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.”
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, California, 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 were inspired by Gebeyehu’s mother, Enat, who used to make her own tej for friends and family.