Strange Brew: Kombucha

When you walk into the average establishment downtown and ask for a cold beverage on tap, you should expect to receive beer. If you walk into Townshend’s Tea and ask the same question, do not expect beer.

Kombucha, which originated in China many centuries ago, hit health food fanatics and alternative medicine subcultures around the 1990s in America, and currently is a mainstream trend in stores and kitchens across the country. From 2013 to 2014, kombucha saw 29 percent growth representing nearly a $123 million industry.

Growth of the market has not stopped there. Kombucha Brewers International, a non-profit trade organization representing 90 percent of commercial kombucha producers, estimates that as of 2015 kombucha is currently a $600 million industry.

Townshend’s Teas, which originated in Portland and now has teahouses in Bend, Or., and Bozeman, also brews their own kombucha under the name Brew Dr. The brand is available in bottles in stores across the continent, from Alaska to Colorado to Texas.

The Bozeman shop was started by Melissa and Scott Herron. The husband and wife duo opened the teahouse in April 2014 and have been in business ever since. The shop specializes in high-quality loose-leaf tea, and also offers bubble tea and of course, kombucha.

The drink is made by first brewing a batch of caffeinated tea. Some people prefer to use green tea, while others prefer to make their kombucha using black tea. The key is the caffeine, so herbal teas will not work. After the tea has been brewed it needs to be fermented.  

Many people know kombucha as the “mushroom tea.” This is because of the agent which brewers use to ferment the tea, known as the Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, or SCOBY. It resembles a fungus or mushroom, hence the misnomer for its product.

Some of the yeasts produce alcohol, while certain strains of bacteria consume it and emit acetic acid, especially acetobacter, nicknamed the ‘acetic acid bacteria.’ This gives the brew a slight vinegar flavor. The end result is a series of biochemical reactions that yield an effervescent beverage which resembles beer, yet has similar health benefits as yogurt. Generally speaking, the yeasts are responsible for the carbonation and alcohol, as they consume the sugar. Much like students at a university, the bacteria consume alcohol and caffeine. This creates a live probiotic mix which is believed to aide in digestion and absorption of nutrients after it is consumed.

“Brew Dr’s kombucha is unpasteurized,” Melissa Herron, co-owner of Townshend’s explained, “that means we keep all of the bacteria in the drink so all of the healthy goodness makes it into your gut.”

Some other brands of kombucha are pasteurized for safety concerns, but this process kills most of the beneficial bacteria, which is arguably the potion’s defining characteristic. After about ten days, the initial fermentation is complete.

What gives each kombucha its uniqueness is a second brew where extra flavoring can be added. Everything from fruit to herbs and even hops can be added to enhance the flavor and transform kombucha from an ancient remedy into a modern refreshment.

Herron recommends Brew Dr’s ‘White Rose’ flavor for people who want to try kombucha for the first time. It is a light and flowery flavor which makes refreshing and gentle introduction to the strange brew.

After sampling all the flavors on tap, two favorites include the Spiced Apple and the newest flavor, Citrus Hops. Spiced Apple resembles a cider due to its cinnamon spice and crisp sweetness. It is the perfect drink for a snowy autumn day. Citrus Hops on the other hand is a refreshing orangey drink that brings out an uncommon flavor profile in hops. Usually when you think of hops, you think of a deep, bitter I.P.A but since the fermentation process is completely different the drink ends up being crisp which makes for a refreshing kombucha fit for the last days of summer.