Masala Chai: Delicious Tea and Steeped in History

Masala Chai
Traditional Indian Spiced Tea (1 serving)


  • 3 tsp Masala Chai Blend (or make your own*)
  • 1 cup Water
  • 1 cup Milk (whole)
  • Optional: 1 tsp Fresh Ginger
  • 1 or 2 Tblsp Agave Nectar or your sweetener of choice

Bring all ingredients except sweetener to a boil in a small saucepan then quickly reduce to a simmer for 5-10 minutes. The longer you simmer the greater the intensity. Add sweetener, stir, and strain into your mug of choice. (Enjoy).

* Making your own Masala Chai blend is easy if you prefer to experiment more. Start with 2 tsp of a solid Assam black tea base and add  3 green cardamom pods, 1 whole clove, 1/8 tsp nutmeg seed, and a small bit of freshly grated ginger. Then experiment with adding pepper, star anise, cinnamon or other spices to taste.

Over the past several weeks we have been participating in shows at Wintergreen Resort, south of Charlottesville, VA as well as the Purcellville Community Market in Purcellville, VA and without fail the Masala Chai has been one of the most consistent sellers even when we haven’t had samples for tasting. Yet so many buyers don’t really know much about the drink they love. So it was really just a matter of time before we blogged about Masala Chai specifically and chai generally.

Masala Chai Spices

Indian Spices (Masala), By Holger Casselmann, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The word chai itself is but one of many variations on the the word tea which includes , chá, and chai depending on culture and history. Masala, on the other hand, is defined by Mirriam-Webster as “a varying blend of spices used in Indian cooking” (Mirriam-Webster). Thus Masala Chai is nothing more than spiced tea. Of course, for those who have experienced Masala Chai know that there are a myriad different flavors. While it commonly includes ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon, there are many variations from there which can include star anise, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cloves, and more. For many, true Masala Chai also includes milk and a sweetner.

History of Masala Chai

As most are aware, Masala Chai has its roots in Indian Culture, though exactly when seems a bit of a mystery. One account has it attributed to an Indian king some 5,000 years ago (Kasam, 2004), while the commonly accepted source is the Hindu Aurveda tradition. Regardless, spiced tea was consumed in India long before the arrival of the British and well before it was brought to the United States and commercialized.

Masala Chai in India: Chai Wallah’s

Spiced tea is served throughout most of India. Tea sellers, or chai walla’s are found all over India and keep their chai simmering throughout the day. In fact, the chai wallahs’s serve as local gathering spots, akin to our water coolers, where people come together to meet, discuss, and debate a wide range of topics. Traditionally, the tea itself is served in clay cups. These cups are typically produced locally, unglazed, used only once, and smashed by the customer after use to degrade back into the dirt and mud from which they were made. Across India the clay pots come in a variety of shapes and sizes and even names. They are called bhaar in the West Bengal region, puruas in Banaras, and kullarhs in much of the rest of the country. Enjoyment of masala chai from these roadside vendors is typical and a much written about experience by many travelers to India.

Kashmiri Chai
Traditional Pakistani Tea of the Kashmir Region (2 servings)


  • 2 tsp Gunpowder Green Tea
  • 4-6 Green Cardamom Seeds
  • 1/3 tsp Ground Cardamom
  • 1/3 tsp Baking Soda
  • 2 cups Milk (whole)
  • 2 tsp Combination Ground Pistacio’s and/or Almonds
  • 2 cups Water
  • Salt to Taste

Add water, tea, green cardamom, and baking soda to a saucepan, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 5 minutes. Separately, boil the milk and ground cardamom and reduce to low heat before adding the previously prepared tea. Return to a boil, add salt and simmer another 3-5 minutes. Strain and garnish with ground pistachio’s and/or almonds.

Spiced Tea Variations

While Masala Chai is the best known spiced tea in the west it is hardly the only one. Kashmiri Chai, also known as Pink Tea, Salt Tea, Noon (meaning salt) Tea, and many other names, comes from the Kashmir region in northern Pakistan between India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. Traditionally made with salt, though sugar can be substituted, this tea takes on a pink hue due to the addition of baking soda.

There are many different way one can make spiced tea. Starting with a basic Masala Chai or Kashmiri Tea you can experiment to find a taste profile that works for you. There are also a wide range of loose lease options available including things like our Pumpkin Spice Chai and even caffeine free options like our South African Chai so there is a spiced chai for many occasions.

Sources

High Chai, Nirali looks at the steeping of tea in the South Asian tradition, by, Roxanna Kasam, Nirali Magazine, November 1, 2004, http://niralimagazine.com/2004/11/high-chai/

Masala Definition, Mirriam-Webster Dictionary On-Line, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/masala

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History of Tea in Taiwan

Map of Taiwan relative to China

Taiwan is home to many of the best world’s best oolong teas.

