A few years ago, Minnesota-born Katey Niebur found herself driving cross country from Manhattan to Seattle. It was a long stretch between two cities, geographic and cultural opposites, with a hometown in between. “My roommate and I packed everything we had in our car and drove across and up [the country]. We figured if anything looked cool before Seattle, we would stop there. But we made it all the way.” After attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York and helping to open a Danny Meyer concept in the Museum of Modern Art, she settled on the same city that ignited a nationwide craze for commercial coffee. So it’s only fitting that during her time in Seattle she developed an infatuation with chai tea.
Niebur eventually returned to Minnesota and took a job at Meritage, all the while perfecting her chai blend. The idea of taking it commercial hadn’t come to fruition yet. But Niebur did share the blend with others, including Jon Alden, a coworker at Meritage. “I’ve always been a fan of coffee,” says Alden. “But when Katey made chai for me the first time, I thought it was the way to go. It was a dreary, gross, disgusting day and the chai she made was exceptional.” After a series of tweaks and an estimated 30 recipe revisions, Niebur and Alden launched Gray Duck Chai in 2011.
Now there are two blends: an original nine-spice, and another that highlights ginger and burnt sugar. Don’t be mistaken — ginger is a feature in both. The spice coupled with finding what they consider an ideal balance between bitter and sweet are what distinguish Gray Duck from the milder commercial blends. “Gingersnap cookies in a cup,” Niebur calls them. Both blends are created in the traditional manner, steeped in water, and bottled, with milk to be added when served.
The second recipe has double the amount of ginger (both freshly grated and dried) plus a healthy pour of caramelized sugar. “We take it to that really nice golden brown,” says Alden. “Then we take it a little bit past that so there is a slight, subtle taste to it. Think about a roasted marshmallow, with the burnt flavor on the outside,” he says. “Like the top of a creme brulee,” adds Niebur. The sugar is the last ingredient added to the pot, and there is a fine line before the sweet takes over the bitter. “It’s all about the balance,” says Alden.
“I think the people who do like — or would like — our chai are the same people who stopped drinking [other chai] because they got sick of all the sweetness. We’re bringing them out of the woodwork. I’m not calling us an ultimate game-changer, but I do think we’re bringing some people back,” says Alden. “Oregon Chai was the first readily available chai in the country. So they became the standard,” says Niebur. “That’s what people thought chai should taste like,” says Niebur. “Some blends have — I don’t know exactly what you would call it — some sort of frappe powder. It gives the end product this delicious, creamy, milk feel, even if you’re using a skim milk. It acts more as a thickening agent than a flavoring agent,” she says. “We really like when our drinkers use whole milk because it gives the added richness. But home drinkers don’t often use whole milk.” They suggest using soy or coconut milk as alternative options to dairy. Alden also mixes his with apple cider. “Chai-der,” he calls it.
Gray Duck isn’t available in retail. Yet. “By the end of the year we plan to have at least attempted it,” says Alden. It can be purchased, however, in 11 coffee shops and restaurants, including Dogwood, Birchwood, and the newly opened Parka. Of course, Meritage pays homage via the Dizzy Noggin ($11), a specialty cocktail made with Gray Duck Chai, Appleton Rum, honey syrup, and a dash of nutmeg.
“The short-term goal is to be able to sell a smaller-sized package that could be sold retail,” says Niebur. “But neither one of us wants to become too big. It would be cool to expand the line, but stay in Minnesota. Maybe hit a few cities in Wisconsin.” Niebur and Alden are committed to delivering Gray Duck the same week it’s blended. “It’s when the spice has the most flavor, when it’s most robust. So if we started shipping it across country or through distributors it would take away from that,” says Alden.