I’m a big fan of beer. In fact, I used to write a beer column for a local newspaper a few years back. I’ll often have a beer when I start dinner, and switch to tea at the end. I even took a seminar at World Tea Expo about pairing tea and beer, looking for common flavor characteristics in different styles of the two beverages. A conversation with fellow tea blogger Robert Godden (Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts), however, got me thinking about the possibility of actually combining the two. You know, putting beer and tea in the same glass. Yeah, Robert’s a strange one.
But why not?
There are beer styles exemplified by certain flavors, which you might get from additives like fruit or other grains, or you might get from doing strange things to the barley, like smoking it. Why not get those flavors from tea? Especially that smoky one…
A buddy of mine, Doug “Beerbarian” Bailey, works at our local brewery, Red Lodge Ales. Doug is a sales guy, but he still understands beer pretty well. He and I both go for smoky flavors. We drink lapsang souchong and Russian caravan tea. We drink smoky rauschbier. We drink Islay Scotches like Laphroaig, which just ooze peat and smoke. We even enjoy the same pipe tobaccos.
So Doug and I had a long discussion about flavoring beer with tea — especially about making our own variety of rauschbier by adding smoked tea to a nice robust beer. It was a wonderful discussion, but we didn’t follow through on it. And then, months later, I get a private message from him on Facebook:
Initially, we’d been talking about actually adding the tea leaves to the kettle while brewing the beer, but Doug was in a hurry. He proposed adding the tea to beer that was already brewed and sitting in the keg. This brings up a few complications, like how to avoid watering down the beer and how to pour tea into a full keg of carbonated beer.
The solution to the first problem was simple: just make the tea really strong so we don’t have to use much of it. In fact, to avoid diluting the flavor of the beer, we went right past “really strong” to “stupid strong.” And as for the second problem, Doug came up with a set of fittings that allowed us to put the tea into an empty keg, pressurize it, and then add the contents of a full keg of beer to it.
The more we talked about the solutions to the problems, the more we realized making just one beer wasn’t going to cut it, so when experiment day arrived, Doug grabbed the kegs of beer and I brewed three stupid strong batches of tea from Red Lodge Books & Tea to match them.
We started by adding carefully measured amounts of the übertea to glasses of beer. Instead of wrecking our palates with the smoked tea, we started with a lighter one. The beer is Helio Hefeweizen, a light and citrusy unfiltered wheat beer. I paired that with a cinnamon orange spice rooibos tea. I had brewed the tea with 1 ounce of leaf to 8 ounces of boiling water and steeped it for six minutes. It didn’t take a whole lot of tea to give the beer a wondrous spicy flavor with an orangy nose. We settled on 940 ml of strong tea in the 5-gallon keg of beer. It was a rousing triumph. We made a bit extra so I could take a growler home with me.
Our second experiment was completely off the wall. Doug did say he wanted something “wacky,” so I paired their Beartooth Pale Ale with an infusion of one of my own special tea blends, which I call “Coyotes of the Purple Sage.” It’s an Earl Grey made with black tea, sage, and a hint of mint. I didn’t brew it quite as strong (same amount of leaf as the first one, but with a 5 minute infusion). Our first experiment was rather overwhelming, so we backed down the ratio, using 750 ml of tea in the 5-gallon keg.
I’m not going to call this one an overwhelming success. The sage and bergamot was just a little strange in the pale ale.
The final beer was the one that started all this. We used a Russian Caravan tea, 1 ounce of leaf per 8 ounces of water, brewed for 4 minutes. The base beer is Jack’s Scottish Ale. We played around with the proportions for a bit, and ended up using 900 ml of tea per five gallon keg. We made two kegs: one for Doug’s special event, and one to put on tap in the tasting room that night. Doug named it “Smokin’ Jack.” It was exactly what we were trying to accomplish!
This will not be the last time I bring together my loves of beer and tea. Maybe it’s getting to be time to dust off all of my old homebrewing equipment and get to work.
About 40% of the teas we offer at our tea bar are certified organic. Generally speaking, those teas run about 50% higher in price than the non-organic alternatives. In most cases, however, they outsell their non-organic counterparts by a fairly healthy margin. In tough economic times, that says something. But what does it say?
UPDATE 2017: The price difference between organic and non-organic teas is a lot smaller now. There are also a lot of alternatives to USDA organic programs, like the ones I wrote about in 2015.
Let’s say you were to prepare two cups of tea, processed identically, with tea grown in neighboring plantations. Identical weather and soil, but one organic and the other not. Would you be able to tell those two cups of tea apart? I doubt that I would. Yet as I write this I’m drinking a cup of USDA Organic Earl Grey tea, for which I paid quite a bit more than the “brand X” earl grey that I could have prepared instead. Why? Because I like it better. But the real question is why I started drinking that particular earl grey in the first place.
To me, the “organic” label doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better product. Conversely, lack of organic certification doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. But when I’m looking at new tea for home or the tea bar, I look for the “USDA Organic” logo because it means somebody went to a lot of effort to get that certification. They cared enough to wade through the mounds of required paperwork and certify the origins of every ingredient. That’s a lot of work, and it means they take pride in their product.
On the front page of the current issue of our local paper, The Carbon County News, there’s an extensive interview with Bonnie Martinell, one of the owners of the On-Thyme Gourmet, the farm that grows the sage and apple mint tea we sell. They quoted her as saying:
“We were certified organic but the process became so burdensome. We tried to keep up with the forms but they are about five inches deep to start with and they keep coming back for changes with another five inches. You can’t function with all the paperwork.”
I’ve heard the same thing from other farmers and ranchers in this area. When I had my ranch, I couldn’t certify my cattle as organic because they had grazed for six months on BLM land, where I had no control over what they might have eaten.
If there’s an organic tea that I like, which sells well in my tea bar, I’m not going to stop selling it if it suddenly becomes non-certified. To me, it’s still the same product. I consider the “Certified Organic” label to be a shopping aid, not a label requirement. It guides me to producers who care enough to put extra effort into their product. I think it helps me to find good tea.
What about the price issue? Well, most tea is pretty inexpensive. The majority of our organic loose-leaf teas sell for $3.00/ounce or less. Even a big 16-ounce mug like the one I use at home only needs 5 or 6 grams of tea, which means about five cups per ounce. I generally use my leaves twice, which doubles the yield to ten cups per ounce. That’s 30 cents per cup for the organic tea, versus about 20 cents for a non-organic equivalent. A dime a cup difference. I’d have to drink a lot of tea before a dime a cup would break my budget!
And in the tea bar, I charge the same price for a cup of just about every tea in the store (we do charge more for some specialties, like boba and chai), so as a consumer, you’d pay the same for the organic as you would for the non-organic.
My conclusion: argue all day long about what “organic” really means, but I don’t think it matters. When I’m buying unfamiliar tea, I’m going to look for that label!