Kombucha may seem acetic to some, but the tangy fermented “living tea” is converting consumers on-premise. Once relegated to the health-beverage category and sold mostly through natural-food stores, kombucha is now boosting its profile as a mixer and on tap.
Fermented from a base of infused tea, sweetened with a bit of sugar and often enhanced with spices, herbs, fruits and even vegetable flavors, kombucha derives its distinctive taste from its SCOBY. That’s the acronym for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” similar to a starter for sourdough bread or the mother culture used to make vinegar.
Anyone who is familiar with a Belgian lambic or sour ale can sell and promote draft kombucha by the glass. From Seattle to Charlotte, mixologists are finding ways to blend the fermented flavors of kombucha into cocktails, or even present kombucha in stemware, just like sparkling wine.
Deanne Gustafson, owner of Kombucha on Tap in Oceanside, CA, promotes different brands of kombucha to on-premise accounts across southern California. “The best-known brand is GT’s Synergy, made here in California but distributed nationwide,” Gustafson says. Other brands include Health-Ade, the BU and Good Chefs.
At Le Papagayo Leucadia in Encintas, CA, kombucha on tap complements the 16 draft beers and cocktail program. Much of the menu, from crab enchiladas to steak tacos with salsa verde, matches well with flavors in kombucha cocktails.
One is the Kombucha Guava, a blend of guava nectar, GT’s Trilogy fermented with raspberry, lemon and ginger. Priced at $12 for 10 oz., the drink is presented with lemon and fresh mint.
To Your Health
“When you first taste kombucha, it may remind you of a Belgian sour ale,” says Tarek Kanaan, cofounder of kombucha beer brewery Unity Vibration in Yspilanti, MI. “It’s got an incredibly complex fermentation with many cultures present in the SCOBY mix, such as lactobacillus, acetobacters, saccharomyces, brettanomyces and more flavor compounds depending on the base tealeaf blend.”
Kombucha fits with special diets such as gluten free, Paleo, vegan and vegetarian. Claims of healthfulness based on live cultures and probiotics may not be proven by clinical trials, but with celebrity anecdotes endorsing its consumption for vitality and energy, kombucha sparkles with promise and perception.
Chris Joyner, owner of Seattle’s CommuniTea, tells an even more personal story. “We began in 1993 making kombucha to help a friend who was recovering from cancer, and kept on making it.” It’s a gentle beneficial “with a long history of being good for people, made with natural carbonation and cultures that help digestion,” he adds.
Seattle’s Uneeda Burger, which brings fine-dining flair to gourmet burgers and salads with local ingredients, features local CommuniTea kombucha on draft. “We have lots of conscientious eaters in this city, and kombucha makes a refreshing and different pairing,” says beverage director Joshua Ryder says. The draft menu offers three sizes for kombucha: 6 oz. for $3, $12 oz. for $5.50 and 16-oz. pints for $6.75.
Kombucha represents three possible streams of revenue on premise for many operators, says Gustafson. “It’s good for the designated driver or alcohol-free customer who has an adult palate, as certain brands offer fermented flavor and complexity with less than 1% alcohol by volume.”
The flavored varieties, he adds, make fascinating mixers for all kinds of spirits to create less-sugary cocktails. “Plus, kombucha can be sold throughout the day, from orange or citrus juice blends in the morning, to after-dinner infusions.”
Priced to compete with craft beer, draft kombucha wholesale prices range between $60 to $90 per sixtel (about one-sixth of a keg), depending on producer and location. Yet draft kombucha may yield a profitable pour, as serving sizes tend to be smaller, typically 6 oz. to 10 oz. presented in a flute, tulip or wine glass.
“Our bar customers charge $3.50 to $5.50 per 8-oz. glass for kombucha on draft,” says Gustafson. Draft kombucha can be rotated in with sour ales.
“If you have a sour ale on tap, that line could also be used for kombucha with proper cleaning in between kegs,” notes Kanaan of Unity Vibration. “However, the dispense system can’t get too cold because kombucha is so low in alcohol, the line will freeze if the temperature drops below 32F.”
