Set the Table with Kombucha
Written onDecember 01 , 2011
As cold and flu season approaches, health-conscious Vermonters are reaching back through the ages to brew kombucha, a fermented beverage with a unique taste and widely touted benefits to the immune system. Although kombucha’s benefits are of use all year long, the start of a Vermont winter seems a good time to investigate this intriguing drink.
Kombucha is made by combining a culture of bacteria and yeast with strong tea, sugar, and time—roughly two weeks. Fruit juices are often added to offset kombucha’s sharp taste, and medicinal herbs are sometimes used for additional benefits. The exact historical origins of kombucha are unknown; some sources trace it to Russia, others to ancient Asia. Stories abound about home brewers concocting small batches in their kitchens, which several Vermonters do for selling kombucha at farmers’ markets and small cafes.
One Vermont company, Aqua Vitea, brews kombucha on a larger scale for commercial sale throughout the state and region. And it is engaging with other Vermont companies to make this unique beverage more local, through partnerships with cafes, co-ops, natural food stores, and fruit growers.
For Aqua Vitea founder Jeff Weaber and his wife, Katina Martin, a naturopathtic physician, Aqua Vitea is the perfect way to combine their skills and experience with their desire to create a healthy community. On their 15-acre farm in Salisbury, Jeff capitalizes on his beer-brewing expertise, Katina sees patients at her clinic, and together with two other families they raise meat animals for sale to neighbors and area restaurants.
“The farm really represents what we’re trying to do, which is build sustainable health systems,” Jeff says. Salisbury Natural Family Health, Katina’s clinic, is attached to their home, and Aqua Vitea’s brewing room is housed in the basement of the rambling 1850 farmhouse.
“Strong” is a word often affiliated with kombucha, and it’s the word Jeff uses to describe his first taste of it approximately eight years ago, when he and Katina were living in Oregon. She was studying naturopathy; he was working at a beer brewery.
The beer-brewing lifestyle prompted Jeff to consider doing something other than “drinking beer at seven in the morning,” he recalls, laughing as he remembers those days. “I had to sample stuff—coffee in one hand, beer in the other—and by the end of the day, I was wiped out. I started looking at other things.”
“Katina’s studies were a big influence,” he adds, “the idea of functional beverages and food as medicine. Naturopaths are really focused on digestive health as an overall factor in health.” When he had that first taste of kombucha, well, “It grabbed me really strong,” he remembers with a chuckle
Kombucha was just hitting the commercial market at that time, and Jeff started brewing it at home. Most home brewers start with a half gallon or gallon batch of kombucha; he started with a 20-gallon batch, which he shared with friends and co-workers. “It was popular both with Katina’s friends at school who were into that kind of thing,” he says, “and with people in the brewery world who weren’t.”
Kombucha contains probiotics, generally considered beneficial to the body, and the enzymes present in fermented foods that aid digestion, according to Katina. “Fermented foods have a higher acidity so you’re better able to stimulate your own digestive tract to get working,” she says. “A lot of naturopathic medicine is based on the health of the gastrointestinal system, which is really closely involved with your immune system. So, fermented foods in general should be a mainstay of the diet.”
When Katina graduated, the pair moved to Vermont. She established a naturopathic practice, and Jeff thought it was tthe perfect time to begin a kombucha enterprise. The business has since grown to four full-time employees, and Jeff’s first 20-gallon batch has grown to fifty 20-gallon stainless steel tanks in a temperature-controlled fermentation room under the house. Brewer Mike Kin spends most of his time in this pungent air, keeping copious notes on the ingredients in each of the tanks.
Aqua Vitea brews several flavors of raw, unpasteurized kombucha. The company sources elderberries from Quebec and has used organic apple cider from Kent Ridge Orchards in Cornwall. “We’re trying to work with as many Vermont farmers as we can,” Jeff emphasizes. “Cultivating health means business relationships as well.” Aqua Vitea is currently developing a flavor with Vermont Cranberry Company in Fletcher and a black currant variety with Cherry Hill Farm in Springfield and Walnut Grove Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley.
