Oregonians, zealots for specialty beverages, want a comforting cup of brew that’s evocative of a walk through the woods, a romp in a citrus grove, or a stroll past fresh-cut herbs and flowers at the farmers’ market. But are these earthy, piney, floral notes from a pint of hoppy beer or a pot of tea? Sometimes, the answer is both.
Today’s beer brewers are increasingly creating beers that appeal to their own broad palate, and pallet, of flavors and ingredients. One of the more intriguing examples comes from Gilgamesh Brewing in Salem where their flagship ale, Mamba, is brewed with black tea and tangerine zest. While this murky orange ale’s herbal and deep citrus flavors closely mimic some hop varieties, hop cones are not included in the ingredient list, which classifies Mamba as a gruit, or hop-free ale.
Gilgamesh is a Radkte family business with a knack for local sourcing. They bring in tea primarily from Stash Tea, located in Tigard. “We use their Earl Grey for Mamba, and we use their Double Bergamot Earl Grey in our imperial version, Mega Mamba,” said Matt Radkte. Mega Mamba is so viscous that it more resembles a citrus smoothie than a tea or beer. Teas are also renowned for their delicacy, and Gilgamesh plays to that sensibility nicely, using Jasmine White Tea in a lighter, more refreshing wheat beer called DJ Jazzy Hef.
Out of the Comfort Zone and Into the Pot
IPAs are the hop bombs that make up over a quarter of all beer sales in Oregon. To put this in perspective, most states drink craft beer in general less than 10 percent of the time. With that huge market share, there is room to be creative, and brewers are reading tea leaves for inspiration. Rogue Ales, whose brewmaster John Maier sports the nickname “More Hops,” launched Buckman Botanical Brewery (tucked inside the Green Dragon Pub) in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood. Rogue’s Mike Higgins said, “We stepped outside our own comfort zone [by brewing] without the use of hops … We quickly became infatuated with tea.” Partnering with Portland’s Steven Smith Teamaker, head brewer at Buckman Botanical, Danny Connors, works closely with Tony Tellin at Smith on a technical level. “Each variety has its nuances,” said Higgins, citing “ideal temperature, steep time, reaction to yeast and other ingredients.” One of Buckman’s more popular offerings is called Chamomellow, a mellow ale akin to sipping a cup of chamomile with orange blossom honey.
“We have brewed beers by adding tea directly to the kettle toward the end of the boil,” said Higgins. “White and green teas usually need longer steeping times than black teas. Sometimes it works best to create a concentrated tea and blend in the right proportions with the intended beer. Ultimately, we want the flavor of the tea to shine through in the beer as cleanly as it would in a cup.” To achieve these results, Connors has experimented with steeping tea in the fermenter post-fermentation, but, just as some people are accustomed to garnishing their glass with a wedge of fruit, the pub has also served pints with a tea sachet.
At another brewery in Portland, Lompoc Brewing, new brewer Spencer Gotter was tasked with creating a fruity “session” beer—a full-flavored beer with less than 4.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). “I’m not a coffee drinker; I’m a green tea drinker,” said Gotter. In his previous position at Astoria’s Fort George Brewery, Gotter brewed Emerald Pearl, a lightly hopped pale ale made with, naturally, green tea.
For Lompoc, Gotter picked out 13 different types of black tea at Pearl Jasmine Tea Merchants. The staff, he noted, “were patient with me while I took notes. I was there for probably two hours just tasting tea.” The result was a 4.9% ABV (okay, it almost hits the session mark) beer called Black and Blue. He steeped twelve pounds of Keamun black tea in the kettle and with fourteen pounds of puréed blueberries, added during secondary fermentation in the brite tank.
Although Lompoc Black and Blue was a one-off batch, Gotter said he’s looking to do more tea beers. “If I could just be the brewer that brews with tea that would work well for me. I hope it’s something that will catch on.”
Steeped in Tea Beer
Slowly but surely, it is catching on. Tea beers have spanned the style spectrum. Earl Grey is a common inspiration and appears in Breakside Brewing’s Bergamot Special Bitter (a golden English ale that also uses lemon peel) in Portland, as well as De Garde’s Earl Desay in Tillamook. The latter is a farmhouse ale aged for over a year in barrels to achieve a natural, wild, tart flavor that is then conditioned with the tea. Similarly, De Garde’s brewmaster Trevor Rogers makes a sour Berliner Weisse with Yerba Mate called Yer Bu.
Two years ago in Eugene, 16 Tons—a bottle shop and café that specializes in coffee and beer, as well as ample teas and herbal blends from Eugene’s J-Tea International—hosted a bona fide Tea Beer Festival. Tea beers were nothing new to owner Mike Coplin. He explained that 16 Tons’ first anniversary beer, created by local Oakshire Brewing, was a barrel-aged saison infused with Iron Goddess Oolong green tea (also from J-Tea) called Frederic’s Lost Arm. “The tea additions offered a wide range of flavors: sweet fruit, honey, earth, wood, smoke, chai spice and more,” said Coplin. Of the seventeen tea beers tapped at the fest, thirteen were brewed in Oregon. I’d like to think that everyone who attended left just a bit healthier, given the antioxidant-rich properties of teas and hops.