Geoff Norman is one of my favorite tea people. He is a beverage reviewer with an excellent sense of humor and a great amount of knowledge regarding both tea and beer. Naturally, when I came across the beer/tea phenomenon back some time ago, he was the first person I thought of. Find yourself curious about the pairing? Check out Geoff's thoughts on the combo! -Naomi, Owner of Joy's Teaspoon
I love beer. Correction: I love good beer. Ever since my college days, I developed this annoying thing called a “discerning palate”. It prevents me from drinking anything with reckless abandon for the sake of sheer inebriation. Back in college, I could pound the sparkling Mexican toilet water that passed for beer without so much as a flinch. These days, not so much. Now, terms like “IBUs”, “barrel-aged”, and “cask-conditioned” have entered my libation-related lexicon. It’s annoying being this selective, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Although, finding ways of sating a picky palate is quite the exercise. Worse off, over the last few years, I’ve even narrowed down my search to ingredients. No, not the type of hops used. (I know I should care whether they’re Centennial or Bavarian hops…but I don’t.) What I speak of is replacement or added ingredients that help redefine the character of the beverage. In this case, the use of tea.
What was strange was the dearth of tea and beer combinations – at least, around the time when I was looking. No one was producing such a chimerical brew, to my knowledge. Plenty of breweries were fiddling around with herbs like jasmine, chamomile, coriander, lemongrass and ginger. Others still were putting coffee in their stouts and porters. None were making a go of tea-beer pairings. So, I tried to do it myself…with mixed results. Did I homebrew? Oooooh no, I actually attempted to brew tea concentrate then add it to a perfectly good pint. Some – like a chocolate pu-erh stout – worked out rather well. Others – like a Lapsang Souchong smoked porter – had me running for the bathroom in squeals of pain. I tried to convince homebrewer friends of mine to toy with tea beer recipes, but I had no incentive to give them. Promises of “I’ll love you forever” were mainly met with awkward stares. It seemed I was stuck with either: (A) learning how to brew beer myself, or (B) stick with my half-successful concentrates.
Luckily, there was an Option C. A friend of mine passed along info about a small, up-and-coming brewery out of Turner, OR. that came up with a unique tea beer dubbed “Mamba”. Ingredients included were Earl Grey, rye, tangerine zest and…other stuff (?). I had the pleasure of meeting the brewer family and sampling it at a small brewfest, and it pretty much blew me away. The combination could (and did) work swimmingly. And I was swimming in it by the end of that outing. After that glowing first try, I had to wait several months before another beer surfaced that did something similar. A trip to Astoria, OR. graced me with another glorious tea beer – one that was on tap at the Rogue public house located in town. Like the Mamba, a bergamot-laden black tea was used as an ingredient. Unlike the former, there was barely a tea presence. It tasted like a typical pale ale without a hoppy bite. I liked it, but I was expecting more from said “tea ale”. By that point, I’d written off tea-beers as a gimmick. I thought that they contributed no real flavor to the overall brew.
A chance perusal of a Whole Foods brought me in contact with another tea beer, challenging that conclusion. Stone Brewing (out of San Diego) and Baird Brewing (out of Shizuoka prefecture, Japan) released a Japanese sencha IPA. And – I’ll be damned – it tasted like an IPA by way of green tea, hoppy and leafy. Two out of three successes so far, not bad odds. While not a beer, a friend of mine and I went on a one-night trek to track down a jasmine green tea mead put out by a microbrewery. It took us six hours to find the actual bar that produced it, but – five beers and several blocks later – we found it. The stuff had the strongest tea-ish presence of any beer I’d tried up to that point. Which brings us to the relative present.
A few months ago, I received a tweet from a teashop owner in Eugene, OR. He informed me that a local brewery had a gin-barrel-aged, oolong-brewed, Belgian-style saison on tap at a pub in my neck of the woods. I happened to have been sick the day they were releasing it, but I braved the trek anyway. It was an oolong beer, how could I not?! That and I’d missed their first tapping of this particular type. And, dear lord, did it live up to expectations. If there was an oolong presence, however, it was lost amidst the Belgian sourness and the juniper berry scenting. Still, quite wonderful. In my humble opinion, do tea and beer combine well? I would say so. Granted, any natural tea leaf taste gets muddled by the barley, hops, rye or yeast in the mix. That said, tea contributes something extra – a little “oomph” that wasn’t there before. I’ve personally enjoyed every one I’ve tried, and there are more out there with my name on it. Widmer just released an experimental spiced beer with Assam leaves, and Dogfish Head has Sah’tea, which is on my list. Tea beers are definitely in their infancy, yet I’ll happily suckle a bottle of ‘em like a happy baby.