A tea-beer hybrid just tryin' to make it in a coffee-beer world... Now don't get me wrong, I love beer and brewing beer. But my first and true love in the world of beverages is and always will be tea. For those who haven't discovered the world of tea, it is as ancient and deep-rooted as that of beer, and just as varied in regional styles. The finest teas display a stunning yet subtle complexity from nothing but leaves, water, and time.
Although I think that most coffee beers are mediocre, I've had a few that were truly awesome. I spent a goodly amount of time trying to figure out how to make a tea beer that was cohesive and more than just a novelty. After developing the recipe that I describe below, I later discovered that Lindemans brewing of Belgium actually released a tea beer some years ago (those crazy Belgians...) but I have never seen it available in the states. In my opinion, most teas have flavors that are way too delicate to be paired with beer.
Two exceptions that I can think of are Lapsang Souchong, a Chinese smoked tea with intense campfire flavors, and Pu-erh, a unique fermented tea with earthy, mushroom-like notes. The smokey-ness of Lapsang Souchong can be better obtained by using smoked malts. But the deep, dark flavors of Pu-erh can't be found anywhere else to my knowledge. Pu-erh is made by a somewhat secret process that involves aging black tea from the Yunnan province in damp caves for months at a time.
A spectrum of different bacterias and yeasts act on the tea during this time and slowly ferment it, breaking down most of the bitter tasting tannins and creating intricate flavors of must and earth. Doesn't sound too appetizing, I admit, but fine Pu-erh can be astoundingly complex and unique. The Pu-erh is often compressed into bricks for aging, as in the picture above. In China, and increasingly in other tea-loving countries, Pu-erh has become a collector commodity similar to fine wines, with particular vintages going for thousands of dollars per pound. I suggest using medium quality Pu-erh for this recipe, and one that focuses on the earthy flavors.
I've used Yunnan Pu-erh from The TeaSource in St. Paul. For the beer, I created a fairly simple porter recipe that would support the flavor of the tea. The vodka extraction is recommended partly because Pu-erh contains live active bacteria that would funkify your beer in a hurry if you just added it into the fermenter. I've also tried blanching the tea for 30 seconds or so and then adding it into the secondary like dry hops with good results, but it is probably a bit risky.
For a 5-gallon extract batch:
All-Grain: substitute 9 lbs of American 2-row for malt extracts, single infusion mash at 152 degrees.
Take 3 oz of medium quality Pu-erh and soak in a little over a pint of medium quality vodka for 2 weeks, then strain the vodka off. After primary fermentation is complete, transfer the beer into secondary and add the infused vodka. After 3 weeks or so, bottle or keg as usual.