Kratom T’ej: A Modern Approach to an Ancient Beverage
by Eli Szabady
Some words of warning
When brewing with herbs and entheogens it is very important that you approach the situation with upmost caution. Many plants, including an array of entheogens, have a long history of use in brewing, and therefore have an extensive history of safe use. However, there are many plants that have very little or no information pertaining to their use in brewing or interaction with alcohol. Any time you choose to initiate a brewing experiment of this nature please be sure to take great care in researching the material you are dealing with. Try to find information indicating if it has a history of use in brewing. If not, then be very careful about how you proceed. Prior to starting, learn the effects of the herb/material, safe dosage, and if it will be safe to use in conjunction with alcohol.
In the case of kratom, I was unsuccessful in locating any information as to the traditional indigenous use. It is not an FDA approved food additive and is usually sold as “not for human consumption.” Be aware that if you proceed in making this beverage, you are more than likely breaking the user agreement you have entered with the vendor you bought the material from. Perhaps more importantly, you are making a beverage that has a very limited history of use in brewing. The author takes no responsibility for any desired or undesired consequences that may result from your production and/or consumption of the beverage presented in this article, or any other herbal beverage you make and/or consume.
A brief primer on herbal brewing
During a worldwide hops shortage several years ago, I started looking for fermented beverages that used plants other than hops to bitter and keep the brew sterile. This opened up a whole new world of brewing for me. Because brewing with herbs and entheogens requires a greater level of caution than making a standard beer or wine I decided that I should set some rules for myself. Here are some general guide lines that I try to follow that will hopefully make your herbal brewing smooth and safe as well.
Get a good grasp on brewing fundamentals before attempting to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients. A strong understanding of good sanitation habits is a must, and a working knowledge of the flavors produced by standard brewing ingredients and procedures is crucial to producing a quality beverage. It’s always best to end up with something you can enjoy drinking rather than something you have to choke down, or throw out. As such, the recipe in this article is not recommended for beginning brewers.
Get to know the herb/plant material you are planning to add to your brew. Make sure you are familiar with the effects of the material, and how it interacts the alcohol before you use it.
A good rule of thumb is to calculate the amount you will need to add so that the desired effects can be attained by consuming one, or maybe two, bottles of your brew. If you need to consume more than this, the effects of the alcohol will more than likely overpower the effects of the plant materials.
Start by making a small batch. Experimenting with your brews is fun, but can also end up being very frustrating if something goes wrong and you have to toss the finished product. Cut your losses by starting with a one gallon batch. If the brew is a success scale up the recipe.
If your making a beer use a malt extract. Even if you are an experienced brewer with the equipment to mash grain starting with an extract is a good idea in any experiment. Once you know a recipe will work on a small scale using extract you can scale it up and use all grain. Again this can save you a lot of time and frustration.
When you are testing your finished brew, don’t drink a whole bottle at once. Remember you are making an extraction into water and alcohol combined (and additional oils, yeasts, and other compounds), and you may end up with a stronger extraction than expected. Start by slowly drinking the brew until you can accurately gauge the effects. Also keep in mind that alcohol can potentiate the effects of herbal and plant materials. You can always drink more, but it’s hard or impossible to take it back if you drink too much.
Making a Modern Kratom T’ej
While searching for something that could satisfactorily replace hops in my brewing, I experimented with quite a few plants and herbs. I was surprised to find how many plants can fill the same role as hops. Just as hops impart their own flavor and character to a brew, there are many herbs that can lend a very nice flavor to your beverage and also alter the effects of the brew. As I discovered more recipes for herbal beers I also found that many entheogens have a long history of use as brewing adjuncts. I compiled a list of entheogenic plants that are commonly used in brewing, and I noticed that there was one absent that surprised me. Mitragyna speciosa, or kratom (pronounced ka-tom), seemed to have no history as a brewing adjunct. In retrospect this is not terribly surprising as there is a complete lack of information as to the traditional use, if any, of this plant by people native to the areas in which it grows. To me this was an exciting moment. I got to be the first person, even if only in my own little world, to make a brew with kratom.
In theory, kratom seemed as if it would be a very interesting herb for brewing. In smaller amounts it is quite stimulating; as the amount ingested increases it becomes sedating. For the purposes of this brew I wanted to keep the amount per bottle on the energizing side. I felt an energizing tonic would be more useful, and that using a sedating dose with alcohol could potentially be dangerous. If you choose to increase the amount of kratom called for in the recipe please do so with caution.
For my first experiment I made a sweet kratom porter. I included hops in the brew because I was, and still am, unsure of the antibacterial properties of kratom. Kratom incorporated into the brew much better than expected. Overall it was a success, and a new (as far as I have found) highly inebriating beverage was created.
