Kombucha is an ancient fermented tea drink from Russia (or possibly China) which contains probiotics and a powerful punch to one’s tastebuds. After a brief kombucha brewing experiment of my own, I decided to visit Nathan Wyse, a kombucha brewer in Chicago, to get a glimmer of what it is about this fascinating brew that attracted him to make the tastiest varieties available on the small batch market today.
Was it Jesus or the Buddha who said each culture cherishes their own fermented foods and abhors everyone else’s? Either way, it makes sense. Fermented food is never bland. We acquire a taste for our own fermented foods early in life, but everyone else’s seem weird. How could we be so keen on cheese and beer and so leery of kimchi and kombucha otherwise? Not to mention 10 thousand year old eggs and fermented shark fin. But all of these fermented foods have something in common which makes their taste so complex– it is the billions of little microorganisms on your tongue doing a happy dance as they head through your system looking for their own supper. Probiotics, as defined by the World Health Organization in 2001 is “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” There is still much debate about just how healthy probiotics are to the consumer, since there are unstudied micro-organisms that could potentially be harmful just as there are healthful ones. But while the debate flourishes, so does the probiotics industry. According to a study done in 2013 by PR WEB, the probiotics industry is expected to rise from 27.9 billion in 2011 to 44.9 in 2018.
Anthony Bourdain, the chef & food traveling TV personality, has spoken about fermented foods and our need as modern people to get outside the processed food box- “Food that`s too safe, too pasteurized, too healthy – it’s bad! There should be some risk, like unpasteurized cheese. Food is about rot, and decay, and fermentation as much as it is also about freshness.” As I was about to embark on the process of controlled rotting of tea, I reminded myself of Anthony’s stance often. Surely, there is some wisdom to the idea that as humans we have separated ourselves so far from the process of acquiring and preparing food that we do not recognize its power.
In an effort to connect more with the entire cycle of creating food, I began my own kombucha project with a kit bought from Chicago’s Brew & Grow. Prior to that, my only experience had been gingerly sampling some store bought kombucha. Fermented foods fascinated me with their complex flavors and carbonated mouth feel, but I was also interested in the health claims. In order to comprehend this distinctive drink, I decided to take a hands-on approach.
I carefully followed the sparse instructions in the kit and watched with interest as the mother scoby (a disc of bacteria and yeast that forms on the top of the tea as if ferments) began making a baby scoby of its very own. I kept it warm and dark for the baby scoby for over a week. I fretted over its development. My family looked on dubiously. Why did it smell like vinegar? What were those tendrils of stuff floating below?
Answers came from the internet (vinegar is a by-product of the fermentation. The tendrils were the yeast doing battle with the sugars) and when the time came, my husband and children all took courtesy sips. My brew did have a sweet and sour component to it, which made it complex enough for me. It also had the illusive element of danger Anthony Bourdain talked about. Because if fermented food is in a controlled state of decay, logic would follow that if that state of control is compromised, things could go south. Surely, there are certain indicators which would caution our instincts and common sense (weird mold like formations, really funky smells?), but being a newbie, I did not know all of the possible indicators or trust my own instincts too well. That was when I decided to seek out the perspective of Nathan Wyse, the tall, fresh-faced founder of Arize Kombucha.
Did you ever wonder why we would intentionally ferment food? If you think about where food comes from, then you can imagine how fermentation has long been a part of being human. It may even predate farming and animal husbandry, because surely we stumbled upon rotting things long before we harnessed living things, Nathan explained.
“Food fermentation is an art that dates back as long as we do. This is because we learned how to ferment food to have it handy year round so we could survive when fresh sources were scarce. Mead was supposedly the first fermented drink because you could find it in the wild. So kombucha has been handed down from generation to generation.” This may be true, but it is an arcane sort of knowledge nonetheless. If my great grandmother was a kombucha maker, this secret went to the grave with her, unlike her pumpkin pie recipe.
Standing at the Plant, the zero-waste sustainable food business facility and headquarters of Arize in the old Chicago Stockyards on the south side, I asked Nathan if he thought kombucha was an acquired taste. He says that many people come with a preconceived idea that health foods are not tasty, or that to eat a healthy food item means you will then be asked to give up another food that is not considered healthy. This is why Nathan doesn’t even like to attach the word ‘healthy’ to food.
“Food can be satisfying, but food cannot be fulfilling. Only life can be fulfilling. If we get to that place where we are really fulfilled and connected in our lives, then we aren’t dependent on any particular food for our sense of fulfillment. I want to like kombucha. That’s what it really comes down to. I want to feel good. And you know what, if somebody wants to like beer or coffee, they acquire the taste,” he explained.
The taste of homebrewed and market kombucha does vary considerably based on the stage of fermentation it is in and the quality of ingredients used, not to mention that each scoby has its own blend of yeasts that are dependent on the airborne yeasts of the locale to thrive.
Shortly after this, Nathan and I cracked open a bottle of my home brewed kombucha and a bottle of his original brand Arize. Mine was a bit too sweet, because like a lot of newcomers, I didn’t have the patience to wait for the process of fermentation to be complete before I bottled the stuff.
“I don’t think it’s done. It’s got a nice tartness to it. It’s got a little nose that I think would disappear once it got a little more finished and vinegary,” he said kindly, swirling my simple beverage around in its cup.
Then we tried his kombucha and I discovered the difference experience and a controlled environment can make in small batch production. The smell reminded me of a tall Weiss beer on a hot summer day and the taste was light and fruity. It was bubbly, and a bit tangy, but in perfect balance with the sweetness. It was perfection in kombucha terms. “Oh my God, that is so good,” I declared, realizing that until that moment I hadn’t known what good kombucha was. “So, this is the first time I’ve actually used a little bit of hops. It’s my favorite way to drink it,” Nathan added.
Part two of Kombucha Experiment with Nathan Wyse can be read here.