What is Chai?
A little while ago we wrote in a blog post about the history of this wonderful drink, and what exactly it is, as well as its health benefits, so I won’t go into detail here. I will only say that Chai is a traditional beverage dating back up to 9,000 years and is made with milk, sugar, spices and tea, simmered together and served warm.
But you might still be confused about names. Is the cup of chai you make at home the same as the ‘chai latte’ you see at your local coffee shop? Despite the fact that it has ‘latte’ in its name, and you can see it on menus next to espressos and cortados, it contains no coffee whatsoever. The difference between a Chai Latte and a cup of traditional Indian Chai is how it’s made. A chai latte has become synonymous with a powder or syrup that tastes vaguely like the traditional drink it's based on, but usually doesn’t contain any whole ingredients that makes a masala chai, rather they are the notion of a chai.
Just remember, no matter the name, the only caffeine in it comes from the tea leaves that it’s brewed with.
What’s the Caffeine Content of a Regular Chai Latte?
Making chai isn’t like making a Martini or an Americano, though some may argue, there’s no set recipe to follow. That means anyone can mix some tea, milk, sugar and spices together and call it a Masala Chai, so the caffeine content can vary a lot. However, all is not lost, and although there’s no way of knowing the amount of caffeine in a cup of black chai if you buy it from a food stall in one of Delhi’s backstreets, any professional tea maker (known as ‘chaiwalla’) will use a set uniqure recipe. The good people at Caffeine Informer tested six different 8oz chais for their caffeine content and found they varied from 27-67mg per cup, which is a huge difference! But you probably don’t want to throw your freshly brewed cup of sweet spicy chai away just yet. Although it may look like a lot, even the strongest chai latte tested had only about a third the amount of caffeine when compared to a regular coffee (which are about 180mg). In fact, the weakest chai tested had the same amount of caffeine as a decaf grande coffee.
In addition to the lower levels of caffeine, the spices in Chai interact with the tannin content of tea, especially black tea, to slow the absorption of caffeine and help ease and calm the nervous system.
The Caffeine Content of Other Chai Varieties
In Asia Masala chai is made by filling a large pan with milk and adding tea, sugar and spices, following personal taste and their own recipe. Typically a chaiwalla will add milk, sugar and spices which are topped up constantly throughout the day, and the chai changes a little as the pot is filled and refilled.
In the west we have a few different ways of making chai. If you’re making a cup of Monk’s Organic Speciality Chai then it’s up to you how much additional sweetness or milk you want to include, or you can choose to leave them out completely. If you make chai this way the caffeine content will vary depending on how long you leave the tea leaves in the water - if you want more caffeine leave the tea in longer (up to 5 minutes) or if you want less caffeine, bring the tea out after a minute or so.
Rather than using tea leaves, some cafes use an artificially flavoured syrup that is then mixed with steamed milk. These are great if you’re looking for a caffeine free alternative, but because they don’t have tea in them purests say this isn’t ‘real’ chai. We say drink whatever brings you joy, but know that if you’re looking for a hand waking up on a Monday morning, these syrups aren’t going to help with that outside of an initial sugar rush.
Most big outlets make their Chai Latte drinks from a chai concentrate. This is when a large amount of regular chai has been made and then boiled down to remove as much of the water as possible into a reduction of all the ingredients, which is then put back in by the barista when you order. Because it’s brewed normally to begin with it still has the same amount of caffeine as you’d expect - and is usually in the range of 25-60 mg of caffeine per cup. This is great when you are seriously trying to save time, but as proprietors of high volume cafes we can tell you that this time savings is a false economy as Monk’s chai can be brewed instantly, yielding outstanding flavour each time.
So, unless you are told otherwise, assume your Chai does contain caffeine.
Caffeine Content in Chai vs Coffee
The short answer is that most Chai labelled drinks contain significantly less caffeine than a regular coffee, probably around a third of the amount. The long answer is that it depends on how the coffee and chai are made.
If you make your own chai at home using a loose leaf like Monk’s, you can control how much caffeine it will have by altering how much quantity you use and how long you leave the tea to brew. This means that people who are trying to reduce their caffeine intake can swap their morning coffee for a chai and still get a rush of energy, without the same adrenal robbing post-coffee jitters, or the caffeine highs and lows that coffee drinkers experience.
See more: What is chai?