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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Your Tej, Or Ethiopian Honey Wine, Is Made in Oakland

Posted By on Thu, Sep 3, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge Debritu Gebeyehu and Herb Houston at their winery in Oakland. - FERRON SALNIKER
  • Ferron Salniker
  • Debritu Gebeyehu and Herb Houston at their winery in Oakland.

The entrance to Enat Winery is just past Coliseum BART, on the same street as the old jumbo red sign for Sunshine Biscuits (now home to rows of U-Haul tucks). When Debritu Gebeyehu and Herb Houston moved in fifteen years ago to formalize their backyard businesses, they were one of the only companies in the gated complex of small warehouses. Now the building is at capacity, and predictably, they’re cozied up with to two coffee roasters. But despite the quiet resurgence of manufacturers in this part of town, it’s safe to say Enat’s got the Bay Area honey wine market on lock.

Ethiopian honey wine, or tej, is not actually wine. Like mead, it’s an age-old fermented spirit made mostly from honey and water. Tej’s sweetness is slightly tempered with a twiggy plant called gesho which is native to Africa and functions like a hop. In Ethiopia, it's typically made and enjoyed at home or poured from vase-shaped pitchers called bereles at tej houses.

Inside the Enat showroom, clusters of Haile Selassie posters, Ethiopian nature scenes, and family photos crowd the walls. Next door, blue buckets of tej sit, awaiting the filtering process. Enat doesn’t use any sulfites or preservatives, allowing a few month’s time, air, and gesho to complete the fermentation.

Houston shows me a family photo sitting on a piano and points out his late mother-in-law, Enat. Just like in Ethiopia, Enat made her own honey wine in the back of the couple’s home in the Oakland hills for special occasions and gifts. “It’s a festive drink in Ethiopia, it used to be enjoyed by nobility and still is relatively a luxurious drink brought out for special occasions and feasts,” says Gebeyehu.

In 2000, after Houston retired from running the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, the couple saw a niche and decided to commercialize the business.

The winery uses two types of honey: orange blossom and wildflower, both from California. The orange is citrusy and pungently sweet. Gebeyehu cracks a few jokes about how drunk she got testing the first rounds of product, and I can see how the nectar-like taste dangerously disguises the 12 percent alcohol content. I’m not sure I’d take it over a cold beer, but Houston says it’s a good compliment to spicy food like Mexican and some Ethiopian dishes. The wildflower has a little more tartness to it.

If you've dined at one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in North Oakland, it's likely your wine has been from Enat. They sell about 450 cases per year across the U.S., mostly to restaurants, although you can spot it at Rainbow Grocery. After forty years living in the Bay Area, Gebeyehu said it's the tight-knit Ethiopian community in the Bay Area that allowed the business to start with a strong base of customers. 

ENAT Winery, 910 81st Ave., Oakland, 510-632-6629.

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Ferron Salniker

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