Sugar Is Key To Bringing Out The Spiced Flavors In Iced Chai

"Save the sweetness for the iced vanilla lattes," quoth diehard iced chai lovers. When it comes to enjoying a tall glass of chai, it's all about the spice factor... right? Not so fast. It might seem counterintuitive, but a little extra sugar makes your chai taste extra spicy. Let's break it down.

Taste is a multisensory experience — the result of a bunch of sensors on the tongue synapsing a bunch of neurons in the brain. Sweetness is one of the five fundamental tastes (along with salty, bitter, sour, and umami), and perhaps the easiest way to achieve "sweetness" is with sugar. On a molecular level, sugar is a carbohydrate made from oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon atoms. When you add sugar to your cup of chai, a physical reaction takes place, and it isn't just about sweetness. 

Sugar brings flavor and nutritional value to foods, but it also enhances the palate's ability to detect and perceive other flavors, as well — and there are a lot of flavor notes to detect in a cup of chai. Chai is a strong, full-bodied black tea with dominant cinnamon and cardamom notes, but whatever the spices, perhaps even more important in a traditional chai is the milk, which brings out the chai's natural richness. The flavors of sugar milk work in harmony with the flavors of chai spices, and the most common sweetener for chai lattes is plain old granulated sugar.

Don't knock it till you chai it

In any application, a spoonful of sugar enhances the existing flavor notes, reduces intensity and acidity, and creates a profile that's smoother, balanced, and more palatable. But, it can be especially helpful when making an iced chai, as the body's taste receptors reach peak activation at body temperature, roughly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, the chilled temperature of your iced chai dials down the body's ability to register flavor, so amping up the sugar and spice can be necessary to compensate for the difference.

Start with one teaspoon at a time and add more (or don't) to taste. If your goal is to showcase the chai spice, you don't want to overdo it on the sweet factor.

Instead of granulated sugar, you could also use other sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, or molasses to customize the flavor profile of your chai. White and raw sugar sweeten chai without significantly affecting its flavor profile, but brown sugar can introduce a heavier, more distinct flavor into the mix. Just keep in mind that, when making iced chai, not all sweeteners will dissolve as easily as they might in a hot beverage. Even just using sweetened oat milk can help bring out the more delicate notes in your chai.