Sometimes things are better when they start to go bad. Pickles, for example, when allowed to ferment in brine are a vast improvement on the zestless cucumber. The magic of fermentation turns cabbage and chiles into kimchi, milk into yogurt, and a mash of grain and hops into beer.
The same wonderful process turns tea, boring old tea, into kombucha.
Kombucha, for the uninitiated, is a tangy, vinegary, generally fizzy beverage made of black tea and sugar that has been fermented with a living colony of bacteria and yeast called a “scoby.” Kombucha’s recent rise in popularity has a bit to do with its supposed health benefits, particularly improving digestion (raw kombucha, a fermented food, is probiotic).
Katlyn Jennings, owner, operator and sole proprietor of Santa Fe’s new Kombucha company, The Kombucha Project, has been a home brewer of kombucha since 2009, before it became the country’s new favorite superfood, beer alternative, digestive aid and post-yoga beverage of choice. She launched The Kombucha Project earlier this year hoping to provide a local version of an increasingly popular product.
Standard kombucha is made of some variety of black tea and sugar and the aforementioned scoby, which does most of the heavy lifting. Part alchemy and part zoology, the cultivation of a scoby (which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”), also known as a “mother” or “mushroom,” takes a deft touch and a sense of humor, because, to be kind, a scoby looks like something that comes out of your nose when you sneeze. They grow into white discs, or “plates,” that look vaguely like flan.
According to Jennings, the actual plate of white goo does not contain yeast — it is all bacteria. The yeast actually lives in the liquid and comes from the air, and the bacterial plate forces a chemical reaction with said “wild yeast,” causing the required chemical reaction.
You can purchase a starter kit for a scoby, or you can grow your own from commercially available raw kombucha (make sure to use an unflavored variety) by pouring it into a jar and letting it sit on the counter with a cloth covering.
“Because the bacteria and yeast are alive in the culture, when they come up to temperature [they go to sleep when refrigerated] they start being active again,” Jennings says. “So you can take this bottle of original kombucha and put it on the shelf and it will grow a new scoby from the remaining sugars that are in the brew.”
You can also try to grow your own culture from scratch from bacteria in the air, which, though it sounds like something your teenage son does every day by accident, Jennings cautions is a delicate, tricky process. “You have to start with some kind of acidic base, like a vinegar or something added to your tea, to keep it from molding and food pathogens from growing in it,” she says. You are trying to grow bacteria, just not that bacteria.
“What most people don’t know is that plate, that white mushroom, is actually only bacteria,” Jennings says. “It’s sort of a misnomer — the yeast reside in the liquid, and they attach to the bottom of that plate when they’re in active fermentation. You’ll start to notice when you’ve added your starter liquid, that these little brown strands that look like they’re growing from underneath the mushroom — that’s actually the yeast coming from different parts of the liquid in order to complete the symbiotic process with the tea and sugar.”
Once you have your scoby (by whatever means), you add it to your tea and sugar mixture and allow it to ferment. Jennings says this takes roughly seven to 10 days (depending on how acidic you like your kombucha) and goes faster in warmer weather.
“Some people like theirs sweeter with less acidity,” Jennings says. “Kombucha is a very acidic drink, down to 2.8, 2.0 pH. Some people pull it before it gets down to that level, some people would like it with a little bit of the sugar still in the brew, and other people want straight vinegar, and for that you have to leave it longer.”
The process of secondary fermentation gives kombucha its appealing fizziness, making it taste and feel more like a healthy soda than a jar of fermented tea. Jennings also makes a version of kombucha with green tea, an Asian variation called jun or xun, which is sweetened with raw honey and cultivated with a different varietal of scoby.
And because the sometimes funky mushroom vinegar flavor of “original” kombucha is not for everyone, most kombucha bottlers make theirs with other flavorings to make it more palatable to a wider range of thirsty people.
The Kombucha Project consistently carries kombucha in Ginger Brew, Original and Honey Jun as well, but Jennings plans to have a rotating offering of seasonal flavorings, intending to take advantage of New Mexico’s local produce. Jennings, who formerly worked with the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association, is intimately familiar with the literal fruits of New Mexico’s labor.
“Apples are great, we use a lot of those; berries, we’re going to do a super green version; and melons … all the fruits,” Jennings says. While the tea itself is imported mostly from Asia, the honey in the Honey Jun flavor is local, and Jennings hopes to start using locally grown ginger in the Ginger Brew. This desire to find a secondary market for locally grown produce is part of what brought her to the concept of a kombucha business in the first place.
“When people start businesses, they often talk about an intersection of your needs and skills, your passions in the world and the community of needs,” Jennings says. “And that was sort of how I fell into kombucha. We [at the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association] were advocating for farmers to do value-added products, which had been difficult with the resources that are currently in our community in New Mexico. We have very few resources in terms of aggregated distribution for local food and processing — that means anything that takes a raw crop and turns it into something else, as simple as chopping the carrots and bagging them to making a soup.”
Jennings also notes that the job market in Santa Fe is such that it is difficult sometimes to make a thriving career out any but a few sectors.
“I realized if I wanted to stay here, I had to make my own work,” she says with a shrug.
But home brewing is one thing, and making a viable product for the masses is another. For one thing, Jenning’s personal tastes are more extreme than the average kombucha drinker.
“I’ll drink it when it’s almost pure vinegar,” Jennings says. “For the commercial brewer, you’ve got to find something that works for more people. Some people’s stomachs can’t handle the acid. We keep ours higher than [3.0 pH].” The result is a light, bright beverage with subtle sweetness and a clean, zingy flavor, less sugary than many commercially available kombuchas, but imminently approachable, even for those for whom kombucha is terra incognita.
If you want to try Jennings’ kombucha drinks, which are all made in Santa Fe, there are currently two ways. You can order directly from Jennings (see box), or look for The Kombucha Project products at various businesses soon. Jennings’ kombuchas will be available within the month, mostly on tap in coffee shops, restaurants and bars, or in The Kombucha Project’s distinctive lapis-blue glass bottles.
“That’s one of my targets, to have kombucha on tap in the bars here so I can feel confident going out with my friends,” laughs Jennings, who says she isn’t a big drinker. “There really aren’t any other good nonalcoholic drink options. I say it’s ‘the buzz without the buzz.’ ”
IF YOU WANT SOME:
Check their Facebook page, updated frequently, for on-tap locations. Or if you want it at home, you can order a minimum of six bottles in a case for $21 plus a $20 deposit for the cooler and bottles (which you can return to her for $1 each). At the moment, you can order directly from Jennings (with at least a week’s lead time), who will deliver it to your door (until the overwhelming future success of her business forces her to rethink her generosity).
TO ORDER, call or email: