Exploring the ‘Booch:’ Maine’s Kombucha Culture
Kombucha: lately, it’s hard to avoid talk of the fermented drink lauded for its health benefits, funky flavor and historic provenance.
With origins traced to ancient China, “booch” is hardly a trend. The effervescent elixir was once known as the “tea of immortality” and claims about its health benefits are wide-ranging.
At the University of Maine, Food Microbiology Assistant Professor Jennifer Perry, Ph.D is studying kombucha with her lab group. “When [kombucha] is prepared in the traditional way, there are lots of viable microbes in the drink at the time of consumption,” she explained. “One of the biggest questions related to kombucha is actually whether or not it has any value as a probiotic.”
Brewing kombucha is both straightforward and challenging. It requires introducing a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) into sweetened green or black tea.
The SCOBY is a mucus-like whitish disc that eats the sugars in the tea, fueling the fermentation process.
Portland’s Urban Farm Fermentory (UFF) outlines the process on their website: the yeasts immediately begin converting the sugars into alcohol. The bacteria from the SCOBY then converts that alcohol into a plethora of healthy, beneficial substances including B vitamins, amino acids and additional organic enzymes.
After the initial fermentation process is complete, the SCOBY is filtered out and flavors are often added to the fizzy, fermented brew. UFF creates experimental flavors that are limited to release in their tap room, however they bottle and distribute their most popular flavors – and they aren’t what you may imagine – from chaga mushroom to ghost chili, elderberry to turmeric.
Once finished, traditional kombucha contains a nominal amount of alcohol, as much as two percent, but routinely closer to .5 percent. For reference, Budweiser beer is five-percent alcohol and Guinness is 4.2 percent. For kombucha, alcohol content has been the subject of growing pains.
According to a 2017 Forbes magazine article, in 2010, Maine Department of Agriculture inspector Randy Trahan happened to notice leaking kombucha bottles on the shelf at Whole Foods in Portland. Knowing that alcohol is a byproduct of fermentation, Trahan sent several of the bottles to the University of Maine for testing, where “it was discovered that the bottles contained alcohol levels ranging from slightly over 0.5% to over 2.5%, which was well above the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulation that labeled non-alcoholic beverages must contain less than 0.5% ABV.”
Portland’s Whole Foods removed it from their shelves while manufacturers struggled with labeling, eventually settling on two paths forward: sticking with traditional recipes and labelling brews with excess alcohol, or reformulating to keep the ABV within the legal limit.
Nearly a decade later, Perry’s research continues to focus largely on understanding the ephemeral product.
“We’re trying to look at how different these cultures really are and how much they might change over time or in response to different types of processing,” Perry explained. “Although, there are lots of different microbes in the culture, not all of these end up in the drink itself, and that’s one of the other things we’d like to understand. How can we tweak the brewing process to make sure that we’re getting the best of the possible microorganisms and biochemical compounds left in the finished product? We want to help brewers to produce consistent products over time and to really maximize the health benefits of the product.”
Perceptions of kombucha are perhaps as wide-ranging as the iterations of the beverage itself, and they are rapidly changing. In 2009, Slate Magazine voted kombucha the “most liberal product” on the market in a tongue-in-cheek listicle.
But will kombucha be Maine’s next big thing? At present, two Maine companies are producing and distributing kombucha on a commercial scale.
UFF counts kombucha among their diverse range of products. Founded in 2010, the bright green exterior makes their tasting room impossible to miss. Inside, the building is outfitted with eclectic vintage furniture. A classroom area provides a space for workshops and dogs relax on the floor as their owners enjoy a tasting. A display calls for foraged products, used in recipes including their popular chaga chai kombucha.
Owner Eli Cayer explained the decision to incorporate kombucha. “It was a natural fit,” he said, “especially when we were starting. I wanted healthy beverages with a bit of alcohol and kombucha really fit in as something we could do.”
Cayer explained that the heirloom SCOBY that UFF uses was purchased from a woman in Kennebunk who was, several years back, growing SCOBYs for kombucha makers all over.
It took a little time and perseverance for kombucha to catch on, said Cayer, and that education was key. Still, his kombucha business is growing throughout New England.
“We’re really all about fermentation, foraging and locally-sourced sugars,” Cayer said. “We’re just going to keep doing our thing, keep experimenting. We’ve found that one thing kind of pulls another.”
Also in Portland, Root Wild Kombucha has set up shop. Root Wild is the result of a partnership between Reid Emmerich and Lone Pine Brewing. The tasting room opened in October, 2018.
Emmerich espoused his passion for kombucha, something he’s been making commercially since 2009 when he launched the Maine Kombucha Company and assisted with the kombucha program at UFF. “It stemmed from a passion for fermentation,” he said, “but it wasn’t love at first taste or smell.”
Despite his initial impression, Emmerich continued crafting kombucha and joined the UFF team in 2009. After his departure in 2017, he worked to find a space. Currently, Root Wild has 12 taps: eight kombucha and four beers. They offer cans on site and at several locations statewide. “We really want people to come to our tasting room,” he said. “We’re offering classes and music, we just want it to be a community spot.”
— Text: Jenna Lookner. Jenna resides on an old family farm in Camden. She enjoys exploring the intellectual and natural world with her husband and three dogs. Growing up in the restaurant business, she has a deep-rooted passion for local food and drink of all kinds.