Eat & Drink

Fizzy, fermented tea kombucha bubbles up in Kansas City

What is kombucha?

Amy Goldman and Sean Galloway set out last year to open a beer brewery and bread bakery called The Brewkery in Kansas City. Their plans changed after they "fell in love" with kombucha, a fizzy fermented tea drink.
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Amy Goldman and Sean Galloway set out last year to open a beer brewery and bread bakery called The Brewkery in Kansas City. Their plans changed after they "fell in love" with kombucha, a fizzy fermented tea drink.

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.”

The Brewkery is one of three growing kombucha companies in the Kansas City area. Others include Kanbucha in Lawrence and Tea-Biotics in Lenexa.

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.”

Locally brewed

These Kansas City-area companies produce flavored fermented tea.

Kanbucha: Elliot Pees brews raw (unpasteurized) kombucha in a commercial space in north Lawrence. Kanbucha, made with Hugo Tea, comes in flavors that range from sweet grape to spicy chai. The best-seller is gingerose, which blends warm, spicy ginger with floral rose notes. Kanbucha is sold in 16-ounce bottles at Lawrence Hy-Vee stores and the Merc Co-op, and in Kansas City at the Sundry, Filling Station, One More Cup and Nature’s Own,. It’s also on tap at two Lawrence bars: the Bourgeois Pig, and the Burger Stand at the Casbah. For more information, go to kanbucha.com.

The Brewkery: Based at Flavor Trade, a gourmet food manufacturing company at 3000 Troost Ave., the Brewkery produces Lucky Elixir kombucha, which launched this month. The fermented tea comes in four flavors: spiced, ginger-lime, aroniaberry and citrus hop, which is infused with Citra hops for a bright, tropical flavor. Lucky Elixir is sold in 12-ounce bottles at Bulk It in Lenexa, Unbakery and Juicery in Kansas City, Terra Health & Wellness Market in Independence and select Hen House markets. You can also find it at the Merriam Farmers Market on Saturdays starting May 7. For more information, go to brewkery.com.

Tea-Biotics: Go to the Overland Park Farmers Market on a Saturday and you’ll find Lisa Bledsoe, also known as the Scoby Master, doling out samples of her Tea-Biotics kombucha from 20 taps. Flavors change with the seasons but have included lemonade, watermelon, pumpkin, lavender, black cherry, banana, blueberry and root beer. Bledsoe uses cold-pressed organic juices and herbs to flavor the fermented tea, which is also sold at Simple Science Juices. in Overland Park, Spirit of Health in Grandview and Bulk It and Brew Gallery in Lenexa. For more information, go to tea-biotics.com.

Unpasteurized vs. pasteurized

Raw kombucha has not been pasteurized. The pasteurization process halts fermentation, extends shelf life and eliminates live cultures and all but a trace of alcohol. Pasteurized kombucha still retains the beneficial acids that give the drink its tart taste.

Some consumers prefer raw kombucha because the live cultures, or probiotics, are preserved. Raw kombucha is safe to consume because it contains the live bacteria and yeast that keep pathogens and fungus (such as mold) at bay. Raw kombucha continues to ferment (slowly) in the bottle and sometimes forms a new scoby.

Basic Kombucha

A glass 1.25-gallon jar would make a good brewing vessel for this basic kombucha, which can be made with black, green or white tea or a blend.

Makes 1 gallon

1 gallon water, divided

12 grams tea, loose or bagged

1 cup cane sugar

1 cup starter liquid (already brewed kombucha)

1 scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast)

Bring 1 quart of water to boil in a large pot over high heat. Turn off the heat and add the tea. Let steep for 20 minutes, stirring and agitating the tea every 5 minutes.

Add 2 quarts of cool water to the brewing vessel. It is imperative that the water be cool. When the hot tea is added in the next step, it will bring the temperature down enough for it to be safe for the brew vessel and kombucha culture.

Add the steeped tea to your vessel already containing cool water, using a strainer to remove the tea leaves, or remove the tea bags. Add the sugar to the tea and mix thoroughly.

Add the starter liquid and scoby to the cool, sweet tea. Add more cool water to bring the volume to 1 gallon. Cover with a tightly knit cloth and seal with a rubber band. Let sit for 10 to 14 days at room temperature.

Most people prefer their primary kombucha fermentation to be halted when the brew is tart with a nice balance of sweetness. Use a clean straw or spoon to dip into the brew and test it at any time. When you have determined that your kombucha is finished, transfer all but 1 cup of kombucha directly into bottles or into a separate pot. Put the reserved cup of kombucha and the new scoby into a tightly sealed container and store in the refrigerator to use in the next batch. (You can store and reuse, discard, compost, donate or eat the other, older scoby).

After flavoring your kombucha as desired, seal the bottles and allow them to sit at room temperature for 3 days to gain carbonation through bottle conditioning. If you do not want further fermentation and carbonation, skip this step and transfer the kombucha bottles directly to the refrigerator.

If you let your kombucha bottle condition, when finished put them in the refrigerator. They will continue to ferment slowly in the refrigerator. After about one month, the flavor will start to change.

Per 1-cup serving: 51 calories (none from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 13 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Source: “Fermentation & Home Brewing” (Sterling Epicure; 2016)

Citrus Kombucha

Lime juice adds zing to homebrewed kombucha. Other popular flavor infusions include sliced ginger, pomegranate juice, lavender blossoms, vanilla beans and fresh mint.

Makes 1 gallon

14 cups purified water, divided

16 to 20 bags or 8 tablespoons loose-leaf black tea

1 cup evaporated cane sugar (available at health food stores)

2 cups starter tea (already brewed kombucha)

1 scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast)

3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 6 limes)

Heat 6 cups of the water in a stainless steel saucepan to 212 degrees, then remove from the heat. Add the tea, stir well and cover. Steep for 4 minutes, stirring once at 2 minutes. Remove the tea bags or pour the tea through a colander or fine-mesh strainer into a second pot. Discard the tea leaves.

Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Then add the remaining 8 cups of water to cool the tea to about room temperature (72 degrees or cooler). Add the starter tea and stir. Pour into a 1-gallon jar.

With rinsed hands, carefully lay your scoby on the surface of the tea. Cover the opening of the jar with a clean cotton cloth and hold it in place with a rubber band. Place your jar in a warm spot (72-78 degrees) out of direct sunlight and leave your kombucha undisturbed to ferment for 7 days.

Taste the kombucha using a straw. Does it taste too sweet? Let it go a few more days before tasting again. Once it’s sufficiently tart, carefully remove the scoby with rinsed hands and place on a clean porcelain or glass plate or bowl bathed in kombucha. This will be your culture for the next batch.

If immediately proceeding with another batch, reserve about 2 cups of the finished kombucha for the starter tea of your next brew.

Time to incorporate your flavoring. Using a funnel, divide the lime juice equally among the bottles (about 1  1/2 tablespoons per 16-ounce bottle). Top off the bottles with the harvested kombucha, leaving 1 inch of air space in the neck of the bottle. As you pour, you may want to use a fine-mesh strainer to filter out yeast strands. Cap tightly.

To begin the optional secondary fermentation, simply store the capped bottles in a warm, dry place (72-82 degrees is best) for 48 hours. Be aware that the sugars present will add fuel to the fermentation, which will increase the pressure inside the bottles. After 48 hours, chill one of the bottles for at least 6 hours. Crack it open and pour into a glass. If it effervesces, you’ve done it! If you want more carbonation, let it go for a few more days and test again with another chilled bottle. When you’re pleased with the carbonation, refrigerate all the bottles.

Per 1-cup serving: 55 calories (none from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 8 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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