Sweet Traditions 

From Ethiopia to East Oakland, mother's recipe spawns a buzzing honey-wine business.

Decades ago, Debritu Gebeyhu's mother Enat started to brew honey wine for special occasions and gifts using a recipe passed along by her forebears. Her tej, a type of mead made in Ethiopia and Eritrea for more than a millennium, earned a reputation with family and friends. And in 1999, "Debbie" and her husband, Herb Houston, decided to carry on the family tradition, brewing Enat's recipe into a business.

Enat Winery now sells one hundred cases of tej a month out of its office and production facility on Oakland's 81st Avenue, next door to the Mother's Cookies plant. Family photos crowd the walls of the winery's tiny office, where a poster of former Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie presides over Herb's desk.

Everything happens in the room behind. Forty-pound tubs of honey stacked against one wall await brewing in a half-dozen or so blue plastic vats. The room is ringed by shelves holding ribbed water-cooler plastic bottles, some filled with unfiltered tej.

Following Enat's recipe, the winemakers mix raw honey, water, and dried geso (or gesho), an Ethiopian herb, and then let it ferment for a couple of months in the covered vats. Houston claims that Enat adds no yeast to the brew, so it must come either from the leaves of the geso or from the air. Once the wine has finished fermenting, it is racked several times in the ribbed bottles to settle the sediment, then filtered and bottled using a series of low-tech machines purchased up in wine country.

The couple buys three types of honey -- wildflower, orange blossom, and clover -- from a supplier in Chico and has relatives bring back geso every time they return to Africa for a visit. Geso (Rhamnus prunoides) is a species of buckthorn whose twigs and leaves are used like hops to suppress growth of bacteria during the fermentation and impart a slightly bitter, aromatic note to the wine.

According to Herb, his Ethiopian customers say Enat's tej tastes pretty close to the brew they drank in the homeland. Tej is not for the sugar-shy; while the wildflower variety has a lovely tart backbone, with just a hint of bitterness from the geso, the orange-blossom wine out-sweets Sauternes. All three varieties seduce with their potent fragrance, which preserves the floral complexities of the individual honey used. Tej, Herb says, is ideal with spicy food such as Ethiopian or Mexican.

Though its business continues to grow, Enat Winery is still just a three-person operation. "We like to keep the production small so that we can guarantee the quality," Herb says. "Tej only keeps for six months." The short shelf life also means Enat only sells wholesale to Ethiopian restaurants and a few local wine stores with high turnover, although it distributes as far as Colorado and New Jersey. Locally, you can order it with your meal at Cafe Colucci, Addis, and Ethiopia Restaurant, or purchase a bottle at Buckingham Wine & Spirits on Oakland's Lakeshore Avenue.


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