Our new Chaicombines second flush Assam black tea from selected gardens, with ginger, cardamom and cinnamon pieces.
It’s inspired by the Masala Chai we’ve had out and about in Kolkata and in Assam itself. We wanted to create a chai that takes both the tea and the spices seriously.
Origin: Assam, India
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. Assamica
Name: Chai translates to “tea” in Hindi and many other Indian languages – you might also know this as Masala Chai, meaning “tea with spices”.
Style: Single origin black tea combined with cinnamon, cardamon and ginger.
Terroir: Assam in North East India has tea gardens which flank the Brahmaputra River – one of Asia’s most important rivers. It feeds the gardens by providing nutrient rich, clay like soil; the area is low lying and the summer is humid.
Picking Season: Summer 2019
Leaf: Fine, black leaves scattered with smaller balls
Infusion: Red-ochre hued infusion with hints of gold.
What kind of tea is Chai?
Chai or Masala Chai is drunk throughout India, it’s usually made by combining black tea with a combination of spices and then boiling them together with lots of milk, water and plenty of sugar. It’s enjoyed short – often on the go and many times throughout the day. Sold on street corners, trains, cafes and everywhere in between, it’s served in small simple cups that are pinched out of clay and then given back to the ground after the chai’s been drunk. The strength of the tea, the combination of spices and the sugar offer a quick and impactful pick me up – it works in the hot, humid busy cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, but also in cooler rural areas. It warms and comforts and energises.
There are many regional preferences for ingredients and ways of making Masala chai. Some drinkers will only use fresh ginger; in Mumbai it’s often called “cutting chai” and in my experience the cardamon in this style is always the dominant spice. I’ve had chai’s with black pepper, cloves, salt, lemon and more included.
With our Chai, the challenge for Tom, our Head of Tea, was to create a chai that could be considered authentic. We wanted a blend of tea and spices that could transport us to the characterful streets of India even if we just added hot water and a dash of milk.
How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?
We started with the base tea. Very often chai drunk in the UK is made with low quality tea – tea that gives strength and colour, but limited flavour. The thinking perhaps being that the spices will do the talking, or that if you’re going to boil the tea there is no need to use a good quality tea. There are even chai lattes out there without any tea in them at all. We knew, naturally, we wanted the tea to be the hero of our chai.
The big change that Tom’s made with this new chai is to use high grade Single Origin tea from Assam, specifically from the second flush season. It wasn’t a hard decision – firstly, it’s tea from Assam or from the nearby Dooars, that is almost exclusively used in India to make Chai. Secondly, as you’ll know if you’ve tried our Assam Breakfast, this type of second flush tea from Assam has strength, a robust body and a richness to it, which means it goes very well with milk and perhaps the jewel in its crown is the distinctive malt flavour. In the case of chai, this unique malt note works to bring a warmth and comfort to the drink and makes the tea an equally satisfying and distinctive player in the spiced mix.
Historically, we’ve used Ceylon teain our chai. While we really like the smooth texture Ceylon tea brings, we wanted more strength and more tea character to our chai, so Assam was really the only place.
Next up, Tom worked to find the essential spice elements to go with the Assam tea. Settling eventually on his combination of ginger, which brings a heat to the drink, cinnamon, which brings sweetness and is the key element we wanted to emphasise, and cardamom, which brings a fragrant spicy note. These three spices are balanced with the strong Assam tea to create a highly aromatic drink.
We experimented with spices such as star anise (in fact we used this in our last blend), which didn’t add enough flavour; black pepper which we found to have too many savoury associations for what we want to be a naturally sweet drink; and cloves, which in cooking we love but when added to the tea they brought too much medicinal character – plus they have a tendency to go bitter if they’re over heated.
What is this batch like to drink?
It’s warming, sweet, very aromatic and indulgent – exactly what you’d expect from this combination of tea, spices and milk. It’s a tea to enjoy one cup of at a time. The strength of the tea and the spices are punchy and enlivening.
Where and when is this tea for?
This tea’s a pick me up and a comforter. The strength and spicy nature will give you energy, the sweetness from the milk and the familiarity of the black tea and milk combination might comfort you. It depends a lot on how you make it…
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
In India, the masala chai we mostly see is “decocted” – that means that the tea, milk and spices are boiled up together and so flavour is extracted by boiling. This is different from our usual style of “infusing” tea – that is simply adding hot water to the tea leaves and using time and the temperature of the water to extract the flavour. Tom’s challenge with this chai was to create a chai that gives richness, body and flavour and goes well with milk when simply infused – and not necessarily boiled.
When I was experimenting with this chai at home, I was very happy to let Tom know that I enjoyed this new chai infused with the method that he’d recommended, but I also couldn’t resist trying the more authentic method of boiling it up.
Here’s what we found works best:
Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:
Compared to other black teas this might seem like a lot of leaf to use – don’t forget though in that 5g some of the weight is taken up by the spices, and so to make sure that the Assam malt flavour prevails, use slightly more leaf that you might expect. I like it with 5g. Although it’s a tea that can be drunk black, it’s a tea designed to go with milk, so a 4-minute infusion will make sure there’s enough strength extracted to balance the milk. If you can, add hot milk instead of cold milk – it’ll bring even more thickness and sweetness to the cup.
Made this way, the natural cinnamon sweetness stands out and the ingredients are very well balanced – which means all of them are shown off at their best.
This is our go-to method: 5g per 250ml; 100˚C; 4 minutes per infusion (can be re-infused twice)
Authentic Boiled Chai Method – this makes around three small cups
This is what to use when you want something indulgent, or if you want a small but wonderful taste of India.
I tried this recipe with different ratios of milk, water and tea. Too much milk meant not enough space for the tea; too much tea allowed the ginger to dominate. Here’s the recipe that works the best – it’s thick, spicy, sweet and moreish...
- 125ml whole milk
- 250ml water (preferably filtered)
- 8g Chai
- Sugar to taste
Add the milk, water and tea to a small (non-stick) pan. Bring to the boil; turn the heat down and simmer for 2-3 mins stirring constantly. Strain and drink immediately.