Dr. Fadi Aramouni on: Fizzy, fermented tea kombucha bubbles up in Kansas City
- April 26, 0216
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- Categories: Industry, Innovation
Last year, Amy Goldman and Sean Galloway set out to open a brewery and bakery called the Brewkery.
The couple started by selling loaves of sourdough at the Merriam Farmers Market. They wanted to sell beverages, too, but Kansas liquor laws prevented them from peddling beer at the market. So on a whim, they started making and selling kombucha, or fermented tea.
The tart, fizzy drink was easy to brew and a hit with customers. It wasn’t long before Goldman and Galloway were hooked on their kombucha, which they call Lucky Elixir. As she puts it: “We fell in love.”
Kombucha (pronounced com-BOO-cha), which has been brewed in Asia and Eastern Europe for centuries, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States among consumers looking for a healthier alternative to soda. Over the past 10 years, the beverage has spilled out of health food markets and into grocery stores, coffee shops and bars. According to “The Big Book of Kombucha” (Storey Publishing; 2016), estimated U.S. annual sales are approaching $600 million.
The so-called “elixir of life” is made by adding live bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea, then allowing the tea to ferment in an open container at room temperature for seven to 14 days. During that time, the bacteria and yeast convert the sugar to acids that make the tea tart.
Kombucha can be made with a wide variety of teas, including black, green, white and rooibos. Brewers often flavor it by adding fruit, herbs or spices during a second fermentation in a closed container. Carbonation occurs naturally during the second fermentation.
The fermentation produces alcohol, but kombucha is unlikely to give you a buzz: According to mandates from the Food and Drug Administration, kombucha sold in stores must be below 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Because it’s easy to make and loaded with probiotics and antioxidants, homebrewed kombucha has become popular among health-conscious DIY types such as Stephanie Novacek of Olathe. The physical therapist credits kombucha for boosting her energy and immunity. She teaches others about the power of probiotics at fermented food workshops, where she shows participants how to make kefir, cultured veggies and kombucha.
Novacek says fermentation is an art, not a science. Her advice for first-timers: Be patient, and let your senses guide the process.
“Taste it every couple days,” Novacek says. “Watch the color, because it will change over time.”
Some brewers stop their first ferment when the kombucha is tart but still slightly sweet; others let it go longer for a tangy, sour flavor.
Fermentation time depends on many factors, including time of year and temperature. According to “The Big Book of Kombucha,” the ideal temperature for making kombucha is between 78 and 80 degrees.
Every batch begins with a “mother” of live bacteria and yeast. Kombucha brewers call it a scoby — a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The rubbery, pancake-sized disk adds new layers over time and can be reused over and over, as long as it remains healthy. Homebrewers often give their scoby “babies” to friends who want to make kombucha.
Lisa Bledsoe, the founder of Tea-Biotics, is known in her brewing community as “The Scoby Master.”
“A lot of people get turned off by kombucha if it’s too sour,” Bledsoe says. “Over the years, I tweaked my recipe to produce a smooth flavor.”
Bledsoe, who recently expanded her kombucha-making operation with a 2,000-square-foot commercial facility in Lenexa, uses organic cold-pressed fruit juice and herbs to flavor her fermented tea, which comes in flavors such as lemonade, watermelon, black cherry, lavender and banana. She doles out samples every Saturday at the Overland Park Farmers Market, where she also sells kombucha starter kits for $30. The kits come with a scoby in a jar of kombucha starter tea, plus sugar, black tea bags, instructions and a 1-gallon glass jar.
Kombucha newbies can also buy starter kits online for $26.99 from Cultured Food Life at culturedfoodlife.com, which also sells fermenting jars, flip-cap bottles, heating mats and how-to DVDs. The company was founded by Donna Schwenk, a probiotics evangelist who lives in Greenwood, Mo.
Schwenk started fermenting foods in 2002 in an effort to combat health problems such as high blood pressure. Back then, “People thought I was crazy,” Schwenk says, so she kept her kombucha to herself. When friends found out what she was up to, they encouraged her to teach classes.
She has since led kombucha workshops all over the country and written two books on fermented foods. Her latest, “Cultured Food for Health: A Guide to Healing Yourself With Probiotic Foods” (Hay House; 2015), contains step-by-step instructions for making kombucha, kefir and cultured vegetables at home.
Growing bacteria in your kitchen might sound unsafe. But “with kombucha, the yeast and bacteria don’t allow for any competing organisms to grow,” says Fadi Aramouni, professor of food science at Kansas State University.
Aramouni says problems can arise when brewers use ceramic pots that contain lead or certain kinds of metal containers, which can leach ions. Stainless steel or glass vessels are safest.
He adds that people with alcohol allergies should avoid homebrewed kombucha, which is often higher in alcohol than store-bought varieties.
Although Aramouni says it’s “quite unusual” for mold to form in kombucha, most brewers monitor their scobys for circular bits of fuzz.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” says Elliot Pees, founder of Kanbucha.
Pees started brewing in 2009 while working as a teacher. In 2015, he quit his day job and moved his business out of his basement to a 2,500-square-foot commercial space in north Lawrence. The space, which he shares with Alchemy Coffee, allows Pees to brew up to 80 gallons a week — barely enough to fill his growing list of orders from local coffee shops, grocery stores and bars.
Kanbucha, which is brewed with Kansas City’s Hugo Tea, comes in flavors such as grape, chai and gingerose, the best-seller. Most are made with a blend of black and green tea, but Pees makes jazzminade with jasmine tea and roonilla with rooibos. The latter, made with vanilla and spearmint, tastes like cream soda.
Creative add-ins are also on tap at the Brewkery, which operates out of the Flavor Trade commercial kitchen at 3000 Troost Ave. Lucky Elixir comes in four flavors: ginger-lime, spiced, citrus hop and aroniaberry. Citrus hop is infused with Citra hops for a tropical flavor, and aroniaberry gets its sweet and sour notes from aronia berries, antioxidant-rich berries native to North America.
On a recent Tuesday, Goldman and Galloway worked side-by-side bottling their aroniaberry Lucky Elixir. The pink brew bubbled as it spilled out of a spigot and into a clear glass bottle with a horseshoe on the label. Later that day, the couple delivered batches of their Lucky Elixir to shops in Brookside, Lenexa and Independence.
As Galloway says: “The time is ripe right now for kombucha in Kansas City.”