Kombucha ... tea with fungus?


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On Lowrie Street in Troy Hill, a pair of business partners are embarking on a journey to turn a fungus-fermented drink into a bar staple alongside wine and craft beers.

A hanging sign in the shape of a hot-air balloon reads "Pig Hill Cafe," but no food is served here, in what's now headquarters for Red Star Kombucha. Inside the storefront, the ceiling is pressed tin, the floor looks like cafeteria tile and lining the wall are enormous glass jars full of a liquid, in which float huge chunks of bacteria and yeast called (seriously) globs.

That's the kombucha (kom-boo-cha). A fermented tea beverage said to have been invented centuries ago in China, kombucha has long been popular in the Eastern hemisphere. The fermentation is started by a mixture called "scoby" (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast); yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol, which the bacteria feeds upon to make the vitamins and live organisms that are probiotics. The bacteria also contribute to the slightly bitter taste and the acidity, which hovers somewhere between yogurt and cider.

This is why kombucha can smell like a forgotten sock at the bottom of a gym bag.

Red Star co-owner Joe Reichenbacher, 31, cracks open an unlabeled brown bottle of the kombucha brewed by his partner Naomi Auth, 35. It emits a small hiss of carbonation and smells comfortingly like a Granny Smith apple. He pours it into a glass and a small head forms, then fizzles out. Red Star's brew tastes similar to Woodchuck Hard Cider.

These days, you'll find many varieties and brands of kombucha in health-food and grocery stores. Traditional kombucha continues to ferment after being bottled, which can raise its alcohol percentage above the legal limit for a nonalcoholic beverage: 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. Some commercial kombucha brewers started pasteurizing their drinks to stop the fermentation process so their products can be sold as a nonalcoholic beverage. But pasteurization equipment is expensive, so many smaller breweries have folded.

Mr. Reichenbacher and Ms. Auth shunned pasteurization altogether and instead have struck out on a mission to raise funds for brewing equipment and brewing licenses so they can make and sell their authentic kombucha to bars.

Mr. Reichenbacher, a musician who plays violin and ukulele, is a Florida native but has considered Pittsburgh his "home base" for years. Ms. Auth is a Pittsburgher, born and raised. The friends began brewing here two years ago and sold their bottled kombucha to a handful of stores in 2011 before they realized that their carefully constructed formula contained too much alcohol to be sold without a brewing license. Red Star's brew varies between 0.8 percent and 3 percent alcohol by volume. Beer typically contains about 5 percent ABV.

Ms. Auth now works at Whole Foods when she's not making various fermented foods and drinks. She's has been brewing kombucha for six years, having previously experimented with sauerkraut and kimchi, which she sold at the East End Food Co-op in North Point Breeze.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is really cool -- something that's still alive while you're drinking it.' "

She procured her first kombucha culture from a friend and went through another fermentation learning curve, keeping a log book on her journey.

She finally perfected the recipe that would become Red Star's and Mr. Reichenbacher liked it so much that he teamed up in order to help her save what they claim is the city's only kombucha brewery.

Before learning of their kombucha's ABV transgression, Red Star was served in Lili Coffee Shop in Polish Hill to a group of loyal fans.

Lili employee Heidi Tucker said that the shop frequently would sell out of Red Star Kombucha before other bottled beverages like Pellegrino water.

"People really preferred it to mainstream kombucha," she said. "There were people coming in every day for it."

According to Mr. Reichenbacher, every bottle of Red Star's kombucha is different due to the live cultures that continue to work within the bottle. "It's not a standardized thing," he said.

The ingredients of basic kombucha are tea, sugar, water and kombucha culture, but the percentages of each vary from batch to batch. Each bottle also contains a small glob, a tiny culture that forms during the bottle aging process. It's totally edible but it also can be strained out if the idea of chewing on a clump of tea-flavored yeast and bacteria is unappealing.

Though it has been said that kombucha is a drink with health benefits -- from being high in B vitamins to improving digestive health and even liver function -- none of these claims have been proven, and Red Star is not making them.

"A lot of times kombucha is sold as a 'health' product, and it's arguable," Mr. Reichenbacher said.

He and Ms. Auth have big plans for serving their brew in bars, both as a drink and a mixer, and experimenting with different flavor additions and higher alcohol percentages -- even something he calls "kombucha beer."

Having applied for a brewing license under the name Pig Hill Brewery, they are awaiting final approval from the state as well as the federal government. The name Pig Hill is a historic nickname for the neighborhood's hillside, up which pigs used to be herded on "Pig Run" -- steep Rialto Street -- from the riverside train tracks to slaughterhouses in adjacent Spring Hill. For a time, Ms. Auth served food at the Pig Hill Cafe on weekends. (Before that, she ran it as the Magnolia Cafe coffeehouse.) Currently Pig Hill holds only brewing kombucha; no kimchi or sauerkraut are for sale.

As for Red Star Kombucha, "Hopefully in the next couple months you'll be seeing it in stores. The hopeful timeline is this summer," Mr. Reichenbacher said.

The pair intend to keep the Lowrie Street shop but within a year would like to move to a space elsewhere in the city large enough for a small microbrewery, where they could produce larger quantities, both draft and bottled.

Though a first attempt at fundraising via Indiegogo yielded only $300, Mr. Reichenbacher is not discouraged. "It doesn't have to be our only attempt."

He and Ms. Auth envision a world where a regular guy walks into a regular bar and orders a bottle of kombucha for himself, a kombucha-tini for his date and maybe the guy standing next to them orders a kombucha beer.That is, if people can get past the globs.

libations

Jessica Suss: jsuss@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1634.


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