Tea 101: The Origins of Chai

Heritage, history, and context are vital to Tanglewood, especially because we are non-Indian women crafting traditional Indian beverages. Since launching our handcrafted bev brand at Either/Or's tiny 300 square-foot cafe in 2013, we’ve made it our mission to spread awareness about anything/everything Chai related.

Whether you’re a fan of Tanglewood concentrates or simply looking to flex your tea knowledge with friends, here's a rundown on the history of Chai.

Where Does Chai Come From?

For starters, a variety of cultures have enjoyed Chai for over 5,000 years—well before it landed here in Portland.

Chai is a Hindi-Urdu word for tea from the Chinese word Chá and originated as an Ayurvedic drink in India. The most common Chai is Masala, a word that describes the mixture of ground spices used in Indian cuisine. Meaning, Masala Chai is a black tea mixed with herbs and spices as well as milk and water. If you visit India, you'll encounter it everywhere. However, you can always visit us for a cup at the Either/Or Cafe if you're local to Portland!

How did Chai make it here?

In the mid-1800s, the British discovered the Camellia sinensis assamica plant after colonizing the country (...). In part, that discovery led to the expansion of the British East India Company, which traded tea from the Assam region, which the West embraced because of their tea's strength and flavor profile.

The expansion and proliferation of the tea industry in the 1800s meant it became accessible outside of India, eventually making it to the cups of Westerners beyond England and now in Portland. Today, the State of Assam continues to be the world's largest tea producer and graciously elevates Tanglewood Chai Concentrates by making our drinks stunningly delicious.

What Makes Chai Chai?

Depending on where you live, you might think of Chai as a mixture of ginger and black tea made with spices like cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, black pepper, and cloves—many of our favorite ingredients. However, you can think of Chai as a bev made up of:

  • Milk
  • Tea
  • Spices
  • And Sweetener

Is it Chai Tea or Chai?

We love answering this question because everyone’s asked for a Chai tea latte at one point. The ubiquity of hearing those two words together is also why people ask us, “is it Chai tea or Chai?”

We mentioned earlier that in Hindi, the primary language spoken in India, “Chai” means “tea.” Meaning, you wouldn’t ask a barista for “tea tea,” and instead can simply ask for “Chai” when placing an order.

Let’s Talk Portland Chai

Chai recipes traditionally vary from household to household. At Tanglewood, our recipes have been lovingly tweaked over the years to offer a distinct style by our founder, Ro Tam.

This means that, while our Chai concentrates are inspired by Indian Chai, we leave those traditional recipes to the people who do it best. Instead, we focus on small-batch products that capture the tastes of Portland, making our chai a little spicier and working in flavors like lavender, ginger, or turmeric.