For the past five years, Ardent Craft Ales has offered its Earl Grey Brown Ale as a seasonal winter product. It’s just one of the tea-infused carbonated beverages that many of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley craft brewers are adding to their bar menus.
Shenandoah is primarily rural, packed with small farms, vistas of pastures and streams, and almost wherever you are, just look up and you’ll see the climatically erratic Blue Ridge Mountains. There is no large urban complex. Tourism is centered around hiking, skiing and family vacations. The craft brewers are small, localized and individualistic and are handling tea in the same way.
Ardent is located to the east of the Valley, in Richmond—the old capital of the Confederacy. The Earl Grey Ale is a joint initiative with the local Rostov Coffee and Tea. It’s an English-style beer, malty and yeasty. The tea flavor is subtle, with a smooth and soft mouthfeel. The bergamot that is the hallmark of Earl Grey varieties adds a sharpness and slight astringency.
Other tea-enhanced local beers are permeating the pubs, too. When the busy barman at Brothers Craft Brewing was asked why his small brewery serves at the same tap dark ale, cold brew coffee, kombucha and bergamot-flavored light beer, he had a fast one-word response: “families.” Hand-crafted and highly individual beers like Obsidian Harvest ( a “smoked rye porter aged on cypress”) are the primary customer draw. But that does not always appeal to all in a group; maybe younger customers do not drink beer but love kombucha, while the husband raves about Intermezzo blood orange sour red ale, and the wife wants cold brew coffee (or the reverse.)
Explaining why Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is seeing a surge in specialty breweries, Jerry Welcome, the managing partner of one of the new players, Front Royal Brewing Co., requires two words rather than one: “craft” and “local.” Add one more to explain the expansion of the brewers into a wide range of new beverage styles: “botanicals.” Tea is a growing part of this combination. The descriptions of well over half of Ardent’s fifteen tap beers highlight spice, fruit and aroma. They read like gourmet restaurant menus, not plain old beer; “We use a standard malt-backboned recipe with citra hops to emphasize citrusy, tropical notes of grapefruit, melon, and passion fruit.” (IPA Batch #14)
In 2018, there were waves of initiatives in Tea Beer that exploit its contribution to such aromas and flavors, many of them in the Pacific Northwest. As in Shenandoah, they are highly local. In Oregon, there’s Breakside’s new Tea Time Pale Ale, brewed with lemon peel and conditioned on Earl Grey leaves. Left Hand’s Chai Milk Stout is infused with chai.
Lakefront offers a low calorie Eazy Teazy Green Tea Pale Ale that is advertised as the lightest and lowest calorie beer on the market but that also has a full-bodied taste – from the addition of the green tea. The development team tried many test batches in looking for the best variety of tea for its recipes. It initially chose matcha but found that green tea with a touch of oolong provided bittering elements that “lend themselves beautifully to aroma and flavor.”
Beer drinkers have been very responsive to these tea-based extensions of the core ales. Ardent Earl Grey Brown is a sell-out. A trade magazine comments that tea is becoming a “go-to” ingredient for brewers to make unique new drinks.