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Kombucha, a brew that’s not beer, wins over devotees

By Drew Lazor, For The Inquirer
POSTED: August 29, 2014
It’s fizzy. It’s fermented. It makes you feel wonderful. And it’s brewed right here in Philadelphia. But it’s not beer – it’s kombucha, the mystical elixir whose colorful origin stories could pass as Indiana Jones sequel treatments. Long the dominion of clean-living DIYers with an affinity for alternative products (read: hippies), the tea drink has officially cracked the worldwide mainstream, inspiring both global companies and local upstarts to claim their piece of the cultured culture.

There is no single accepted historical story line when it comes to kombucha, produced by introducing tea and sugar to a very-much-alive “mother” whose feeding acts as a catalyst for fermentation. (The floppy, ever-expanding jellyfish-esque disc is commonly referred to as a “SCOBY,” a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.) Most research indicates it has its roots in Asia and Eastern Europe, with some estimates dating it to China’s Qin Dynasty, which began in 221 B.C. There are stories of Genghis Khan’s marauders carrying a vinegary drink in flasks to keep their strength up, and tales of a mysterious Korean doctor named “Kombu” introducing it to the Japanese royal court in the fifth century.

Slightly less murky are kombucha’s purported health benefits. In addition to encouraging high energy and more consistent digestion via probiotics, the vitamins and minerals present in the liquid have been credited with everything from alleviating minor maladies, like allergies, to softening the side effects of chemotherapy. All in an effervescent and easy-drinking format that’s not too far off from a soda.

Celebrated colloquially, these pluses are still viewed with some skepticism by conventional medicine, but it hasn’t hampered the growth of kombucha as a beverage-case force. Kombucha Revolution, a 2014 book by Kombucha Wonder Drink founder Stephen Lee, estimates that the industry will reach $500 million in annual sales in coming years. It’s this type of commercial potency, coupled with a sincere love of local handcrafted fermentables, that has motivated Philly-based kombucha makers to brew.

“It’s the gateway ferment,” said Amanda Feifer, a local writer and food instructor who runs the site phickle.com and teaches classes on multiple types of fermentables, including kombucha. “It is a really distinctive and delicious flavor. There isn’t really anything else that tastes quite like it.”

That complex profile – off-sweet from the tea and added fruits or vegetables, but also slightly sour and bubbly from the SCOBY’s contributions – is what initially intoxicated Dave and Carly Dougherty, who run Food & Ferments, a company focused on homemade products like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.

“It seems like everybody in the city is into the kombucha thing these days,” said Carly, who with her husband sells her bottled drinks, with flavors like carrot-clove, ginger-lime, and blueberry-lavender, to shops like Green Aisle Grocery, Talula’s Daily, and the Fair Food Farmstand. Of their entire line, “it has definitely been the star child.”

The folks from Food & Ferments also work the Rittenhouse Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, where they show off a fully operational SCOBY at work in a large glass jar at their booth to clue people in to the process. Not everyone is interested in peeking behind the curtain. “Even after people see it and we explain it, they remain freaked out,” Carly said. “They just don’t want to know about that part.”

“It looks like a disgusting alien blob when it’s doing its job,” said Feifer. SCOBYs can be purchased online, but they’re more commonly passed between brewers for free; a small piece of the cellulose structure grows to the size of its vessel quickly.

A typical batch of kombucha takes somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to 10 days to complete; the longer a SCOBY sits in the tea and feeds off the sugar, the more vinegary the end product becomes. John Calvitti, who oversees the bar program at Mount Airy’s Earth Bread + Brewery, also makes a house kombucha, which he makes sure appeals to unfamiliar palates.

“People who make it themselves at home tend to like it more sour and aggressive,” he said. “I make ours a little bit more on the mellow side.” The restaurant offers plain, ginger, and blueberry versions, both by the glass and in 64-ounce growlers.

Jessa Stevens, a longtime kombucha fanatic and graphic designer by trade, transitioned her love of the beverage into Inspired Brews, based in the small back room of Ryan Crown’s Juice Club, in the Sweat Gym at Broad and Arch. Formerly based in Dallas, where the brand also has a presence, Stevens relocated to Philly last year due to her husband’s South Jersey-based job in warehouse robotics.

Like Food & Ferments, Stevens relies on local and seasonal produce to craft her kombuchas, carried both in the city (One Shot Coffee, Breezy’s Cafe, Sip N Glo) and the suburbs (Terrain, in Glen Mills; Farm and Fisherman Tavern & Market, in Cherry Hill). This summer, she has depended on cherries, peaches, apricots, and blueberries from Pennsylvania and New Jersey growers to skew her kombucha away from the sour side.

“We’ve had a lot of people tell us that it’s approachable for people who have never had it,” she said.

Though Stevens is a hands-on brewer, there are only so many things she can tweak before she leaves it up to the microbes invaluable to the process. In this way, it’s the aspect she has no actual control over that she finds most fascinating. No SCOBY is the same, meaning every kombucha maker, as well as every individual batch of kombucha, is unique.

“It’s working behind the scenes,” she said. “You set it up and walk away, and it does what it does.”