Kashmiri Pink Chai

Kashmiri Pink Chai

Chai–sweet, caffeinated, and exotically spicy–is a massively popular drink, and only getting more so as time goes on. So, what actually is it? You order a chai at Starbucks and walk off with what tastes like sixteen ounces of sugar syrup, just like everything else there, and all you can be sure of is that it involves sugar, milk, and possibly tea? Some brown liquid, anyway. But that’s why you have me, because you don’t have time to spend all afternoon figuring out what you’re drinking, and that’s what I’m being paid to do. So here’s what I found out for you today:

Chai is short for masala chai, which means “spiced tea” in Hindi. The earliest masala chai wasn’t a real tea drink at all, it was a drink made of a number of spices chosen for their Ayurvedic medical benefits, as a medicine for a king. As the mythical invention of chai is said to be before the mythical discovery of tea (both supposedly at least 5000 years ago), and substantially before tea was widely drunk in India (cultivation began in the 1830s, and it was almost all exported until the beginning of the twentieth century), tea was not one of those spices. The connection between the original masala chai and the current drink is largely in the name.

Modern chai got its start in the early twentieth century, when the huge British tea producers in India finally saturated their markets in Europe and had to start looking for new ones. Tea had not been grown in India until the British started their plantations, so it wasn’t something the Indians were in the habit of drinking. The producers started encouraging the locals to drink the stuff they spent all their time making, giving the factory workers tea breaks and encouraging people to set up tea vending stands. The producers were hoping the tea vendors would sell tea in the British style, with tea lightly flavored with milk and sugar, but the tea vendors soon began cutting their tea with spices, since tea was more expensive than cardamom and the like. It may also have been to improve the flavor; as the story goes, the high quality tea was being exported, and the Indian factory workers couldn’t have afforded it anyway, so the tea being sold by the vendors was of poor quality. The spices made their tea tastier.

In the nineteen sixties, chai got another boost in popularity in India with the invention of CTC processing. This dropped the price substantially, making it affordable to more people in India. It also worked well with chai, because CTC creates particularly powerful black tea. You may have seen it, it looks almost like coffee grounds, and produces a drink that’s nearly as strong! The strong flavors of CTC tea cuts through the milk and spices, so the tea can still be tasted. The flavor balance issue causes an odd realigning of priorities in chai. High quality teas are made to have gentle, smooth flavors, nothing harsh to shock the palate. But if you tried this with chai, the tea would be impossible to taste, overwhelmed by the milk and spices. So even in affluent situations chai is often made with relatively low-quality tea. What works alone and what works in blends are remarkably different!

The basic chai recipe is strong black tea, milk, sweetener, and spices. Usually the tea is a strong Assam, the kind of thing used in English Breakfast blends, often the CTC I mentioned above. The spice blend shifts depending on where the chai is being made and what the tea maker likes, but cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon are usually present. In general Indian blends emphasize cardamom, and American ones emphasize cinnamon. Almost anything can be put in, though, including ginger, anise, fennel, pepper, saffron, salt, and even almonds! The almonds are a favorite in a northern variant, the Kashmiri chai that we sell. It’s based on green tea instead of black, something strong and Chinese like gunpowder or hyson. It’s turned pink either by saffron or by messing with the pH balance during the brewing process. It has a gentler and richer flavor than the more common black tea chai. And a more exciting color, obviously.

Whew, I had no idea chai had such an involved history. We can all order our chai with a whole new level of smugness, wait sorry confidence, I meant confidence. Go forth and get all confident at your chai, now!

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Cream of AssamAssam! Tropical paradise, assuming you like 103 degree heat and 100% humidity, which tea plants do. Well, not all tea plants. Let’s go back to the beginning, by which I mean the beginning of Assam’s commercial tea production. Before the 1830s tea plants grew wild in Assam, a river valley in the northeastern part of India, and some locals would make a drink out of them, but it all seems to have been fairly low-key. But then the British noticed.

The British Tea Industry in India

At the time, Britain had a problem. They were swiftly developing a tea addiction like yours and mine, but Japan was closed off and uninterested in much trade, China was charging through the nose and not exporting much, and tea didn’t grow anywhere else, as far as they knew. Discovering that tea could grow in a newly conquered corner of India made the Brits flail and jump up and down and make high-pitched squealing noises. Well, maybe not that much, but they were very excited, and immediately started setting up for commercial tea production there.

