportion. 

Types of Chai

There are several types of chai, giving you plenty of options to choose from when searching for your perfect chai. 

  • Masala Chai
  • Kadak Chai
  • Adrak Chai
  • Sulaimani Chai
  • Elaichi Chai (Kimbala Chai Assamica is modeled after a traditional elaichi chai)
  • Kashmiri Chai
  • Cutting Chai (when ordering chai, you are essentially cutting the chai order in half!)

Check out Kimbala's full breakdown of each type of chai to learn more.

How can I tell if a Chai is authentic? 

authentic-chai

There are many loose leaf chai blends and ‘chai kits’ available to allow for brewing your own chai at home - when it comes to those blends, just make sure there is a high ratio of tea to spices! The tea should not largely outweigh the spices. 

Today’s market is full of pseudo-chai options, many with artificial ingredients, stabilizers, and refined sugars.

Whether you are purchasing a concentrate for home use or ordering a chai latte at your local coffee shop, there are four critical factors to look for when evaluating the authenticity of a chai:  

1. COLOR
Your chai should NOT be white or look very light in color!!
When a chai concentrate is properly brewed, the black tea, spices, and sugar should have been cooked in a way that will yield a beautifully rich, dark brown color. The addition of milk to the concentrate should yield a delightful, caramel colored beverage as you will see pictured below. A color similar, if not identical to the color achieved by brewing chai from scratch.
2. SUGAR CONTENT
Your chai should NOT taste like cinnamon sugar or sweet spiced  milk!!
Look at the sugar content before you buy a concentrate… sweetness is absolutely a component of chai but it should not outweigh the flavor of tea and spices. If you’re ordering from a local coffee shop and not able to see the sugar content, keep the following in mind: these three things - black tea, spices, and sugar - should display a heavenly balance on your palate.
3. REAL BLACK TEA
Your chai should taste (even just a little) like tea, chai means tea, it cannot be chai without having been made from real black tea leaves!!
Even when mixed with milk or a milk alternative, the idea is you still feel like you’re drinking tea. Chai is a celebration of the tea leaves used - the tea leaves create tannins and tannins create texture. Tannins and texture go hand in hand with authentic chai. If black tea is not amongst the first ingredients listed, it cannot be an authentic chai. The only exception here is for our caffeine-free friends, who may choose a rooibos based chai to suit their needs. 
4. NEVER, EVER IN POWDER FORM
Your chai should never have been made from a powder. Period.
Hand picked tea leaves, carefully selected spices, fresh milk, time & care in brewing… these things are in no way achievable with a powdered chai concentrate. The true essence of chai can never be achieved with a powder and can not be considered authentic. 

With these four factors in mind, feel empowered to go out and find a perfect, authentic chai near you - don’t be afraid to ask your local coffee shop what type of concentrate they use and how they prepare the chai you order!

Dive into the world of chai with Kimbala's authentic chai in both ready to drink and concentrate form. Choose from ready-to-drink beverages pre-made and shipped to your front door, or try concentrates and mix your chai with your preferred type of milk.