I’ve come a long way since tasting my first chai latte. Technically, my first chai wasn’t even the actual tea – latte or no – since it was made from a super sugary, chai-flavored powder. Unfortunately, I think many Westerners first experience chai this way. Back then, though, I had little experience with tea other than black or chamomile and was worlds away from the borderline tea-snob I admit to be these days. After a friend insisted I try my “chai latte”, I discovered I loved this new spicy-sweet drink.
Jump ahead a few years and I had landed a job as a barista at a popular coffee shop in town. This place was no Starbucks and while there was a Starbucks directly across the street, this little mom and pop shop frequently had a line out the door before Starbucks had even opened. Despite all the cons that come with food service (grumpy, pre-caffeinated customers at 6 a.m., public restrooms that held unimaginable horrors, and endless piles of dishes to name a few) working at that coffee shop was one of the better experiences of my life.
I became familiar with numerous kinds of teas and coffees and the health benefits of each. I learned the differences between tisanes and true teas (made with the leaves of the carnillia sinensis plant). I could explain the differences between dark, light, and medium roasted beans (dark roast may taste strong, but it contains the least amount of caffeine). I discovered how water temperature was matched with kinds of teas for the best possible brew, how fine to grind coffee beans for a desired taste with a specific brewing technique, and how to pull and tamp the perfect shot (yes, we pulled all espresso by hand!). I could go on and on about the wealth of knowledge gleaned from those years at the shop, but I’m getting off topic…
…back to chai. As I had to explain to more than a few confused customers: real chai is, in fact, a kind of tea and not simply a flavoring. The word “chai” itself actually means “tea” in general, but – here in the West – it has come to mean a kind of tea popular in India, which is known there as masala chai. It is usually a black tea blend (most commonly assam, nilgiri, and/or ceylon) mixed with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It’s often served with warm milk and honey, although a few bold souls can drink it straight. As chai’s popularity in the U.S. has grown, so has the use of sugary chai-flavorings along with the prices of chai lattes themselves (even if real chai tea is nowhere in the mixture!).
After I stopped working at the coffee shop, I knew I would always have a chai-fix to deal with, but I didn’t want to pay $5 or more for a mug of something that frequently was not even the real tea. There was one more issue, though: not only had I gotten used to my daily freshly-brewed tea, but chai lattes at the coffee shop had also introduced me to another drink growing in popularity these days: soy milk. I’m not lactose-intolerant, nor vegan, but a coworker suggested I make my chai lattes with soy milk solely for the taste. I was skeptical at first, but (as you may know from my Japanese food posts) I’ll try anything once, and did.
You know what? She was right! Soy milk – especially vanilla soy milk – compliments chai tea perfectly: adding the creaminess of milk, but in addition providing a slightly nutty flavor and natural sweetness. No added sugar is required! Unfortunately, subbing soy milk in for normal at any coffee shop will cost you – sometimes as much as $1 more per drink. I desperately needed to begin brewing my own at home before I began shelling out obscene amounts of cash to get my chai fix. Luckily, I remembered the recipe for the coffee shop’s brewed chai tea concentrate…
Chai Tea Concentrate (for hot or cold lattes)
(from Uncommon Grounds Coffee and Tea)
For the Concentrate…
5 oz. chai tea (traditional Tra Que or decaf, as preferred)
1 gallon nearly boiling water
For the Lattes…
about 8 – 10 oz. chai tea concentrate (depending on cup size)
about 5 – 7 oz. soy milk (depending on cup size)
honey, to taste*
cinnamon, to taste
* Note: I recommend adding a little honey to the latte if you are using plain soy milk. The honey will add another layer of flavor and really pull the drink together. With vanilla soy milk, I personally prefer to omit the honey in order to let the vanilla flavor shine through. By all means, though, play around and try different combinations that you find tasty.
To Make The Concentrate…
- Add the loose-leaf chai tea to a 1-gallon jug. You may wish to make a paper funnel to make things easier. I speak from experience, haha.
- Carefully fill the jug about a third of the way full with nearly boiling water (~210°F) and gently shake the jug to swirl the leaves a bit and get them steeping.
- Continue to add nearly boiling water (I usually allow my kettle to boil, but then hold it off the heat for 30 seconds or so before pouring it over the leaves) to the jug until full. Using a wooden spoon, give the leaves one last gentle swirl before covering and letting it steep for at least 1 hour but no longer than 2 or you will have an extremely strong concentrate.
- Carefully pour the contents of the steeping jug through a large sieve and into another gallon jug (or, lacking another gallon jug, do what I do and divide the liquid into two mixing bowls, haha). Allow the soaked leaves to sit in the sieve for 5 minutes or so to fully drain. Gently press on them a few times to encourage the liquid to escape.
- If reusing the steeping jug, rinse out any residue before carefully pouring the strained chai tea concentrate back inside. Cap the jug and refrigerate. Can make about 20 16-oz. lattes and will keep for up to two weeks.
To Make Lattes…
- If making a Hot Latte: pour a glass or mug 1/2 – 2/3 full of chai tea concentrate (the more tea, the stronger the latte). Add soy milk to the tea nearly to the top. If using a 16 oz. cup, the equivalent amounts are 8 – 10 oz. of chai concentrate with 7 – 5 oz. soy milk, respectively. tea/milk mixture into a microwavable pitcher or Pyrex measuring cup and microwave on High for up to 2 minutes. Use a milk frother to aerate the latte before pouring back into serving glass or mug and topping with honey or cinnamon as desired. Drink immediately.
- If making a Cold Latte: fill the cup half full with ice. Pour the chai tea concentrate 1/2 – 2/3 up the cup (depending on desired strength) and top off with soy milk. Add honey and/or cinnamon as desired and stir. Drink immediately.
Mmm, I am so happy I decided to try to brew this concentrate at home! I drink one of these lattes almost every day and with the temperature fluctuating the way it is right now, it’s great to be able to enjoy either a cool refreshing iced chai or a warm and comforting hot spiced chai – depending on what the weather has me craving. I’ll also throw my iced chai lattes into plastic 16-oz. cold cups with a straw to take with me to school. Folks ask me where I’ve bought it and I’m happy to tell them how easy it is to make such an expensive drink at home.
On a side note: I brew a gallon of this concentrate at a time and share it with my roommate. If you live alone or are the only one in the house who likes chai (lucky you!) feel free to brew less according to your needs. Also, even if you do want to keep steeping a gallon of tea at a time, the tea to water to time relationship is easily adjustable. If you’re patient enough to let it steep overnight, use about a third as much tea (you’ll save more tea leaves this way in the long run!). If you like the hour wait-time but prefer a weaker brew, try subtracting a third of the tea leaves from the recipe. This is really just the baseline to get started.
Overall Enjoyment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