At first they tried to grow Chinese plants, on the grounds that the domesticated and long cultivated plants would make better tea than the wild local variety. Unfortunately for them, those plants had been cultivated to thrive in a different climate, and the Chinese plants didn’t do well. After more than a decade of beating their heads against that particular brick wall the estate owners finally accepted the inevitable and started growing the local plants, called the Assamica varietal, and hybrids of the Chinese and Assamica plants. Production exploded, and by the 1850s they were making a profit and exporting massive amounts of tea.

The Tea ItselfAssam Halmari

The tea was more bitter than the Chinese teas, because the Assamica varietal has more caffeine than the Chinese plants do, and caffeine has a bitter flavor, but this worked out. Even though the prices were lower now that the British could grow their own tea and not pay the Chinese monopoly prices, it still cost a lot of money to get tea from Asia to Europe, so they lowered the cost per cup by cutting their tea with milk. The more bitter, robust Assam teas stand up much better to milk than the smooth Chinese styles, and everything worked out properly in the end. Back in India, since all the good tea was being exported, the locals put spices as well as milk in their tea, to mask the low quality flavor, and invented chai masala, the spiced tea drink that’s so popular now.

The Current State of Things

Fast forward to now, and life is pretty good for Assam tea growers. The British have gone home, people aren’t working in conditions quite as bad as they were back during the industrial revolution, and the machinery advances during and since said revolution have massively increased yields. Assam now exports more tea than any other region in the world, and is expanding beyond its traditional domain of black teas into green and white teas, although it doesn’t go for the complicated, more artisanal types of teas that come out of China. Assam’s roots as a major commercial exporter show strongly today. It’s the rare breakfast blend that doesn’t include Assam black tea, as well as your standard black blends, although Kenya is the new Assam, in that it exports massive amounts of black tea to feed the Western world’s caffeine habit. Assam is still making a third of the world’s tea, though, so it isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Gold Yunnan

Gold Yunnan

Yunnan is a large and fertile province in the south of China that produces an impressive amount of tea. Tea cultivation and even the plant itself are said to come from Yunnan originally, and there’s good reason to believe that; Yunnan has an incredible amount of biodiversity.


It’s a very mountainous area, to the point that only 5% of the land is cultivated, and a lot of that is terraces carved into mountainsides. It also has a nice climate, with lots of rain and moderate temperatures, lovely for both the evolution of new plants and the cultivation of old ones, once you find a piece of land flat enough to grow them on. The oldest cultivated tea plant is in Yunnan, and it’s at least 800 years old. The oldest wild one is there, too, and it’s 1700 years old (!).

Yunnan Black Tea

The tea that is most likely to spring to mind when you hear the name Yunnan is the black tea that floods out of the province these days, full of pretty gold tips. Tips, in this case, refers to the leaves and bud on the tip of each branch, which are the best for making tea out of. In Chinese this tea is called Tian Hong, which literally means Yunnan Red. But interestingly enough, this kind of tea wasn’t developed until the 20th century. Before then Yunnan made green tea, like most places. They also, of course, made Pu’er.

Pu’erLarge Beeng

Pu’er is actually the name of a county in Yunnan,  which became a major center of the tea trade during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when tea was just starting to be infused instead of mixed up from powdered leaves. No one’s really sure how Pu’er tea, which is cakes of fermented tea, was developed, but that tea trade I mentioned probably had something to do with it. The trade was sprawling, and took place by horse caravan, so it took a long time to get the tea to some distant places. Compressed bricks are the most logical way to do that, and unless your caravan involves a horse-drawn refrigerated truck, fermentation can be hard to avoid. Especially when you’re starting from Yunnan, which is soaked by monsoon rains from May to October, which is coincidentally also tea harvesting season.

I Think That’s Everything

Wow, that’s a lot of different kinds of tea. I didn’t even realize how many different kinds of tea came out of Yunnan when I started writing this article, or that they were such a hotbed of tea-innovation. One the one hand, maybe it’s to be expected from the birthplace of tea, but on the other hand, not bad for a place where you can’t put your basket of tea leaves down without it rolling off the side of the mountain.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff