Coffee and beer; the crossovers are endless. The jumpy-beans lend themselves perfectly to brewing, imparting flavours from deep, hearty roast right through to light, red-berry fruit. Only the other week, I was talking about some of the UK’s best coffee beers. In terms of other aspects of the beer industry, coffee keeps brewers afloat following all those early starts – and (closer to home) it fuels writers and helps spark whatever flickering light we have to get that blinking cursor moving. I’m actually drinking a coffee right now, in fact; a
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference single origin fair trade Sumatran, hand-picked by orangutans and delivered to my frontal lobe via the wankiest aeropress money can buy.
But what about tea? Tea beers aren’t nearly as prevalent, despite it being the UK’s favourite beverage. Is there something about the humble leaf that doesn’t quite lend itself to brewing? Associations with vicars and grandmothers, church fetes? Too many jokes about teabagging? Is tea just coffee’s slightly naff cousin? Possibly. Yet, tea-infused beers are on the rise. This could be because brewers have reached the end of the line with coffee, and rummaged around in the brewery cupboard for inspiration (next up; Rich Tea Ale) – but more likely it’s down to the increasing availability of high-level, specialist teas from dedicated sources.
Take Eteaket in Edinburgh. One of the bedrock of tea dealers in the city, they have a fantastic reputation for sourcing and serving loose-leaf teas from all over the world. They have also just collaborated with Argyll’s Fyne Ales, to produce a couple of special-release tea beers, augmenting a new 4% British-hopped pale ale, From the Ashes. After numerous experiments with half a dozen Eteaket offerings, the Fyne team settled on two specific blends, majoring in sencha green leaf and chai – and as you can imagine, both yield hugely different results.
The sencha blend – Blooming Marvellous – also contains mallow, sunflower petals, rosebuds, vanilla and dried fruit, and goodness me, does that come over in the beer. Blooming Brew (4%) smells like Hubba Bubba, there’s really no other way of putting it. Sweet, cream soda and vanilla, yet switching into a long bitter finish – the whole thing comes over as a liquidised Pez (for those that remember Pez); it’s fascinating. With 3kg of tea imparted in a 5bbl brew, cold-infused (as Fyne MD Jamie Delap said, added to the boil, the flavours would vanish), it’s all-pervading.
This is exactly the case with the Chai PA. Brewed with Bollywood Dream Chai, it has a woody, balsa-like flavour, really peaky on the finish. At times, it verges on the medicinal, with a bitter, perfumed aftertaste. To get the Chai blend, Eteaket added aniseed, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, cloves and chicory root to black tea – and all of these spices give that aromatic aroma, and taste, that just keeps on going. I think, on balance, I preferred the Blooming Brew – but there’s no denying that both really bring across the flavours of the infused tea.
One of the earlier front-runners in this (semi-recent) revival of brewing with tea was Marble’s much-heralded Earl Grey IPA, produced in conjunction with Emelisse. The combination of flowery bergamot and resinous hops worked beautifully. Maybe that hints at one of the reasons why – until now – tea beers haven’t been as prevalent as coffee beers; it takes real thought to get success when blending a complex tea with all the constituents of a beer. The style you are brewing is critical, for instance. Obviously, Fyne Ales understood this, given their multiple experiments and winnowing-down, on the way to their two final beers.
But, although it might be a difficult ingredient to brew with, that’s not to say tea beers aren’t available here in Scotland. Aside from the two Fyne efforts (which are pouring now at Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh, and will also be on the bar at FyneFest next month), here are some other Scottish brewers who have experimented with the underutilised, under-appreciated leaf. Have you experienced a great tea-beer? Is it more than just fuel for builders?
Pilot Beer Iced Tea Ale (5.0%)
Leith’s new young pups bravely started life with a tea infused beer as one of their very first offerings. Involving Matt and Pat’s ‘unique tea blend’, the ITA is hopped with Citra and Amarillo, then infused with fresh lemongrass. Lots of citrus peel on the flavour, as you’d expect, the tea imparts an almost caramel sweetness, which balances really well with the zappy citric flavours.
Stewart Brewing Earl Gray Amber (5.3%)
Produced at Stewart’s new Craft Beer Kitchen, this small-batch tea beer was suggested by their marketing executive Emily Gray (hence the spelling of the tea-title). A walloping bergamot express train, it finished hugely bitter from the malted-biscuit tea flavour, yet started with a blast of perfume the like of which I’ve not tasted for a while.
Barney’s Lapsang Smoked Porter (5.0%)
Dark beers aren’t just the reserve of coffee – blend in a tea like Lapsang Souchong and you’ve got an instant smoker, particularly when brewed with a touch of rauchmalt. Barney’s Lapsang beer is rich, leathery and tastes like bacon rendered into the earth. But there’s an acidity from the tea that lifts and differentiates this one from ‘regular’ smoked beers.
Elixir Tea Total (5.0%)
I couldn’t round this list off without mention of Elixir’s Tea Total – a beer produced specifically at the behest of Scotland’s uber-rater Craig Garvie, in celebration of his 10,000th beer recorded on RateBeer. Also involving Lapsang Souchong, this smoked oatmeal stout came from the same stable as Benjii’s short-lived oolong and chilli mead; a style that is, in every sense, both behind and ahead of its time…