And I’m not just talking about the old school heavily processed sugary milk-based powder that dissolves to make "Chai". Some people love that stuff and would choose it over brewed Masala Chai.
But I think that's awful.
What I’m talking about is Chai companies that
(1) Pulverise their spices and tea to a fine powder, or
(2) Use dehydrated, water-soluble tea and spice extracts
and tell you to stir it into milk or water. That sort of powdered Chai.
Here’s why I think (1) is awful. When you brew Masala Chai, you’re making an infusion. The heated milk/mylk extracts the flavour and aroma compounds from the spice when brought to boiling point and let steep. This process allows the flavour of the tea and spices infuse into the milk/mylk. The tea and spices are strained off and this results in a flavourful, velvety drink. On the other hand, when you simply try to mix ground spice directly into a liquid, you end up with a gritty liquid suspension. It goes without saying that ground spice and tea are not water soluble. Particle sizes that are larger than 25–35 μm are perceptible as "sandy" on the tongue. Commercially-available ground spice is around 300 μm. You will therefore find that the barest amount of spice gets used in powdered Chai to counteract that awful mouthfeel. More than 70% of the ingredients in powdered chai is sugar.
Secondly, when you grind a spice, you are increasing its surface area by a crap-tonne, thereby exposing more of the spice’s aroma compounds to air. This causes the aroma molecules to dissipate and to oxidise much more readily. Whole spices retain their flavour and aroma much better than ground spice because of this. Therefore, you are getting inferior flavour payoff when you use ground spices in making Chai, particularly when they aren't freshly ground (like, ground-right-in-front-of-you level fresh). Pair this with the fact that most commercially-available ground spices are made from cheap, low-quality spices and have been sitting around in warehouses for months before ending up in your cup. Really, you're paying money for sugar + shitty, flaccid spice.
There are times when all I want is a cup of warm, sweet milk. However, when I'm craving a Masala Chai, I want spice - and there's no way you will get full spice flavour when you're making a cup with an "Instant" Powdered Chai.
Speaking of flavour, (2) is awful because extracts do not deliver the same complex flavour you get when using unprocessed spice and tea. When you brew a cup of black tea, the flavour that unfolds on your palate is complex and nuanced. Throw this all out the window when you use black tea extract, which is basically instant tea that you can buy from a packet at supermarkets when you’re in a pinch. Water-soluble spice extracts deliver a single note of the flavour chemical that best defines that particular spice. Refer back to our article on Flavour and you will see that spices are complex and layered with aroma molecules. You will miss all this wonderful complexity when you're dealing with spice extracts.
Finally, a note on the marketing of "Instant" Powdered Chai. You can certainly call extract-based Chai natural, in the same way Special K cereal is natural. It came from nature at one point, but it certainly is not in the same form when it goes into your mouth. There is a whole lot of processing that goes into distilling extracts from tea and spice, and calling it "natural" is misleading.
And I guess it goes without saying by now that there is absolutely nothing Authentic, Traditional, or Real about "Instant" Powdered Chai. Read our article on Authenticity
to learn more about our stance on this.