Maker's Series 005: Wild Irish Breakfast
On a beautiful July evening, I was on my way into NW Portland to attend a party to celebrate a new whiskey. I wasn’t excited to party - I am normally not; it just isn’t my cup of tea. However, I am glad I went, as I met Emma McIlroy, founder and Irish-born badass behind Wildfang apparel.
A Celtic Collaboration
We quickly fell into talking tea: its roots and impact on her life, and its significance for the Irish in general. We discussed the styles of the most commonly consumed teas, how these differ from teas found in the states, and of whiskey, since it was both a theme of the evening as well as a drink coveted in Ireland.
Emma is charismatic, intelligent, funny and full of drive and creativity, and our conversation flowed like the whiskey we were drinking. I asked her to be a maker in our series and she quickly said yes. We were both excited to make tea, and create something cool.
Defining the Flavor
A few weeks later Emma was in our lab cupping teas from various origins, deciding what characteristics spoke to her, what she liked and what didn’t like. This started to form the inspiration for our blend. We landed on making Irish Breakfast tea, a classic experience that many consider a staple of the industry. We wanted our version to have the DNA of this experience, but wanted it to be richer and fuller with more body, as well as top notes. And to break some rules - a tradition of Wildfang’s that had to be observed in this project.
Formulating the Blend
Irish Breakfast tea is, on paper, not that different from an English Breakfast tea. It is stronger, thicker, chewier, has a more malty complexion and tends to be a bit higher quality overall. I started folding black teas together, making minor adjustments to different origins and lots. I was fortunate that our purchases out of Northern India had just arrived, so I had many flavorful and fresh Assam teas to work with. Finding the right balance of guts, strength, color and astringency with the bright and malty aromatics was important. A Dhelakhat STGFOP that was made in early July was perfect for this mission.
After choosing this Assam, it still needed strength and cup color, so I leaned on a special grade of CTC known as BP1. This grade is large and looks like a black peppercorn. CTC (cut, torn and curled) teas are made for high speed tea packing, but also yield stronger cups since they have more surface area for extraction. Most CTC are too small to blend well with full leaf teas, but, with all the other ingredients we were adding to the blend, this special graded BP1 worked wonderfully. From there the blend started to sing - a small touch of Dimbula for center and minerality, and Keemun Hao Ya A provided sweetness, bright leather and spice notes.
Black Tea that Breaks Rules
The tea was shaping up very nicely, but I wanted to take it further. I wanted to move more in the direction of our initial conversations, and I wanted to break some rules. I started thinking about what makes whiskey and how whiskey tastes. These two questions would steer me toward the finish.
Grain. Whiskey is made from grain. I started cupping different grains and experimented with how this could be incorporated into tea. I found a cherry smoked malted barley that had a gentle smoke aroma and extracted a slightly sweet, mealy and malty flavor. By toasting the grain and folding it into the tea while it was warm, the grain woke up the malt in the tea leaves and created a warm and rich aroma.
Vanilla. This one is easy, kind of. The only difficulty was finding the right balance, as I didn’t want the vanilla to be too strong. I just wanted a light touch of the flavor as a backdrop to the astringency and malty character. With a very gentle hand, I blended handcut Bourbon vanilla bean into the tea and allowed it to rest for a few days. The warm, creamy and floral aroma fused with the blend and provided a rich center for the flavor experience.
Sweet and Spice. Whiskey has both a mild sweetness and soft, nearly undefinable spice note. Nutmeg and old or stale cinnamon are often used to describe the spice in whiskey. I couldn’t use nutmeg in ground or whole forms, and I don’t have, nor would want, old or stale cinnamon. So I looked for an alternative in different sugars and sweeteners.
Stevia and other sugar alternatives have too much taste, which would change the flavor of the blend rather than simply complementing the tannin and astringency. Next I imported some German rock sugar, which was great except it was too large of a particle and would add too much sweetness. I remembered making sugar crystals with Tyler Malek for Maker’s Series 001, and decided to go down this path again. By making the sugar ourselves, I could define the particle size as well as infuse it with nutmeg. After more trial and error than I will ever admit, I landed on a technique that made a perfectly sized granular of natural cane sugar infused with nutmeg.
I folded these ingredients together with our strong tea base. It was good. Really good. I shared a sample with Emma to get her thoughts. We agreed that overall we were heading in the right direction. The sweetness was a touch too much and the tea needed to be stronger. I also felt it needed more wood elements and a slight smoke complexity. The thing missing was the barrel - a crucial ingredient to all whiskey. While I have scented many teas in a whiskey barrel, I had never used the barrel as a physical ingredient before.
I will spare you the long story, but I ended up planing the inside of an Irish whiskey barrel and collected the shavings. Doing this by hand with a small spokes shave provided the best shavings. After many hours I had enough, and after sifting the shavings to remove any dust and smaller particles I had an ingredient with light aromas of whiskey, oak and carbon and slight sweet and spice character.
The Final Product
I made some minor adjustments to the recipe, toasted some grain and folded all of these ingredients together, then allowed the blend to rest. When I opened it up I knew we had landed on the final product before we even tasted it. Wild Irish Breakfast was born. One part exceptional Irish Breakfast blend, one part Irish Whiskey. It is strong and assertive, big and complex but with subtle layers of flavor that temper the tannin and bite from the tea. It is a tea you can drink straight or serve with cream, and it is sure to please anyone at your table, especially the Irish. Bottoms up.