This article is sponsored by our partner, Maya Tea.
When Starbucks introduced chai tea lattes to the menu in the early 1990s, customers couldn’t get enough. Now more than 30 years later, chai lattes continue to be a popular coffee shop menu item across the globe.
“Chai” means tea in Hindi, and is traditionally prepared with milk, black tea, sugar, and a combination of spices—the most common spices include cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and clove. In the United States, when we order chai tea—which, as you now know, translates to “tea tea”—we are referring to the flavors reminiscent of traditional tea in India.
Consumer demand for tea is increasing, and chai’s flavor profile plays well in signature drinks and baked goods, adding complementary warm flavors to almost any flavor you pair it with. We spoke with coffee shop owners and ingredient distributors about the increasing demand for chai and how they’re using it creatively on their menus.
Customers Want More Chai
Tea-based beverages welcome non-coffee drinkers to coffee-dominated spaces with open arms, and research indicates that people are looking to their local cafes for more tea options. By 2025, 83% of spending and 15% of tea drinking in the United States will be attributable to out-of-home consumption—meaning more customers are going out to purchase tea than ever before. As of 2022, at-home tea consumption sales amounted to $2.52 billion, while out-of-home sales reached $10.87 billion. Recent reports also discovered that Millennials and Gen Z are drinking more tea-based beverages—and will continue so through 2023.
After noticing a growing demand for chai tea, Manish Shah, founder of Maya Tea, spent an entire year developing a chai recipe that combines innovation with authentic sweet and spice flavors. Chai can be made using loose-leaf tea, tea bags, or a concentrate, but Shah focused on developing a concentrate, which is popular among coffee and tea shops because it’s easy to use and to guarantee consistency.
“With chai concentrate… it’s a liquid concentrate that you just add milk to. It’s already sweetened, already has the spices, and already has everything in it. You just need to add milk to get the cup that you’re looking for,” says Shah in an episode of his podcast, Steeping Around. “I wanted to create the most authentic representation we could, but still make it easier for cafés to use and lend itself to American palates.”
Shah explains that the availability of chai in most coffee shops has cemented the product in the minds and purchasing habits of Millennials and Gen Z—but now, they’re looking for products with better ingredients. “Their tastes have matured, and their demand for higher quality has pushed chai makers to use higher quality ingredients,” says Shah.
Josh Dann, the Pacific Northwest Sales Director for Pete’s Milk Delivery, a distributor service offering Maya Tea products, notes the significant growth of chai over the last several years. “We’ve had at least four new companies reach out to see if I would consider distributing their chai. Chai is definitely growing in the marketplace.” As the global tea market approaches an expected $266.7 billion in revenue by 2025 and consumer preferences shift toward healthy options, more consumers are opting for tea-based beverages like chai.
“We sell a large volume of regular chai,” says Brock Arehart, owner of Kitt’s Kitchen & Coffee and Calico Coffee Company in Kearney, Nebraska. “We have a lot of customers that come [to the coffee shop] just for chai tea.”
Beyond the Chai Latte
Coffee shop owners like Margaret Hadley of Le Buzz Caffé in Tucson, Arizona, use chai to enhance and enrich seasonal drink specials. “Last fall, we did an Apple Butter Chai Latte,” says Hadley. “To keep it special, we confine it to November and December, but it did very well.”
With the wealth of warming spices available in a chai concentrate, coffee shop owners and baristas can let their imaginations run wild and create delicious flavor combinations for signature and seasonal beverages.
In addition to the standard chai latte or dirty chai for those who want the added kick of espresso, Le Buzz Caffe’s drink menu also includes inventive beverages such as the Frozen Chai, made with chai concentrate, water, vanilla powder, and ice. “We’re even seeing our wholesale customers mix chai concentrate into cold brew offerings as an ingredient,” says Dann. Using a concentrate instead of a powder or loose-leaf option allows baristas to easily integrate chai flavors into cold beverages.