Being an island 90 miles off of the Chinese southern coast, Taiwan was destined to grow tea and be a strategic trading and military port for several different countries. The tea trade in this country reflects centuries of constant change in rulers and customs. It is believed that there were Camilla sinensis plants growing natively on Taiwan, but they produced very thin leaves that were brittle and bitter (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011). Tea plants where brought onto the island in the mid-1600s from the Fujian province of China when Taiwan was controlled by the Chinese Qing Dynasty. As more Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan, the plants where moved to several locations throughout the island. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800′s, with European intervention, that a commercial tea trade was developed.

European Influence on Taiwan Tea Trade

The Europeans were looking for other ports to trade tea given the Opium Wars with mainland China in the mid-1800′s. The need to diversify tea ports away from mainland China, led John Dodd to start offering financing to Taiwanese peasants. This enabled local Taiwanese start tea plantations as well as build factories in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to process the tea. Prior to those factories, all the tea leaves in Taiwan where sent to Anxi or Fuzhou China for the final processing. By bringing the final processing to the island, Mr. Dodd put Taiwan on the US and European tea maps with Taiwan producing mostly black teas for those markets. The name “Formosa” was put on most of these teas, as Portugal was the first European country to stumble across Taiwan and that is the name they gave the island. It means beautiful, so it worked well for a marketing name at the time (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011).

Taiwan Tea Industry From 1895 to Present

Close up of Fanciest Formosa Oolong

Fanciest Formosa Oolong from Taiwan

Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895 and proceeded to invest heavily in tea production in the country, introducing new tea cultivars, fertilizer and mechanization of the processing of the tea. Very skillfully, the Japanese kept the focus on black tea so the island would not compete with the Japanese green teas. The Chinese took back control from Japan at the end of the Second World War. This shifted tea production from black to green as trade with Europe and the US was dramatically cut. Competition with Japan and China forced Taiwan to shift again in the 1970′s to the oolong production they are well known for now. Even today, most of the tea in Taiwan is consumed locally even though they are considered among the finest of available teas worldwide (Richardson, 2008). The tea industry in Taiwan is still dominated by small family owned farmers giving them control over both the growth and the manufacturing of the tea. This is a unique arrangement and is credited with creating the proper atmosphere for the creation of their diverse and superior oolongs. Below is a quick chart describing some of the better known oolongs which are exported from Taiwan. If you get your hands on one of these, drink them over multiple infusions to enjoy the full complexity of these wonderful teas.

Dong Ding (Tong Ting) Produced in the Dong Ding region (while most people refer to Dong Ding Mountain, most of the tea is not grown on the mountain side). This is a tightly balled oolong that should be brewed with boiling water. It produces a greenish golden liquor with heavy floral notes with a buttery cream finish.

Bao Zhong (Jade Pouchong) This 18-20% oxidized green tea – almost an oolong  but mostly a green tea (called Pouchong) is a full twisted leaf green that produces an amber green liquid that is delicate floral and sweet.

Oriental Beauty This balled oolong is famous for the green-leaf hoppers that munch on the leaves just before harvesting. Their biting causes the plants to release L-Theanine producing a complex flavor in this tea. It makes an orange-brown liquor with woody, floral notes followed by a creamy finish. This oolong is traditionally enjoyed with a Gong Fu set that allows for multiple small steepings of this tea to enjoy all the different flavors.

Fanciest Formosa This higher oxidized oolong is produced in the traditional Chinese method with twisted leaves instead of balled. It produces an amber to dark brown liquor with honey and peach flavors. It is the typical “first” oolong for someone wanting to experience oolong for the first time.

Ali Shan This high altitude oolong  is a tightly balled oolong that produces a yellow liquor with a sweet intense creamy flavor with some toasted nut notes. It is less oxidized oolong, so brew more like a green than black tea (not at boiling).
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Your Caffeine Assumptions About Tea Are Wrong! (Sorry)

Two leaves and a bud of camellia sinensis (tea) plant contain the most caffeine of any part of the plant.

Bud and Two Leaf – Desired Pluck and Highest in Caffeine – By Mandeep Singh, CC-BY-SA-3.0

We recently wrote about the caffeine in tea, specifically looking into claims that caffeine in tea was somehow different than caffeine found in coffee, soda, or other products. We found that the jury was still out on the topic, with some studies showing that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine was less jolting. However, these studies used much greater quantities of L-theanine than is normally found in tea. This brings us to the next topic around how much caffeine is in tea. A search of web pages reveals a wide variety of information with many charts showing black tea as having the most caffeine followed by oolong, green, and white in descending order. We went searching to learn more about what things impact the amount of caffeine in tea and what ends up in your cup.

