This week at the T2 Headquarters in Collingwood, eight competitors from some of Melbourne’s top cafes battled for the title of 2014 Chai Champion. The inaugural event was hosted by T2 and judged by co-founder, Maryanne Shearer.

In the mix of Melbourne’s chai experts were representatives from Crabapple Kitchen, Saint ALi North, Brighton Schoolhouse, Touchwood, Picnic, My Legendary Girlfriend, The Last Piece and Madamimadam. As competitors brewed, sieved and smashed their ingredients in what looked like spicy science experiments, the open warehouse space very quickly filled with the aromas.

Some chose not to stray far from the traditional elements of cinnamon quills, cardamom seeds, ginger, cloves and star anise. Others, however, embraced inventive ingredients such as apple-and-chai-infused foam from My Legendary Girlfriend, and smashed strawberry and mint from Picnic. Crabapple Kitchen executed a chai ice-cream with saffron toffee and a choc-orange syrup made with T2’s choc-chip chai and melted Lindt chocolate.

All competitors agreed to use regular milk instead of soy milk in their recipes. Dan Dick of St Ali North says, “Soy milk masks the flavour of the spices and is just too overpowering.”

Of greater concern are the potential health issues associated with soy milk. “I really want to get people off soy milk. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon a few years ago and now I think it’s petered out because we’ve realised the hormones they use in it, and how it’s cultured, is just not good for you,” says Charlotte Turner from Madamimadam.

The Madamimadam team suggests adopting the almond-milk alternative to retain that nutty flavour. Otherwise, full-cream milk is the choice among all other competitors for its simplicity. It lets the spices and tea leaves be the heros of the drink.

Taking out the 2014 Chai Champion title, and seven-day trip for two to Darjeeling, India, was Chris Odrowaz from Touchwood. His baked choc-orange and caramelised-ginger-chai recipe proved a hit for its complexity of flavour and balance of sweetness and spiciness. “You’ve got a bit of spice from the ginger and the sweetness from the caramelisation process. Then, to give it that extra warmth, there’s the black pepper and orange rind,” he says.

If you’re curious to taste the winning chai, you can head down to Touchwood Richmond. Odrowaz reckons that winning recipe will make it onto the menu.