On his podcast, Shah explains that most chai concentrates on the market use a 1:1 ratio of milk to concentrate for a chai latte. Maya Tea’s concentrate, however, is an 11:1 milk-to-concentrate ratio. “I’ve done this deliberately to make a thick, creamy, heavy chai that’s more authentic,” says Shah. “The one-ounce shots are really concentrated and really flavorful.” According to the Maya Tea website, the flavors and recipe of the concentrate are “reminiscent of the chai prepared by their mother in youth.”
In a separate conversation, Shah mentions that customers can detect unauthentic chai by the lack of balance. “When we make the masala spice mix, we try to create a balance where you can’t detect the individual notes. There’s a dance between the sweetness and spicy that’s magical, where nothing stands alone. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
Maya Chai’s super concentrated recipe means cafe owners can easily experiment and add chai to new recipes. “As an 11:1 concentration, our chais are very flexible,” says Shah. When Hadley wants to add a bit of heat or tone down the sweetness of her signature drinks, she uses Maya Tea’s Devi Chai, which boasts more “fueled up fiery notes” and a spicier beverage. “If it needs more flavor, I’m prone to using the Devi Chai, which is a little spicier and hotter.”
At Kitt’s Kitchen & Coffee, chai finds its way on the menu on its own and in signature drinks, including a Pumpkin Pie Chai Latte. “Our menu pays homage to a lot of different things around the world,” Arehart explains. “We love the stories behind those menu items and ingredients, and the same is true with Maya Tea because there is a great story behind its origin. Manish brought a lot of his tradition and culture into the chai concentrate, and that’s what we focus on.”
Spice Up the Food Menu
Beyond signature drinks, chai’s warm and spicy flavors extend to the kitchen. The bakery and kitchen team at Le Buzz Caffe uses chai across the menu, including spiced chai brioche french toast, apple cheese danishes with a chai glaze, chai muffins, chai cookies, and so much more.
Kim Budenski of Le Buzz Caffe explains: “There’s always something in the works here. Right now, we’re working on a vanilla chai shortbread cookie and a chai spice cookie. There are also a couple of scones we’ve been working on, like chai pear and maple chai oat.”
“Chai flavors always seem to be popular, and [demand is] growing all the time,” says Budenski.
When we make the masala spice mix, we try to create a balance where you can’t detect the individual notes. There’s a dance between the sweetness and spicy that’s magical, where nothing stands alone. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Manish shah, maya chai
In addition to its lineup of baked goods, Le Buzz Caffe is experimenting with adding chai flavors to various brunch and lunch dishes. “We’re looking at developing some appetizers and using chai ingredients where it makes sense, such as on roasted vegetables like butternut squash for empanadas,” says Hadley.
Dann noted that many of his chai concentrate clientele are restaurants and other food-related businesses. “I have Indian restaurants and bakeries that order chai concentrate as an ingredient,” he says. “You see a major spike in these sales around wintertime.”
Similarly, Kitt’s Kitchen & Coffee has leveraged the chai concentrate in many baked goods, including a Maya Chai bundt cake, chai spice scones, and muffins.
In speaking about chai’s versatility in the kitchen, Hadley says, “chai is one of those ingredients that can change the whole aspect of something in whatever the [food] product is. It’s easy to add a chai concentrate, taste the combinations, and adjust it.”
Staying Ahead of the Trend
Much like the coffee industry, the tea industry’s consumers are always on the hunt for the next trend. The use of chai continues to evolve to meet demand, and Dann predicts we’ll continue to see new ways to consume chai, “We’re going to start seeing more chai products available in grocery stores, including canned RTD (ready to drink) beverages.”
To stay ahead of tea trends, coffee shops such as Le Buzz Caffe are constantly experimenting with new ways to include the complex flavors of chai with the simplicity of a concentrate like those offered by Maya Tea. “Our customer’s desire for chai tea has grown with the whole boom in coffee,” says Hadley.
Chai concentrates, such as those available from Maya Tea, open the door for endless creative beverages and culinary options that honor chai flavors and tradition. As Dann puts it: “…the spices and the aromas that you grew up with in different ways come together in this wonderful warm cup of chai, and it’s nice to see the drink taking off.”