One unique flavor came from a partnership with On the Rise Bakery in Richmond. On the Rise cultivates a large garden, and last year the cafe grew watermelons that they juiced. Jeff and his crew used the juice to brew a special watermelon kombucha sold only at On the Rise Bakery.
After the kombucha ferments for two weeks or so, it’s pumped into five-gallon soda kegs that comprise an important element of Aqua Vitea’s mission. Some of the fruity brew is bottled in single-serving containers but more of it travels in the kegs to stores, where it’s sold fresh on tap—a niche Aqua Vitea pioneered. Empty bottles and growlers are sold near the taps for customers to fill and refill, saving money and resources.
“We were the first kombucha company in the country to do it,” Jeff says. “That’s what we’d like to keep doing, putting tap machines around and getting people to re-use bottles. It’s definitely our preferred method; it has a much more ecological foundation.” It’s more economical, too—for every $15,000 in sales at the tap, he estimates, the company avoids using one ton of glass bottles.
Of the approximately 35 retail outlets in Vermont and New England, 20 or so have kegs, Jeff says. The company requires stores to help with the cost of setting up the machine; he notes that some stores have raised funds within the community to bring in the machine.
At Healthy Living Market in South Burlington, the cafe has recently begun serving “probiotic elixirs,” smoothies and cold drinks that combine fresh juices with kombucha. Healthy Living and Aqua Vitea collaborated to develop the drinks, which have met with a “strong response”—that word again—according to John Murphy, front of house manager at Healthy Living Market.
“The drinks complement what people are looking for in kombucha,” John says. The drinks also introduce kombucha to new audiences, he adds. “Part of what we do is educate people about things they haven’t tried yet.”
Another unique Vermont partnership has led to an expansion of the Aqua Vitea product line to include “Cultured Tea.” In collaboration with Stone Leaf Teahouse in Middlebury, Jeff chose three quality tea flavors to blend with brewed kombucha—jasmine pearl, ginseng oolong, and rooibos. The cultured teas combine some of the characteristic zing of kombucha along with the tea’s subtle flavor. Unlike most drinks, the Cultured Tea is unsweetened.
“After making kombucha for eight years, I started getting the sense that it’s powerful stuff, and you should probably be drinking about four ounces of kombucha a day. But, being gluttonous Americans, everybody’s drinking 16–32 ounces of kombucha a day. So, we were interested in finding a way to use kombucha as an ingredient in a more mild way.”
For those who want to brew kombucha at home, it’s fairly easy. Ingrid Burrows of Living Roots Farm in Marlboro, along with friend and business partner Leah Mutz of Annamari Farm in Halifax, brews small batches of kombucha that they sell at the Brattleboro and Putney farmers’ markets.
“I’ve been making it for quite a few years,” Ingrid says. “I got started brewing kombucha out of a passion for the health benefits of fermented foods. I think it’s a lost art. Most historical and indigenous cultures, from all over the world, have a method for preserving food through fermentation.”
Ingrid sells kombucha by the cup and sells the “mother” kombucha cultures necessary to brew at home. Mother cultures are also available online. “It’s fun to sell the cultures because kombucha can be expensive to buy,” she says, “once you get hooked.” And it can be easy to get hooked.
“A lot of people are surprised when they first try kombucha,” continues Ingrid. She reports overhearing a regular customer tell a new customer, “It’s disgusting at first, but it becomes strangely addictive.”
And at Vermont Fiddle Heads raw foods cafe in Worcester, owner Linda Wooliever serves kombucha brewed by Karen Towle at nearby Toll a Bell Farm in East Calais. “Karen is like an alchemist,” says Linda, who serves the drink in wine glasses to cafe patrons. “It’s a real treat.”
Aqua Vitea’s Jeff Weaber hopes that kombucha will replace other attractive beverages, especially those popular with young people. “I’d like to see kombucha penetrate the mainstream market more,” he says. “If we could move kids off soda and on to kombucha, that would be awesome.”
Photos by Scott Neel