Tasting Notes: Lost Tribes Tej

We try Tej, an Ethiopian honey wine brought to the United States by gypsy brewer and recipe reviver Lost Tribes Beverage.

Henry Phillips

In 2009, David Itzkowitz, Andrew Septimus, Allan Farago, Ari Smith and Rabbi Harry Rozenberg teamed up to form a gypsy brewery — a brewery that invents recipes, but makes them using another company’s facilities. Or rather, Itzkowitz and Co. didn’t invent the recipes, but borrowed them, mostly from our ancestors. Their company, Lost Tribes Beverage, takes long-gone or little known recipes and revives them. They aren’t the first brewery to bring beer back from the dead — Dogfish Head produces the Ancient Ales series, which includes Midas Touch, based on molecular evidence found in a Turkish tomb, as well as Chateau Jiahu, Theobrama, Ta Henket, Birra Etrusca Bronze and Sah’Tea — or even the first brewery with a Jewish theme — see Shmaltz Brewing, makers of He’Brew — but Lost Tribes is the first brewery to revive ancient recipes that also focuses on Jewish history.

Recently, we tried one of their most interesting creations: Tej. It’s not a beer per se, but more of a honey wine, and we found that it tastes like mead — surprising, as it doesn’t come from the Hall of Valhalla or Sessrúmnir but Ethiopia, where locals make it from wildflower honey and bitter root called gesho. Until now, it’s been one of those things like Couronne, the Haitian bubblegum flavored soda, or Goombay Punch, the cheerfully titled Bahamian fruit punch, that you try “when-in-Rome”… or Haiti, or the Bahamas, or Ethiopia, or wherever you happen to be. But Lost Tribes hopes to bring the ancient drink to the mainstream American market. They offer growler fills of Tej at several NYC bars, including Dive Bar on the Upper West Side and The Ginger Man in Midtown East, as well as bottles at a growing number of locations, and their Facebook page offers daily updates about new locations and developments.

Within minutes of tasting, we felt the effects of the extremely pale drink’s powerful 14 percent ABV. The booziness caught us off guard, as the pleasant, almost Manischewitz-like sweetness masks the alcohol. We also got hints of spice — anise? heather? — though honey dominated the palate. Due to its sweetness, we recommend pairing it with dessert.

It feels oddly comforting to drink something that your ancestors may have been sipping two thousand years ago, and the novelty gets bolstered by the fact that Tej tastes good. Even if your ancestors never drank the stuff, it’s still cool to get buzzed on something with history.

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