The Role of Caffeine in Tea

First lets set the stage a bit. Caffeine is found in true tea from the camellia sinensis plant. It is not found in herbals and tisanes like products featuring rooibos, honeybush, or other herbs. Many plants including both coffee and tea naturally produce caffeine as a way to protect themselves. Caffeine, like other compounds including nicotine and morphine, is a bitter tasting alkeloid, a feature which helps ward off many insects that would otherwise feast on plant leaves. It also tends to inhibit the growth of fungus thereby further protecting the plant. (Freeman and Beattie)

Recent research also suggests that there may also be another reason for caffeine in plants; to attract honeybees. Specifically, researchers have suggested that in low doses, having caffeine in pollen helps honeybees better identify the scent of a given flower providing a bit of reproductive advantage. (Wright, Baker, et all).

Caffeine and Types of Tea

Understanding that the presence of caffeine in tea is a self defense mechanism and that new growth is most vulnerable to insect attack, it should come as no surprise that the most desired part of the tea plant also has the highest caffeine. Specifically the bud and newest leaves, which are highly regarded for many types of tea, provide more caffeine than older growth. However, this isn’t the end of the story. The tea plant, c. Sinensis has evolved naturally over time into many varieties to suit the area in which they are grown. The sinensis and assamica varieties are the most notable but not the only varieties. Additionally, many countries including Japan, China, India, and Kenya actively work on producing specialized clones more suited to specific growing conditions, desired tastes, and leaf appearance. Each variety of plant differs in the amount of caffeine it produces and even the specific season of growth and available nutrients all impact caffeine production.

All types of tea, including green, black, white, and oolong, come from the same plant. The drying, rolling, and oxidization to achieve finished product does vary from type to type but the varieties still come from the same basic plant. Nothing in the standard production process extracts or otherwise removes caffeine from the leaves.

So what does this mean? Unless producers and retailers are sampling large volumes of leaf, for each and every product they offer, its really impossible to make specific claims about the amount of caffeine in any type of tea. It will fluctuate wildly within a very wide range; white, black, green, or otherwise. One might be able to avoid high amounts of caffeine by avoiding teas that are all tips but even this is no guarantee.

Decaffeinated Tea

An alternative for many is to look for decaffeinated tea which theoretically allows enjoyment of tea without the caffeine. There are two general methods used in the decaffeination process of tea today; ethyl acetate (also known as “naturally decaffeinated”) and CO2. In the first case, ethyl acetate, which occurs naturally in the tea plant, is used to wash the tea leaves removing caffeine (as well as many other beneficial substances and flavor compounds) from the product. The washed tea leaves are then dried and repackaged. In the case of CO2, the leaves are also washed. This is done under more than 60 lbs of pressure per square inch (psi) at which point CO2 becomes a liquid. After washing the tea in liquid CO2 the leaves return to normal pressure at which point the remaining liquid CO2 simply evaporates. Both decaffeination processes are expensive, time consuming, and remove more than just the caffeine resulting in some compromise in taste and other compunds found in tea.

Aside from the impact on taste and other compounds, the process of decaffeination does remove most of the caffeine found in tea. If you live in the European Union and you buy decaf tea then you are in great shape. To meet EU standards a decaf product must have 99.9% of the caffeine removed. In the United States we aren’t quite as exacting, requiring only 97% removal. So if we assume that the amount of caffeine in any given tea sample may vary widely then so too might the amount of caffeine in your decaf tea.

Rooibos, Honeybush, and Tisanes naturally are caffeine free.

Adirondack Berries – A Rooibos Based Tisane

Its worth noting that there is a myth floating about that you can eliminate most of the caffeine in tea by doing a quick initial steep, tossing the liquor, and re-steeping. Unfortunately the data under controlled conditions doesn’t support this myth at all. To eliminate the caffeine you would need to steep for 10-15 minutes, toss the liquor, and then steep again but who would want to drink that? For a much more in-depth look at caffeine and tea have a look at Caffeine and Tea:  Myth and Reality by Nigel Melican which is one of the best reviews we have seen to date on the subject.

In summary, while the amount of caffeine in any given sample can be measured by a lab, as far as we can tell its really impossible to make sweeping claims about the amount of caffeine in any specific type of tea, much less one specific tea product. When we want to skip the caffeine we’ll have a a tisane or herbal tea.

Sources Cited

Freeman, B.C. and G.A. Beattie. 2008. An Overview of Plant Defenses against Pathogens and Herbivores. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI: 10.1094/PHI-I-2008-0226-01, http://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/topics/Pages/OverviewOfPlantDiseases.aspx

G.A. Wright, D.D. Baker, M.J.Palmer, J.A. Mustard, E. F. Power, A. M Borland, P.C. Stevenson. Caffeine in floral nectar enhances a pollinator’s memory of reward. Science. Doi 10.1126. Science., http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/item/bees-get-a-buzz-from-caffeine

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