Herb Houston was the CEO of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic for 12 years. He started Enat Winery in his “retirement.” Photo: Feather Weight

When Herb Houston retired in 1998, after a distinguished career in public health administration, he envisioned spending relaxing days on the golf course and at home. It didn’t take long, however, for his wife, Debritu Gebeyehu, to feel a little cramped with Houston around so much. “Go find something else to do,” she urged him. Gebeyehu didn’t realize she had just given her husband the impetus to embark on a new career producing tej, the traditional Ethiopian honey wine from her homeland.

The idea might have been buzzing around Houston’s brain since he used to help his mother-in-law make tej in the cottage behind their house. But Houston, a wine drinker, did not fall in love with his first taste of his mother-in-law’s honey wine many years ago. “It’s an acquired taste,” he said and then smiled. “But I acquired it pretty soon.”

Enat Winery occupies a small unit in an East Oakland food co-op. Photo: Feather Weight

He started the business in 1999, after filing papers to obtain all the required licenses. “I could have hired a lawyer, but I wanted to do it all myself,” said the accomplished but modest man, whose last position was as the CEO of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic for 12 years.

Enat Winery occupies a small unit in an East Oakland food co-op and produces 450 to 500 cases of the sweet, golden elixir every month. Houston, now 74, still oversees production every day, while Gebeyehu handles marketing and administration. The recipe and name for the business was inspired by Gebeyehu’s mother, Enat, who used to make her own tej for friends and family.

Alcoholic drinks made from fermenting honey (such as mead) may be the oldest beverages in the world. Traces have been found in Chinese pottery vessels dating to 7000 BC. Variations are enjoyed from Iceland to Mexico to Nepal. Tej (also known as t’ej) has been imbibed in Ethiopia for more than 2,000 years. It was once reserved for kings and emperors, but is now widely enjoyed for special occasions and everyday consumption. In “tej houses,” bars with musical entertainment and dancing, the potent libation (with at least 12% alcohol) is traditionally served in long-necked glass flasks.

With honey at its core, the wine has a sweet taste that some consider as a dessert wine or the perfect accompaniment to spicy food (Ethiopian or otherwise). No sulfites, chemicals or preservatives are needed. Enat makes two variations: wildflower honey is used for the traditional flavor; orange blossom honey produces a sweeter variety.

Gesho, a plant native to Ethiopia, is one of the ingredients in honey wine. It acts as a natural bittering agent. Photo: Feather Weight

Only three ingredients are combined to produce the flaxen fluid: local California honey, water and a natural bittering agent (akin to hops) called gesho, a plant native to Ethiopia. The process of fermentation, filtering and bottling has much in common with that of grape wine, but since no crops need to be harvested, it makes a much smaller “footprint” since it does not require land to grow crops, water for irrigation, nor pesticides.

Labels for Enat Winery’s honey wine. Photo: Feather Weight

Enat’s modest production facility is decidedly low-tech, with about a dozen large stainless steel vats and machines to filter the wine and label and fill the bottles. Ethiopian travel posters on the walls boast “13 Months of Sunshine!” (That’s not just hyperbole; the Ethiopian calendar actually has 13 months). The sweet aroma of honey hovers pleasantly in the air.

Houston is a warm host, happy to show this visitor his modest production room, but reluctant to disclose any details of his tej-making process. Specific questions were quickly deflected. For instance, “How long is your fermentation process?”

“Can’t tell you. It’s a secret,” he said. “And the gesho plant — do you use the leaves or the stems?”

“That’s a secret too.”

Bottles of Ethiopian honey wine at Enat Winery. Photo: Feather Weight

He offered a taste of a not yet fully matured brew. Even though its color is paler than the intense golden hue of the finished spirit, it still warmed the throat with a smooth, round taste and perhaps a hint of butterscotch.

One thing that’s not a secret is Enat’s sweet smell of success. Its wines are featured at many local Ethiopian restaurants including Berkeley’s Finfine and Oakland’s Café Colucci, as well as some specialty liquor stores and upscale markets, locally and around the country.

Gebeyehu’s mother passed away years ago but not before she witnessed the success of Enat Tej Winery. What a fitting honor. Not only was Enat her first name, it is also the word for “mother” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

Correction: The article had previously called gesho a fermenting agent; we have corrected the story to say it is a bittering agent. 

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.