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Gray Duck Chai Takes Flight in the Twin Cities

I ignored chai when it first began turning up in coffeehouses years ago. I skipped right over this odd-looking word, scrawled in colored chalk on the blackboard menu at my local caffeine fueling station. Give me a double espresso. Fill up my travel mug with your darkest roast.


Chai seemed too fussy, too sweet. With its milky, light brown color, it looked too weak to have any flavor.


But it only took one sip of Gray Duck Chai to disabuse me of this silly notion. The handcrafted, locally-brewed chai is created from an original recipe by Minnesota native Katey Niebur, using 100 percent organic ingredients, including fair trade Assam black tea from India, freshly milled spices, and cane sugar. And it has bite.


Burnt Sugar Ginger, one of Gray Duck’s two flavors, melds a quicksilver smoky-sweetness that is followed by an intense cinnamon clove finish.


Plus, Gray Duck is now available for individual sale in 32-ounce take-home bottles, which sell for about $8.99 each.Gray Duck Chai is bottled as concentrate and mixed in four-ounce servings with an equal amount hot milk or milk substitute. It can also be served cold; using two parts Gray Duck to one part milk. Each bottle yields eight servings. They can be found at Linden Hills Co-op, North Loop Wine and Spirits, Oxendale’s Market, and Salty Tart Bakery, and they will soon land at Kowalski’s on Grand Avenue and Hennepin. Each bottle of the gluten-free chai is marked with the brew date, so customers will know it’s fresh.

 

Chai spicesChai spices

Niebur is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. and a veteran of fine dining restaurants on both coasts. She launched Gray Duck Chai last year with partner and co-owner Jon Alden, who has worked similar-caliber establishments in San Francisco.


Mondays, Niebur brews small, 10-gallon batches of Gray Duck. On Tuesdays, Alden loads the product into his gray Nissan Murano and delivers the product to coffee shops, restaurants, and retail stores. Sometimes his 10-year-old daughter Maddi comes along to help. To minimize waste, they’ve devised a bottle exchange program with their clients.

 

The option to buy the chai retail will come as good news to Gray Duck fiends who could only get their fix one cup at a time, at coffee shops like Dogwood Coffee, Victory 44, and Quixotic.


“We knew we wanted to sell retail,” Niebur says. “We’ve built it up one day at a time and one step at a time throughout the year.”


Gray Duck chai was hatched after Niebur returned to Minnesota after five years in Seattle. She couldn’t find a chai whose quality compared with those served in coffeehouses in the Pacific Northwest, she says. So she made her own from scratch.


“The chef in me…I said, ‘if you can’t find it make it yourself,’” she says.


Niebur and Alden pooled their paychecks from their jobs at Meritage to invest in the fledgling business and began selling growlers of their original 9 Spice Blend to local coffee shops. Folks eventually began turning up at their kitchen trying to buy the stuff wholesale.


Alden says it was their appearance at last year’s North Coast Nosh that gave them the impetus to dive into the retail market. The annual gathering in southeast Minneapolis gathers artisanal cheesemakers, beer-makers, bakers, and other food purveyors.


“It wasn't until we did the North Coast Nosh at the Peace Coffee warehouse that we got the idea,” he says. “A lot of people asked us where they could buy it for their house, either because they don't go to coffee shops or because they do and want more. It was less than a week or so later that we got an email from the GM of the Whole Foods on Grand Ave. He had heard about us on Twitter from some fans of Gray Duck tweeting requests for them to carry it. I don't know how many requests he got but it was enough for him to contact us first. That was a very obvious sign for us to get the ball moving and get retail going."


She and Alden raised additional funds from donations on the Kickstarter website. They found a commercial kitchen to make their product and obtained FDA licensing.


But the toughest part may have been perfecting her original recipe. Niebur says she tried at least 100 different test batches until she came up with the precise blend of spices, tea and cane sugar.


“As a chef, I always keep the records of every detail of every test batch. I would measure every gram. For the longest time it was so hard to figure out what made each batch different.”


It wasn’t merely the quantities of each ingredient, but the way ingredients interacted with each other. Cardamom can be a temperamental spice. Steep it too long, she says, and you lose the flavor. The cane sugar acts as a catalyst of sorts as opposed to a mere sweetener.


“Without a certain level of sweetness, a lot of the flavors of the spices don’t come out,” she says.


Niebur has features several recipes on their website, including a Peach-Banana Chai Smoothie, Red Wine Chai Poached Pears, and the Chai Waffles below. Several restaurants have also created cocktails using Gray Duck.


They feature more news and retail locations on their Facebook page.


They haven’t achieved world domination yet, but give them time.  


Chai Waffles

15 minutes prep / 30 minutes total

 

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teas baking powder
  • ½ teas salt
  • 4 eggs, separatede
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • ½ teas vanilla
  • 4 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 cups milk
  • 1 cups Gray Duck Chai

 

Instructions:

  1. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. Pour milk, chai, and vanilla extract into the flour mixture; stir until just combined. Fold egg yolk and butter into batter.
  2. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.
  3. Preheat a waffle iron and coat with cooking spray. Pour batter onto waffle iron and cook until crisp and golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Photos by Jon Alden and Katey Niebur

 

William Loeffler moved to the Twin Cities area from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he spent 15 years as a features reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A playwright, he has also interviewed Bill Cosby, Yoko Ono and Eric Idle. He has written about his travels to all seven continents as well as his experiences running seven Boston Marathons. His last post for SGT was Stocking Your Kitchen for Asian Cooking at Minneapolis's United Noodles.

 

Comments

I tried Gray Duck chai and was very disappointed. Too much nutmeg, it almost comes across like an eggnog. Though less sweet than a coffee shop chai, it's still overly sweet. In the Twin Cities, Verdant Tea's chai is the better choice.

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