By Michael Szyliowicz, Mont Blanc Gourmet
It seems like only yesterday that masala chai, otherwise known as "chai tea" in this part of the world, burst onto the scene and became the chic new drink on restaurant menu boards. Its unique blend of sweet and spicy flavors enchanted beverage drinkers, and after 20-plus years, it has become as ubiquitous in our industry as the café latté or cappuccino.
In some respects, the rise of chai in the U.S. is really quite remarkable. For one, the flavor is robust and often polarizing. Unlike other forms of tea, chai seems to elicit a love-or-hate reaction from chai newbies, which is an unusual attribute for such a popular and successful product. More surprising, the U.S. has only a modest Indian population that would have been remotely familiar with the product beforehand, and consumer acceptance did not come gradually; rather, chai became popular almost overnight, and it has sustained that status even today.
It's almost as if America was "ready" for the emergence of chai, and once the product was imported from India and commercialized in the U.S., consumers responded immediately to the new ethnic flavor.
Today, consumers have become even more adventurous with their food and beverage orders. Reputable research companies corroborate that trend, including The NPD Group, which earlier this year released its annual food predictions report claiming that in 2012, "tastes will evolve, and consumers will seek spicier and more flavorful foods."
What does this mean for beverages? Consumers are ready for us to deliver the "next chai" — the chic new drink that will captivate taste buds with unique, ethnic flavors.
I have been fortunate enough to travel the world and visit an array of diverse cultures. Because my company specializes in creating innovative "signature drinks" for our customers, I love to learn which flavors are working well internationally and what lessons can be learned from other cultures and economies. In beverages, the successes of the Vietnamese iced coffee, Mexican hot chocolate and the Indian mango lassi are very intriguing. Each has a very distinct flavor profile (like chai), and with consumers taking more risks with ethnic flavors, I believe there is a great opportunity for restaurant and specialty coffee operators to launch a "global beverage platform" that includes these and other ethnically diverse flavor profiles.
If I were to wager, however, on which international beverage I think will become "the next chai," I would bet big on Horchata, the classic Latin American drink that carries complex vanilla and cinnamon notes. For one, Horchata has a distinct and delicious flavor that is a perfectly refreshing treat on a warm day. Second, Horchata is rice-based, meaning it contains no dairy and can be enjoyed by nearly everyone. This is an important characteristic for today's health-conscious consumer, and that must not be overlooked.
Finally, the emerging Hispanic influence in America will help accelerate Horchata's popularity. In fact, in the same NPD Group report, the research company predicted that growing Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S. will lead to more ethnically diverse foods in 2012.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I actually have already wagered on Horchata's success, and I've been quietly smiling as the stars seemed to align for the tasty drink's big moment. This spring, my company Mont Blanc Gourmet will be introducing a deliciously original Horchata drink mix that restaurant and specialty coffee operators can utilize to add beverage to their menus immediately. Our Horchata stays true to the classic Latin American drink, with the exception that we specially formulated our product to be enjoyed year round either serve over ice, blended or steamed.
The time for Horchata to emerge is now, and I anticipate that in the coming months and years, you'll find the Latin American drink on menu boards next to its Indian predecessor chai.
Michael Szyliowicz is the co-founder and chocolatier at Mont Blanc Gourmet, a specialty beverage company that helps formulate and launch signature drinks for restaurants and specialty coffee operators around the world.