Kombucha's PR Problem

Is it a health drink? An alcoholic beverage? It depends on who you ask.

Kombucha's PR Problem
E. Katie Holm

Bryan Deane Bertsch's brewery, as it has recently been classified by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), is in the basement of a commercial kitchen on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. The space is roughly the size of a bedroom and contains 11 oak barrels resting on a counter. Aside from a small storage closet and walk-in cooler, the whole operation consists of little else. The shiny fermentation tanks and bottling line conveyors of commercial beer-makers are conspicuously absent.

When I visited his facility, Bertsch was dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals and wore his red hair pulled back in a ponytail. (By day he's the office manager of a technology company, but he's also a Taoist meditation instructor.) I climbed up a stepladder next to a barrel and peeled back a cloth and paper towel covering its top to get a better look at Bertsch's brew. Peering inside, I was confronted with a mysterious brown substance that could have been anything: the swampy landscape of a far-off planet, a thick glob of dinosaur mucus, Jabba the Hutt's tongue? The slimy, gelatinous cap floated on top of the barrel's liquid contents. It glistened with moisture and was flecked with white foam. Also, it was pulsing. It seemed to live and breathe on its own.

Bertsch flipped the barrel's spigot and poured me a sample of his Deane's brand kombucha. I sniffed its slightly sweet, vinegary scent and raised the glass to my lips.

The makings of Deane's Ginger Honey kombucha: Organic green tea, cane sugar, ginger root, and Ames Farm raw honey
E. Katie Holm
The makings of Deane's Ginger Honey kombucha: Organic green tea, cane sugar, ginger root, and Ames Farm raw honey
Bryan Deane Bertsch of Deane's Kombucha
E. Katie Holm
Bryan Deane Bertsch of Deane's Kombucha

Kombucha, like coffee, appears to have originated before recorded history. And just as it is hard to imagine the first person to have picked a coffea shrub's fruit, roasted and ground its seeds, and then steeped them in water, it is difficult to conceive of someone deciding to plop a gooey-looking bacteria-yeast pancake into a vat of tea.

Kombucha has its origins in Eurasia and is thought to be a variant of Russian kvass, a traditional beverage made from fermenting stale rye bread in water. The kombucha's agent is a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," otherwise known by its acronym, SCOBY. Kombucha makers often refer to the jellyfish-like glob as a "mother," but scientifically it's classified as a biofilm—essentially an aggregate of microorganisms, or the sort of thing that causes most people to say "yuck!"

To brew kombucha, a culture must first be acquired from a previous batch in which the "mother" SCOBY has propagated to produce a "baby." The culture is placed in sweetened tea and left to ferment before the liquid is drawn off. With a continuous brewing method, some of the brewing kombucha is retained in the vessel with the SCOBY to inoculate the next batch. (The origins of the very first kombucha culture are unknown, though one legend credits a Chinese shop assistant who unwittingly combined the contents of two nearly empty honey and wine vessels.)

Some kombuchas are blended with juice and then, using a method similar to that of making Belgian lambic beer, undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which gives them a slight effervescence. A few formulas are pasteurized, but many, like Deane's, are raw (kombucha is very acidic so it has a low pH). Regardless of its recipe, kombucha tends to have a mild but refreshing, sweet-tart tang and a way of appealing to the health food crowd.

Fermented foods have lately become somewhat trendy with co-op shoppers, particularly live-culture items such as sauerkraut and the dairy beverage kefir. But while scientific studies have demonstrated that the bacteria in yogurt can help maintain intestinal-tract health and bolster the immune system, kombucha's effects have not yet been verified by a major American medical study. "Health benefits attributed to kombucha tea include stimulating the immune system, preventing cancer, and improving digestion and liver function," the Mayo Clinic's website explains. "However, there's no scientific evidence to support these health claims."

Still, abundant anecdotal assertions about the tonic's healing powers have made health food consumers the beverage's primary market. But that started to change last year, when the federal government recognized that kombucha contained alcohol and essentially subjected the whole industry to a breathalyzer.

When Bertsch started selling his kombucha, concerns about the product's alcohol content weren't even on his radar. He started drinking kombucha a few years ago, and when it became a regular habit, he decided to order a SCOBY online (it arrived via mail, in a Ziploc bag) and hone his own formula. After dozens of batches, he arrived at a recipe that brewed sugar and green tea in oak barrels for seven days at a temperature between 75 and 85 degrees. (He says the barrels impart a toasty, earthy flavor to the brew.) Bertsch prefers a naturally carbonated kombucha, so he bottles the liquid and lets it ferment again for two to four weeks. Even though all the SCOBYs in Bertsch's brewery came from the "same lineage," he says, no two batches will be exactly the same, particularly because ambient yeast from the bread-making operations in the kitchen upstairs can subtly influence the fermentation process.

Bertsch noticed the beverage's popularity on the West Coast—many of the area's Whole Foods stores had started offering kombucha on tap—and decided to try to sell his at retail, as a locally made alternative to GT's, the leading commercial brand. "Looking at prices on the shelf," he recalls, "I thought, 'I could make it for less.'" (Ironically, as it turns out, Bertsch's product became one of the priciest after he factored in all of his costs.) He approached the Linden Hills Co-op with his product, and the store immediately signed on. "I thought, 'This is going to be easy,'" Bertsch recalls.

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6 comments
Amystor78
Amystor78

Re. kombucha,I make it with antidepressant herbs like St. John's Wort and Wood Betony. The effects are almost immediate. Making it out of rhubarb has been a super anti inflammatory for my injured foot. It is super refreshing after working outside on hot days and is better for you than pop. I hope to make more "old fashioned" pop, which also has the potential to become alcohol as it ages. Artificial carbonation is bad fo rthe body and artificially made bubble beverages don't have the B vitamins created by yeast and fermentation. Modern pop is so bad fo rpeople I think it shold be regulated. Children should not be able ot buy that, either, if we are going to make thins unavailable for having .5 alcohol content. Eating lots of sugar allows the human body to turn into a sort of fermentation chamber and the sugar is converted to alcohol in our digestive system anyway. Probably one reason kids get so high from eating sugar.

Amy Storbakken

guest
guest

Could the PR problem that kombucha has just be simply that it's gross?

Izzy
Izzy

Well, kombucha's fermentation process is not much different than that of beer, and many more people enjoy beer than kombucha. If you are referring to the taste alone, then I recommend you try different flavors of kombucha. Again, kombucha is like beer which can range from "dark" (Guinness) to "light" (Heineken). For those who are new to kombucha, I normally recommend a "lighter" flavor of kombucha. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend a storebought item, as my kombucha is home-made. On another note, one reason that people attribute to the lack of kombucha sales is the home-made culture already built around it. I can attest that this is not the case from direct observation. Even the people who I know to brew beer buy commercial beer on occasion.Personally, I am wondering when an alcoholic version of kombucha will be on the market. Though it is low in alcohol content, it is still possible and would be a major selling point. It could be a less expensive and healthier alternative to beer!

Eric Erstad
Eric Erstad

Great article. It's nice to have real Kombucha back in the Twin Cities. Also nice to be able to support a good, local product.

morchella
morchella

I had a sample of Deane's at The Four Firkins one day- it's really delicious!! It's a much superior product to GTs.

 
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