Necessity may be the mother of invention, and it’s certainly the inspiration for creative food entrepreneurs.
When Katey Niebur couldn’t find chai tea in Minneapolis that matched what she had sipped in Seattle, she began to brew her own. The Culinary Institute of America graduate had just moved back and was working at Meritage, the French-inspired restaurant in St. Paul.
One chilly September afternoon in 2011, Niebur fixed a cup of her custom chai for Jon Alden, a Meritage server, and within the year, the two had started up Gray Duck Chai. They began selling its bottled teas through coffeehouses and it’s now available in over 30 retail Twin Cities outlets, including co-ops, grocery stores and specialty stores, and can be sipped in coffee shops here and in Seattle.
Unlike so many overly sugared, artificially flavored, ready-made chai blends, Gray Duck is sweetened with a very light hand. Its balance of traditional spices and black tea is available in two distinct varieties:
• The Nine Spice Blend features cinnamon, clove, cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, allspice, star anise, ginger and organic cane sugar.
• Burnt Sugar and Ginger is a newer concoction. “We caramelize the cane sugar to achieve a taste closer to jaggery, the traditional sweetener made of date, cane or palm sap,” Niebur said. “I’ve added an extra dose of freshly grated raw ginger for a richer tasting, warming chai with a little less heat than the original.”
Gray Duck’s 32-ounce bottles, good for about six cups, retail for $8.99, but a sip or two will quell the urge to compare this chai to anything brewed from a bag.
“Each of our spices is individually ground to be super-fresh. And, as with a traditional chai, the spices are introduced at different stages of the brewing process,” said Niebur. “We’ve calculated the best time and temperature at which to add them. That doesn’t happen when the spices are steeped at once.” The chai is made once a week and promptly delivered fresh wherever it’s sold.
The name Gray Duck pays homage to Minnesota, where Niebur and Alden are from. Children here play “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck,” while in other states the words to the game are “Duck, Duck, Goose.”
It’s not all business at Gray Duck. The partnership evolved into a romance and the couple were married in December. “We both knew what we were getting into,” Neibur said.
Produced in St. Paul, Gray Duck is expanding its product line with an “Arnie Palmer” blend of chai and lemonade dubbed the “Eddie Wou,” named for its creator, the chef of Cook in St. Paul. The drink will be available this summer. By fall, expect a decaf chai, green chai and a rooibos chai that will be sweetened with Minnesota honey.
With Gray Duck, teatime might last all day long.
Gray Duck Chai, $8.99 for 32-ounce bottles; grayduckchai.com