Unity Vibration takes it a step further, brewing a series of gluten-free beers based on kombucha, but with strengths ranging from 6% to 12% ABV.
The brewery’s KPA is a pale ale with hops and juniper, brewed with the kombucha tea base and finished with fresh grapefruit rind. Aromatics may be reminiscent of a sour ale, but the finish is somewhat peppery and complex at 7% ABV.
At HopCat, a Grand Rapids, MI-based, 10-unit chain from BarFly Ventures, Unity Vibration taps into the desire for something that’s fresh, local and sustainably produced. The Ann Arbor, MI, HopCat location featured Unity Vibration for a gluten-sensitive alternative to the typical beer dinner, with choices such as creamy cauliflower soup paired with a 4-oz. tasting of the Brewgyver Wild Ale.
Nate Uri, a cofounder of Prohibition Kombucha, heads the drinks program at INspirits, based on “Intelligent Nutrients,” as the program was started in the corporate headquarters of the Aveda company in Minneapolis. “We began making aromatherapeutic drinks at the lifestyle salons’ research and development laboratory in Minneapolis,” says Uri, and then opened to the public last year.
He believes kombucha makes a good mixer and is highly versatile for pairing with food, thanks to the acidity and live cultures. “You can even blend kombucha with a favorite draft beer to make a tabletop sour, with tartness levels adjusted to the taste of the customer.”
Uri makes a Gin And Tonic with Prohibition’s Sicilian kombucha and a housemade quina bark tincture prepared from a recipe in Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book. The bark tincture adds depth to the citrus flavors of the kombucha.
Indeed, kombucha’s tangy flavors heighten the impact of citrus fruits, spices and herbs. Beyond the tabletop sour blend of “buch and beer,” there are countless riffs on classic cocktails for summer, where the spritzy texture and light alcohol of kombucha will sparkle.
In North Carolina, the Lenny Boy Brewing Co. makes a full range of kombucha, wild ales, sour beers and traditional beer, inspiring local bars and chefs to adapt classic drinks.
“Selling kombucha to customers starts with tasting,” according to Bob Peters, head mixologist at the Punch Room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Charlotte, NC. “I tell the customer that it’s an ancient Asian living tea and amazing for your health and digestion.”
Kombucha extends the range of the Punch Room’s cocktail program because it’s so flexible in pairing with herbal flavors. “Most people are willing to give it a try, particularly as the Lenny Boy kombucha line has really accessible flavors like ginger, strawberry and mint,” Peters says.
“We have a rooftop garden here at the hotel, planted with fresh herbs, berries, vegetables and flowers that our kitchen and bar staff harvest in season,” he says. “I’ve even used cilantro and jalapenos in a beet-juice based kombucha cocktail for a really savory effect.”
Using Lenny Boy’s ginger kombucha, Peters created a version of the Pimm’s Cup classic (pictured atop) that’s sweetened with apricot syrup and enhanced with lavender and mint.
“I enjoy kombucha as a mixer because it is a little different, with some funk, tartness and a little bit of umami,” Peters adds. “It’s got a light bubble, so it can stand in for other mixers, but it’s not as sweet as a soda so I can use our house-made simple syrups and herbal infusions.”
At Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, MI, bartender Alibeth Vandergrift uses the Unity Vibration ginger kombucha as a base for cocktails. “We like to carry really full-flavored products, and their kombucha fits well with our mission,” says Vandergrift.
For her Kombucha Accord cocktail, with Bols genever and Cointreau, Vandergrift tweaks the flavors of Unity Vibration ginger kombucha with pomegranate, citrus and basil.
“By mixing the kombucha in a cocktail, I can dial back the tangy notes and create something accessible and delicious,” Vandergrift says. “Also, our customer who tries kombucha on premise isn’t necessarily the same demographic buying kombucha at Whole Foods, so it’s a chance to experiment with something that tastes really different.”