Hastings native Katherine Niebur left Hastings after high school and spent 10 years developing her career as a chef in New York and Seattle. Now she’s back in the Twin Cities, and she’s brought a new passion with her. Her business, Gray Duck Chai, is growing in the metro area and recently brought its product to Hastings.
Niebur graduated from HHS in 2001 and went on to college at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, one of the few colleges that offers a full bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. She stayed in New York five years while attending school and then working for a restaurant called The Modern, located in the Museum of Modern Art.
Her next stop was on the other side of the country, in Seattle. She lived there another five years, working as a chef at a couple different restaurants and developing a love for chai.
“Seattle has such a great coffee and tea culture,” she said.
There she discovered the more natural, traditional form of chai. Chai simply means “tea” in Hindi; in America, it refers to a specific type of tea that uses a mix of spices and milk. The popular version is inspired by masala chai, or “spiced tea,” which is common in India.
In 2011, Niebur moved back to Minnesota. She currently lives in St. Paul and cooks for Meritage Brasserie.
But her return to the Midwest left her missing the sort of chai she grew fond of in Seattle. She tried to order chai at various places, but all she could get was the generic, over-sweet, syrupy sort, so she started brewing her own.
From the start, Niebur wanted to turn her brew into a business, but she felt she needed some time to settle in first, she said. It was her co-worker and friend, Jon Alden, who gave her the push to start the business. They now co-own Gray Duck Chai.
The name is a subtle homage to Minnesota. While in college, they discovered that Minnesotans are different than the rest of the country in the way they refer to a particular child’s game. Most states refer to it as “Duck, duck, goose,” but in Minnesota it’s “Duck, duck, gray duck.”
Gray Duck Chai launched in 2011, first available only in Twin Cities tea and coffee shops. Niebur and Alden delivered the brew to shops in returnable bottles which were refilled weekly. This year, they began selling retail bottles.
Gray Duck Chai is a traditional masala chai, brewed with fresh, organic ingredients that are ground by hand. The flavor is more about the spices than sweetness, Niebur said.
Niebur and Alden tested hundreds of recipes, pulling from old recipes from India. Their research led them to are two varieties of Gray Duck Chai: nine spice blend and burnt sugar and ginger. Keeping with tradition, they also use the same Assam black tea leaves from India that are used to make masala chai in that region.
The process is pretty simple and follows the tradition in India of brewing chai in a large stock pot over an open flame. Niebur and Alden can brew 40 bottles worth of chai in about an hour. Their customers finish the process by mixing the brew with milk at home just before serving.
A growing business
Gray Duck Chai was first funded by the extra money Niebur and Alden could set aside from their jobs at Meritage. Last year, they were able to raise more money thanks to Kickstarter, which was a major boost.
Since then, sales have been improving, Alden said, and they’re still adding new accounts. Now their chai is available in about 30 locations. They even have a restaurant in Seattle serving their brew, and a taste test in that city ranked Gray Duck Chai better than the chai Niebur usually drank when she lived there.
Just two weeks ago, Hastings got its first taste of Gray Duck Chai. Retail bottles are now being sold at Spiral Natural Foods. Niebur is particularly proud to see her product in her hometown, she said. Now, all the friends and family who supported her can find her chai right here in town.
For now, the business is operated entirely by Niebur and Alden. Besides making all the chai, they also deliver it to every store, café and restaurant that offers Gray Duck Chai. Both still work at Meritage, but as the business grows, they’re shifting more of their attention and time to their own venture.
They’re not certain how the business will unfold as they enjoy continued growth, but that, Alden said, is a good sort of problem to have.
To celebrate Gray Duck Chai’s arrival in Hastings, a tasting event will be held at Spiral Natural Foods. The demo is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16.
For more about Gray Duck Chai, go to www.grayduckchai.com or find them on Facebook or Twitter.