This past Saturday I went out for early brunch, and it was still a long time until dinner so I stopped at Starbucks for a snack. Since I was working on a chai tea concentrate recipe (inspired by Maggy’s post earlier this year) for an upcoming article, I ordered one to remind me of the flavors.

That first sip produced four words, “Sweet Pumpkin Pie Spice.” This drink led with sweet. Other than the hint of spice, it was relatively characterless.

I headed to the kitchen to see if I could do it better.

Round 1: I started by brewing tea with whole spices, followed by another batch with toasted whole spices, and a final version with toasted whole spice that I ground before brewing. All of these methods delivered a subtle chai concentrate. I wanted something with more flavor and character. Another problem: whole spices are expensive and not readily available.

Round 2: To really infuse the flavor I brewed tea with ground spices. Oddly this concentrate wasn’t especially flavorful either. It was time to get bold. I doubled the spices and gently heated them before adding water. Finally I was getting somewhere. But, there was still something missing, what?

I headed to my local coffee shop, espresso NEAT in Darien, CT, who makes a very good chai, from a concentrate made by Intelligentsia, a high quality coffee roaster. Before making my tea they gave me a sip of the concentrate. I also checked out the ingredient list.

There were two pronounced flavors in the brew that I hadn’t thought of: molasses and lemon juice. That was it. The drink needed a touch of dark sweetener to match all those rich, heavy spices. It also needed a squeeze of lemon juice which, like salt, enlivens flavor.

So here it is. My chai tea concentrate’s got the right amount of sweetener for me. If you want more simply add it along with the milk.

Make a batch for yourself for the holidays. With concentrate made it’s easy to invite someone over for impromptu tea and cookies some afternoon. Or make some to give away… so much better than a Starbucks gift card!

Not Starbucks Chai Tea Concentrate

Makes 16 cups

To serve, blend 1/4 cup of the concentrate to either 3/4 cup hot or cold milk or water.

4 teaspoons each: ground ginger and cinnamon
4 teaspoons fennel seeds, ground
2 teaspoon each ground black pepper, cardamom, and coriander
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup loose black tea such as Earl Grey
3/4 cup blue agave
2 tablespoons molasses
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Stirring constantly, heat spices in a heavy bottomed medium saucepan over medium-low heat until fragrant and the first wisps of smoke start to rise, a couple of minutes.  Add 4 cups of water and the tea, bring to a simmer.  Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for flavors to blend, about 10 minutes. Strain out tea and spices. Stir in agave, molasses, vanilla and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Can be covered and refrigerated a couple of weeks.