Is powdered chai simply real chai in disguise, or is it something else? Oh, sweet chai o’ mine, let’s unpack this tea mystery, and weigh up the evidence on chai tea versus powdered chai.
If you’ve made chai from a powder and it wasn’t wonderful, there are scientific reasons why you may have been disappointed. Let’s investigate the 4 things that matter most: aroma, taste, health and habits.
Chai powders use instant tea powder as the base, so firstly, it’s important to understand how instant tea is made.
For tealeaf tea, the camellia sinensis leaves are handled as delicately as possible in order to minimise breakage, then the leaves are rolled to preserve their aromatic compounds and unique complex flavours. Go ahead, open up a tin of black leaf tea, poke your nose in there, and take a good big sniff… ahh… robust earthy sweetness, reminiscent of a fresh hay shed. Now, if you can, do the same with powdered black tea. Not too close with the sniffing though, or you may end up snorting. Do you notice the difference? Perhaps the powdered version is a paler cousin to the rich aroma of the black tea leaves, a bit on the musty side, like hay when its old and mouldy, and perhaps there are other elements in that powder that you can’t quite identify.
Tea powders have most of tea’s natural antioxidants destroyed in their processing, and remember, it is the high incidence of antioxidants that scientists have found contribute to the health benefits of tea. As reported in the International Journal of Health Sciences, black tea affects our health at the molecular level, with the ability to decrease inflammation and reduce risk for chronic conditions. Medical News Today reports that the nutrients in black tea may also reduce the risk of several cancers, protect the heart against a build-up of cholesterol plaque in the walls of arteries, and help maintain healthy blood pressure.
With its base of powdered tealeaves and tea wastes, powdered chai also contains dried milk, plus sugar or artificial sweeteners in the form of aspartame, and preservatives, powdered spices and vanilla extract. The powdered milk content may deliver a burned or caramelised flavour due to the spray-drying or drum-drying process that milk goes through in the powdering process.
As well as eliminating the health benefits of drinking infused whole chai tea, chai powders remove your control. You may find powdered chai too sweet or heavily laced with a particular spice – cinnamon perhaps – which can overwhelm the taste of the tea. But don’t take our word for it; let’s conduct a taste test.
Following the product directions, make up your powdered chai alongside a good quality whole chai tea and give them both your full attention, much as you would for a wine tasting. Naturally, you will allow your whole chai to brew in the pot for a few minutes and you will use a strainer to pour from the pot to your cup. Of course, you don’t do this with the powdered version as there are no solids to capture, just the instant chai powder that will mostly dissolve.
Swirl the teas in their teacups and note the aroma of each. Now, taste the chai, and again, just like a wine tasting, swish that tea around your mouth. Feel it across your tongue. What are the mouthfeel sensations? Check for aftertaste which can be fleeting, or it can last for hours. If you have tasted a chai of calibre, you should be wallowing in wondrousness, and you may feel soothed and have greater focus, but you be the judge. Did your chai powder leave a dusty residue in your cup or in your throat?
And then there’s the ritual. Making a complete chai or any complete tea is an elevation of mindfulness: a ceremony for you alone, or a sacred custom you share with friends. Surely, pouring hot water onto chai dust just isn’t going to cut the mustard in quite the same way. So, don’t be chai shy … you deserve the good stuff.