The smell of orange blossom and vanilla is in the air. Guests have their hands decorated with henna on arrival. T2’s Collingwood headquarters is swarming with colourful types – the 2015 Chai Championship is about to go down.
A gong sounds, signalling the start of the 45-minute brewing session. Mortar and pestles grind and steam pours out of pots. Over in the Proud Mary corner, Kate Waring is monitoring homemade cashew milk and cacao butter as it simmers away.
“I wanted to create something almost like a dessert,” she says. “Something with the thickness and mouthfeel of a traditional chai.”
“All the different flavours on show here represent the variety you would find in India – no two cups are ever the same,” says judge Christine Manfield.
Dan Dick from St. Ali is declared runner-up for his mix of smoked vanilla, freeze-dried mandarin segments and saffron-infused honey. However, it is Michael Allen from Auction Rooms who is pronounced the champion for 2015.
Adding citrus notes and floral tones from a black Earl Grey tea leaf made his blend more inventive, without detracting from the traditional mix.
“I wanted to make it seem like it had been brewing for longer,” he says, holding the copper chai-pot trophy. “A lot of my friends who have been to India say that’s why it’s the best there, because it’s been infusing for much longer and slowly building flavour.”
In coffee-saturated Melbourne, other beverages, such as chai, can be marginalised, even though they have as much variety and complexity of flavour.
“We’re always seeing emphasis put on single-origin beans and the different flavour profiles of blends coming from Brazil, or Ethiopia,” says Thomas Kelly from Standing Room Coffee. “But the same goes for chais and the different teas being used from different areas of India.”