Several years later I was looking through some recipe books, and stumbled across a recipe for an Ethiopian T’ej. I found the recipe very intriguing and set about finding the necessary components. T’ej is traditionally composed of three ingredients; water, honey, and gesho. Although those are the basic (and often only) ingredients, malted grains and other adjuncts are sometimes added. Gesho (Rhamnus prinoides)—otherwise known as shiny-leaf buckthorn or wood-hops—is not only used as a bittering agent, but also carries the yeast that causes the beverage to ferment naturally. Given that gesho is difficult to source in the U.S. I set about finding a bittering agent that would be similar. I did not have any idea what gesho tasted like, but I had been wanting to further experiment with kratom in brewing, so I decided to use it as the bittering agent in my T’ej. I used a package of ale yeast rather than attempting to spontaneously ferment the brew. Using the ale yeast also delivers more consistent results.
I have dubbed this recipe a “modern” T’ej.
12-16 Quart Stainless Steal Pot
Large Metal or Plastic Spoon
Fermenting vessel (at least three gallons)
24 bottles (12 oz. pop top)
Sanitizer (one-step sanitizer or bleach solution)
Ingredients (Makes 2 Gallons)
4 lbs. Raw Honey
3 lbs. Light or amber malt extract (liquid or spray-dried)
2 oz. Crushed Kratom Leaves
1 package dry ale yeast
1/2 tsp. Gypsum (optional)
1/4 tsp. Irish Moss (optional)
1/2 C Honey for priming (optional)
1) Put two gallons of fresh, clean water in your pot. If you choose to use gypsum to harden your water, add it now. Bring the water to a boil.
2) Once the water has reached a rolling boil slowly add the malt extract stirring constantly until completely dissolved. Return to a rolling boil; boil uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. If you are using a pot smaller than 16 quarts be sure to keep a close eye on it as the liquid is nearing a boil so it does not boil over. This makes a terrible sticky mess.
3) Slowly pour in the honey stirring constantly until completely dissolved. Return to a rolling boil; boil uncovered for 25 minutes, stirring frequently. If you choose to use irish moss add it after 15 minutes.
4) Add the crushed Kratom leaf, and stir throughly. Boil uncovered for 5 more minutes.
5) Remove your pot from the heat, and cool it as quickly as possible. The best way to accomplish this with no additional equipment is to cover the pot and place it in an ice water bath in your sink.
6) Once the liquid has cooled to 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit, gently poor the contents of the pot into your fermentation vessel (you will need at least a three gallon vessel, however a five gallon or larger fermenter would also be fine). Make sure to get the entire contents of the pot into the fermenter. You want all of the leaf material in the fermenter throughout primary fermentation. If necessary add cool, clean water to bring the total volume up to two gallons. Sprinkle approximately half of the packet of ale yeast (4 grams) on top of the liquid in your fermenter. If there is enough leaf material floating on the surface to prevent the yeast from sinking into the liquid then give it a good stir with a large, sterile spoon. Seal your fermenter and put an air lock in place. Set your fermentation vessel in a cool dark place.
7) Fermentation should begin in 12-36 hours, and last for up to three weeks. During this time try to maintain a temperature of 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
8) After 10-14 days the bulk of fermentation should be complete, and the liquid should now be siphoned off into a secondary fermentation vessel. This is done for two reasons: The Kratom leaf should now be removed from the liquid as the extraction of the alkaloids should be complete, and the yeast bed is starting to fill with dead yeast cells which can add unwanted flavors to your brew.
The T’ej may continue to ferment in the secondary vessel for several more weeks.
9) Once the T’ej has completely finished fermentation it can be bottled. You can bottle the liquid as is for a “still” beverage (or near still. Depending on your honey it may not be possible to get an entirely “still” beverage) You can also prime the brew for a carbonated drink. I prefer to use 1 teaspoon of honey per bottle to prime honey-based brews. However, any other common priming sugar would work.
10) Place the filled bottles in a cool, dark place and allow to age for at least 1 month prior to drinking.
Taking the next step: A “Real” Kratom T’ej
To truly make a T’ej it is necessary to let nature take its course and allow the beverage to “spontaneously” ferment. If your feeling a little more adventurous, and you don’t mind unpredictable results, take the next step and make a spontaneously fermented Kratom T’ej.
I have found kratom can be used in the same way that gesho is employed in the traditional production of T’ej. Use the same recipe provided earlier but do not add the kratom to the boil and do not add the ale yeast. Instead, once cool gently pour into a fermentation vessel, then add the kratom, stir, and seal the fermenter (with an airlock). Fermentation will be much slower than if using ale yeast. After several days you should begin to notice some bubbles forming around the leaf material on top of the liquid. This is the beginning of fermentation. After two weeks strain out the leaf material and replace the liquid in a clean fermenter. At this point fermentation should become more pronounced. Once fermentation has halted, the T’ej can be siphoned off and bottled. Kratom sourced from different locations will yield different strains of yeasts and therefore may produce different flavors.