What Is A Chai Tea Latte?

Last Updated: May. 3, 2018
Chai tea latte, with pattern in foam, in teacup reading: Caffe ArtigianoChai Tea Latte, Caffe Artigiano, Calgary, Photo © Elsie Hui, CC BY 2.0.
A chai tea latte is a drink prepared in coffee shops, like a latte (espresso+steamed milk), but with a spiced tea concentrate substituted for the espresso. The name is redundant, since "chai" means tea; more accurate terms would be "spiced tea latte" or "masala chai latte", but these terms are rarely used. According to Dictionary.com, the term "chai tea latte" had been standardized by 1994.

This page explores what a chai tea latte is and how to make it, and discusses the distinction between low-quality, instant products made from pre-made concentrates, and ones made from scratch from fresh-brewed tea.

What defines a chai tea latte?

A chai tea latte is similar to, but not the same as the traditional way of preparing masala chai. Traditional masala chai involves decocting (boiling) the tea and spices in a mixture of water and milk, whereas a chai tea latte involves adding a concentrated spiced tea to steamed milk.

The difference between these two drinks is analogous to the difference between Café au lait (coffee with milk) and a latte (espresso with steamed milk). As with an espresso latte, in which strong coffee is added to steamed milk, a chai tea latte has a lighter, foamy texture resulting from the steaming of the milk.

Chai tea lattes of dubious quality: instant tea vs. fresh-brewed

Chai Tea Latte, Second Cup Coffee, Calgary, Alberta Canada, © Calgary Reviews (Flickr), CC BY 2.0.
Although a chai tea latte can be made easily from fresh-brewed tea at a concentrated strength, most coffee shops instead make it from pre-brewed, packaged concentrates that are mass-produced and stored for a considerable time before the drink is prepared. As such, these drinks have more in common with instant and bottled teas than with fresh-brewed tea.

We do not list these products for review on our website, as they are usually of inferior quality, are often pre-sweetened to unhealthy levels, and are also not the most sustainable option. To find reviews of chai blends, loose-leaf or in tea bags, visit our masala chai / spiced tea section.

Coffee-based "chai" lattes

Sometimes, a "chai" latte can (incorrectly) be used to refer to a spiced beverage made like a normal espresso latte but including a spice blend similar to that traditionally used in masala chai. These drinks are vaguely inspired by the tea traditions of India, but do not contain any actual tea. The otherwise redundant term "tea" was included in the term "chai tea latte" to distinguish between these espresso-based drinks.

When ordering in a cafe, if you are unsure of what drink being sold, ask how the drink is made before ordering it!

Starbucks' "Chai Tea Latte"

Loose-leaf tea showing slightly curved, mostly-whole leaves, a few stems in the mixAssam, a strong black tea, is the most frequent base for masala chai and also makes a great base for chai tea lattes.
An older, archived post from the Starbucks website from 2011 describes, a Starbucks Chai Tea Latte as using a base of Assam tea, combined with the spices ginger, cardamom, star anise, cloves and cinnamon. Honey and organic cane sugar are used as sweeteners, and the recipe also contains a dash of vanilla. The current website is less specific about the base tea but has basically the same info.

Quartz India, in their piece No, Starbucks Chai Tea Latte is Not Real Chai, remarks that, although chai is highly variable in India, the Starbucks drink is much sweeter than the traditional Indian versions.

A trick to enjoy better spiced tea lattes

Although by default, Starbucks, as with many other cafe, will make their chai tea lattes with the pre-sweetened concentrate, you can ask them to brew a latte using a fresh-brewed sachet of masala chai and no syrup, then adding steamed milk, resulting in a fresh-brewed drink with no added sugar. Any coffee shop that carries a masala chai blend in loose-leaf or tea bag form, will be able to easily make such a drink if you ask.

Caffeine and calories, compared to tea, coffee, and other drinks

Because it is brewed more strongly than pure tea, chai tea lattes can contain a little more caffeine than typical pure tea. The Starbucks version has 50mg of caffeine per 8 ounce cup, 70mg for a 12 ounce; this is within, but towards the high end of the typical range of caffeine in a cup of tea, still significantly less than a typical cup of coffee. You can learn more on our page on caffeine in tea.

The milk adds significant calories (and nutrition) that is not present in pure tea. Pure tea is virtually calorie free. The sugar in most sweetened chai tea lattes is the largest contributor to calories. For example, the Starbucks drink, for a 12 ounce size, contains 190 calories, of which 128 are empty calories from sugar. This amount of sugar is typical among different companies selling pre-sweetened chai tea lattes. It also exceeds for women, and is close to exceeding for men, the daily limit of added sugars recommended by the American Heart Association.

This is yet another reason to ask for (or make) an unsweetened, fresh-brewed latte made from scratch, and avoid ones made from syrups and concentrates.

Making a Chai Tea Latte from scratch

Espresso machines can make it easier to steam the milk for a chai tea latte, but are not necessary to make this drink. Photo © Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Many companies sell chai tea latte concentrates, but it is relatively easy to make a chai tea latte from scratch, without buying any concentrate. You can either start with a pre-blended masala chai, loose-leaf or in tea bags (check our pages on chai to find ones our reviewers favor), or if you want to do even more work yourself, you can use a strong black tea like Assam and blend it with your own choice of spices.

Brew the tea and spice mixes more strongly than you would for a cup of pure tea. For a typical-strength cup, use twice the amount of tea (tea bags or loose-leaf tea) as you normally would, and brew for the normal duration of time, or slightly longer. If you want to sweeten the drink, it is easiest to add sweetener at this step because it will dissolve faster and more thoroughly in hotter water, and the water is hottest at this stage. Then prepare a latte as you normally would, substituting the extra-strength tea for espresso: steaming the milk (about 160ºF or 71ºC is ideal, milk scalds around 180ºF/82ºC), and adding the concentrated tea when it is done brewing.

The timing of this drink is different from the timing of making an espresso latte; when working with espresso. It typically takes only 20-25 seconds to brew 1-2 ounces of espresso, using a machine. However, tea typically takes 1-5 minutes to steep, depending on the type of tea and desired strength. Because of this, start the tea steeping before you start steaming the milk. Once the milk is heated, pour the milk into the concentrated, brewed tea.

Getting a frothy texture without an espresso machine

If you do not own an espresso machine, you can shake milk in a a jar and use a microwave to heat it, to produce the frothy foam for the top of the drink, see this tutorial; this works best with low-fat or skim milk, even if you use whole milk for the rest of your drink.

References and further reading

1. Homemade Chai Tea Latte (the real deal), on Live Simply - a recipe and detailed instructions and pictures on how to make one of these drinks from scratch, using whole ingredients.

2. Home Made Chai Latte' on Instructables - Also a recipe with step-by-step instructions and pictures, on making this drink from scratch, using tea bags and whole spices.

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