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Inspiration to Brew an Ethiopian T’ej

As a long-time homebrewer, I have always been drawn to creating new and unique versions of the established styles. I also enjoy sampling new beers that pique my interest when browsing the cooler at the liquor store. Sometimes, I am driven to replicate or at least take a clue from a particularly interesting brew. Here is one of those stories.

I had sampled a unique creation from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery out of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware called Miles Davis Bitches Brew, named for the landmark, ground-breaking, jazz-fusion album of 1970. This brew is an amalgam of two styles, imperial stout and Ethiopian T’ej. T’ej is a honey wine or mead brewed in many households and huts in Ethiopia. It is flavored with various parts (leaves, twigs, roots) of the gesho plant (Rhamnus prinoides), a buckthorn indigenous to that area. Gesho is commonly referred to as Ethiopian hops although it has no taxonomical relationship to hops.

I set out to brew a clone of Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew. I decided to call it Rastaman Stout after the Rastafarian movement, which traces its roots to Ethiopia. It was easy to source some gesho online from Brundo Ethiopian Spices, which is based in Oakland, California. I ordered both gesho entchet, which is dried stems and twigs, and gesho kitel, dried leaves.

According the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s website The Bitches Brew is “a dark beer that’s a fusion of three threads of imperial stout and one thread of honey beer with gesho root.” The honey beer mentioned is the Ethiopian T’ej and each thread is brewed separately and then blended to create this masterful beer. I chose to make mine as a single batch utilizing ingredients from each thread. I also took some hints from the T’ej recipe found in the book Extreme Brewing by Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. Along with the honey for the T’ej, I added sorghum syrup and malted buckwheat, which I had on-hand. You can find that recipe for my Rastaman Stout.

The Rastaman Stout was full-bodied, with a smooth, silky mouthfeel. It had some similarities to traditionally-brewed imperial stout but decidedly different. With no hops, it was a bit herbal, a bit floral, some woodsy flavor, with hints of chocolate and molasses. The brew was very dark but not very roasty. While the batch was sweet tasting, the aroma was sweeter. When I compared Rastaman Stout against Bitches Brew, the ABV was similar, 8.6% versus 9.0%. My Rastaman Stout was a bit sweeter and less roasty. Both were very good but, and its probably pride talking, I liked mine better!

After the sampling, I wondered what a more traditional T’ej would be like. So, I decided to brew the T’ej recipe in Sam Caligione’s book. Since I just cannot leave well enough alone, I tweaked it a little bit. This recipe is technically a braggot, a mead brewed with grain malt. You can find my recipe for the Ethiopian T’ej .

My T’ej retained a hefe-like cloudiness which never completely settled out. Fairly light body with a honey aroma. Sweet with malt, honey, and woodsy-herbal flavors. Really, a very nice mead with the unique flavor coming from the gesho addition.

T’ej proved to be a very worthwhile experiment. A great base to build on for future brews and more gesho has been ordered!