A Brief History of Chai and 5 to Try (or Retry) This Fall

Getting a little sick of pumpkin lattes? Let’s not forget another great spicy, autumnal drink: Chai, of which Seattle has a version for everyone.

First things first, though: what we readily refer to as “chai” in this country is more accurately “masala chai.” “Masala” means spice blend (with this tea, usually some combination of cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and/or star anise) and “chai” is the word for tea in many languages.

The exact origins of masala chai are unknown, but the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal suspects that the British East India Company introduced tea into India in 1834, spice was eventually added, and today, “Tea is almost always prepared with hot milk in India, sometimes without any water, and is always taken very sweet.” As a result, the Journal points out that “the standard American appellation Chai Tea Latte is a triple redundancy of sorts.” Hmmm. But then we’ve always known how to go big.

According to Helen Saberi’s Tea: A Global History, chai (from here on, we’ll use the American term) may have first been introduced in coffee shops in Boulder and Portland in the 1960s by “young counterculture travellers returning from their treks in India and Nepal.” It didn’t actually take off in the U.S. until the mid ‘90s, however, when—you guessed it—Starbucks introduced a chai latte, maintaining our city’s perpetual edge on the hot beverage market.

While tea itself is more detectable in some than others, a range of chais abound in Seattle; just name your palate and mood. After tasting about 30 this week, here are my votes to get you started:

BEST CHAI OVERALL: Traveler’s Masala Chai (Seattle Coffee Works, etc.)

Mixed at Traveler’s Thali House in Beacon Hill (formerly in Capitol Hill), Traveler’s Masala Chai is the smoothest, most balanced chai I found. Made from a black tea concentrate, it is just sweet enough with well-blended (not bitter) spice that rises the perfect amount in the back of your throat. It actually tastes like tea (which, as you’ll later see, is no given) and leaves you with a warming afternote of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. With the real name and everything? These guys must be from India.

Honorable mention: Rishi Masala Chai (Café Vita)

Made in Milwaukee, this chai also balances sweetness and spice well to create a very satisfying, layered flavor.

BEST SWEET: David Rio Tiger Spice Chai (Tea Republik, Café Suisse, etc.)

Unapologetically sweet, this is your go-to chai when you’re in the mood for liquid pumpkin pie, or just having a moment lamenting the long lost Borders chai that got you through high school and college (may the bankrupt bookstore RIP). Rio’s Tiger Spice tastes like a thick harvest spice steamer: first you get sweetness, creaminess, vanilla; then spice; then a hint of tea. Based in San Francisco, David Rio produces a line of nine powdered chais, and their Tiger Spice is available in at least two places in Seattle (Tea Republik also carries four other Rio blends), as well as online.

Ready to go even sweeter? Settle in for a chai shake at B&O Espresso. Thick, vanilla, sparkly soft cinnamon and nutmeg. Ice cream. Tea who? Doesn’t matter. Comes with or without an added espresso shot.

BEST SPICY: Morning Glory (PCC, Caffe Ladro, Fremont Coffee House, etc.)

Call me old fashioned, call me unoriginal, but there’s a reason Morning Glory remains one of the widest sold chais in Seattle even after its home café, Mr. Spot’s Chai House, closed in Ballard several years ago. Still made locally from a black tea liquid concentrate, it has just the right amount of spice, leaving your throat gently tingling (not burning) and warm from spice and temperature. It rounds out with a light sweetness and doesn’t sit like a brick in your stomach—legitimately a drink, not a dessert. In addition to many outlets around town, the concentrate and drink recipes are also available online.

Honorable Mention: Maya Spicy Chai (Trabant Coffee and Chai)

Made from a syrup base, Maya spicy chai (from Arizona) is a well-balanced, complex blend where you do taste tea and can also detect cardamom, the spice of my dreams. Trabant offers two chais, spicy and sweet, and while the spicy is not unsweet, another good option is their “chaibrid”—half of each syrup steamed with milk. My ‘brid was still spicy, but the sweet syrup increased the body and brought more vanilla.

BEST UNSWEETENED: Teahouse Kuan Yin Spicy Pink Chai (Flying Apron)

Maybe it’s inauthentic, since we’ve just read that tea is typically sweetened in India, but I had to give props for someone who could offer an unsweetened chai done well. It’s not as easy as it seems, since these spices can be sharp and sweetness helps balance them, but Wallingford’s Teahouse Kuan Yin (who blends the chai) and Flying Apron (who brews it unsweetened) pull it off. Another sustainable choice, this spicy pink chai blend (first steeped in water, then combined with steamed milk) carries another solid spice blend and a unique earthiness. Also, without the veil of sugar, the natural sweetness in the spices (more cardamom!) shines, and since its pieces are more subtle, tasting becomes more concentrated and Zen—like when wine or coffee tasting.

Honorable Mention: Traditional Chai (Miro Tea)

Miro also offers a subtle, beautifully balanced cardamom and almond traditional tea spice blend brewed directly in milk. While they sweeten their chais lightly with a bit of simple syrup by default, just ask and they’ll do it unsweetened. Their more unusual chai concoctions—rooibos chai and mate chai—are also very thoughtful and satisfying, making them well worth a trip.

BEST VALUE: Jaipur Avenue Original Masala Chai (DeLaurenti, etc.)

Another Seattle-based company, Jaipur Avenue imports its six flavors of powdered chai from Jaipur, India and sells 15-pack boxes to prepare at home for $12 throughout the city. DeLaurenti sells the boxes and will also prepare you an 8-oz cup for $1.50, but they just add water (as the instructions guide, since the mix includes nonfat milk powder), so their chai isn’t as thick as many coffee shops. For half the price of a usual chai, though, and a surprising complexity in flavor for a powder (you can pick out spices over the sweetness; this ain’t your 7-11 sugar bomb chai), it’s a great downtown treat to know about. Besides, to add body, there is always the Swiss Miss trick of brewing at home with milk.

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