FAR TOO OFTEN, iced tea’s integrity is compromised by modern impulses. The frosty drink we like to imagine is “natural” has become little more than a vehicle for sugar, “lemon flavor,” and a few cooling chunks of ice. The tea itself, meanwhile, is relegated to a vaguely herbal afterthought. For Alem Gebrehiwot, such treatment simply will not do.
Gebrehiwot began experimenting with tea blends even before he opened his Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba in Northeast Portland in 1995. For his thyme tea, he starts with black tea imported from the Ethiopian highlands, which has a low acidity, brilliant color, and smooth flavor. Drawing on his background in both his native land’s cooking and food science (he holds a degree from Oregon State University), Gebrehiwot mixes the aromatic tea with strong Ethiopian thyme leaves and subtle hints of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, then lightly sweetens it with sugar. The resulting brew has a rich yet refreshing flavor offset by a sharp herbal edge, like an African take on Earl Grey, that’s sure to slake your summertime thirst better than any syrupy bottle of Lipton’s.
Gebrehiwot admits that tea on ice is still a rarity in Ethiopia. “Most Africans would drink hot tea all the time,” he says. “But I am exploiting that tradition,” he says with a laugh, “and improving it.” Indeed, an icy dose of Gebrehiwot’s thyme tea is a refreshing complement to the burgeoning warmth of spring and summer. Find your glassful at Gebrehiwot’s Afrique Bistro and Queen of Sheba restaurant, as well as local coffee shops like Fresh Pot and Stumptown.