From Mason Jars To Bar Tap
Alicia Sweet is getting ready to make a new batch of kombucha.
She pulls a scoby out of a 6-gallon glass bucket — her scoby hotel. Scoby is an acronym for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. It’s a floppy, squishy frisbee-shaped blob. Pretty gross. But this is the key to turning regular ol’ sweet tea into kombucha.
Kombucha a fermented tea beverage. It’s rich in probiotics, tastes a little like vinegar, and thanks to the fermentation process, it’s fizzy. She pours four cups of black tea and one cup of sugar into a jar. Then she adds the scoby, “It feeds off the caffeine and sugar, the scoby.”
Alicia has been making kombucha for ten years. At her most prolific, she was brewing ten gallons at a time at her home. These days, she’s focusing much of her creative energy on her new restaurant, King Dough. She and her husband Adam opened the pizza joint in Bloomington, Indiana just four months ago.
As they were planning the drink menu, she saw an opportunity to bring her kombucha to the business. “At the restaurant we were like, What are we gonna do with all these taps?” Since they wanted to offer a non-alcoholic drink on draft, “We decided, why not do kombucha because we all drink kombucha, we all know how to brew it, we all love it.
[pullquote]It’s not like making a batch of cookies, where you can just increase everything… There are many different components of it, and they’re living, and how they interact with each other is very unique and delicate.[/pullquote]
But what they didn’t know was how to scale-up their homebrewing.
Art Meets Science
“All of these, including beer and wine, all come initially from a homebrewer process that has overtime evolved into commercial industries,” says Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International. She says the industry is in its infancy, so brewers are still trying to figure it all out. Meanwhile, demand for the beverage is skyrocketing.
Sales of ready-to-drink carbonated tea, like kombucha, jumped from about $120 million in 2009 to $529 million five years later. That’s especially striking since the drink has only been widely available for about twenty years.
Homebrewers run into trouble scaling up their production because there isn’t equipment specifically made to accommodate the unique requirements of kombucha. For instance, kombucha needs oxygen during the fermentation process. “If you have a vessel that’s too deep, you don’t allow the oxygen to penetrate all the way to bottom of the brew, and that can cause culture and several other things.”
Kombucha entrepreneurs like Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher of Buchi have had to get creative.
“The hardest part about scaling up kombucha is that nobody has done it and written about it,” says Sarah. They went from homebrewing to commercial production in 2009. Demand in nearby Asheville was immediate and relentless.
“It’s not like making a batch of cookies, where you can just increase everything,” says Jeannine. “There are so many variables with fermentation and because it’s a long process, you have to control all those variables. There are many different components of it, and they’re living and how they interact with each other is very unique and delicate.”
Learning The Hard Way
Initially, Buchi was capped at brewing 60 gallons of kombucha a week because that’s all their equipment would allow. They did some research into the beer, cider and yogurt industries and pieced-together an equipment upgrade.
Then, the Kombucha Crisis of 2010 hit. Officials tested bottles of kombucha at a Whole Foods in Maine and discovered some contained more than 0.5 percent alcohol. As a result, Whole Foods pulled kombucha off its shelves nationwide.
Prior to 2010, Buchi had been sending their kombucha to a lab for testing, and sometimes they had to wait four days to get the results. Jeannine says the Crisis inspired them to make another big investment — $20,000 for in-house testing equipment.
With the help of their $60,000 bottling line, Buchi now distributes to around 650 retailers in 20 states.
A Little Too Weird For A Pizza Joint
As Alicia was sketching out her kombucha plan for King Dough, she wasn’t worried about the financial cost; her concern was how much time it would take to brew enough for the restaurant.
“There’s a lot upkeep of it,” she says. “Every two weeks, you have to make more and we had like five batches going at a time.”
To stretch the kombucha, she came up with a blend of ginger juice and white grape juice. The staff loved it. “But really the main problem for us, the downfall of our kombucha altogether was it just wasn’t selling.”
As a result, they’ve taken it off the menu. Now, that 13th tap features yet another beer, because Alicia says people love the tried-and-true combination of pizza and beer.