Kombucha That's More Like Natural Wine
But, of course, there's no alcohol. Here are three new brands to try.
Last July, The Wall Street Journal published a piece I wrote about "third-wave kombucha,” as Unified Ferments' Young Stowe calls it. These makers—Unified, Tortuga, Yesfolk Tonics, Heirloom Provisions*, and Empress, among them—rigorously source their teas; use restraint when it comes to incorporating any additional flavors; and make beverages that, more akin to natural wine than kombucha, are meant to be paired with food.
There are now a few more brands that belong in this category.
Figment has been slowly expanding from selling kombucha exclusively at Athens, Georgia farmers’ markets since 2018. Last year, co-owners Jason and Jessica Dean opened a tap room and adjoining shop selling the beverages as well as some fermented foods and other goodies. As for the kombucha, the Deans, who are married, source single-estate teas from independent family-owned gardens to make four core flavors available year-round in 12-ounce cans: ginger-lemongrass, strawberry-Meyer lemon, orange blossom, and blueberry-lavender. What has wowed me, though, are what Jason calls his “Vignettes,” limited-edition blends. More on this below the image, but before I bury the lede too much further: The Deans reopened their direct-to-consumer online shop for Good Drinks last night, with my favorite Vignette, “Napoli,” at the top of the page. There are about 50 bottles left, so go get ‘em!
Lindsay Whiteaker and Pete Halupka are making what look like some killer large-format kombuchas at Harvest Roots Ferments in Birmingham, Alabama. Here are four examples of what I mean: the "Nectar" bottling, concocted with strawberry jam, honeysuckle, and white and oolong teas; the very fun-looking (blue!) "Bloosh"; "Pollen," the product of salted cherry blossoms and whole cherries as well as white tea; and "Saucy," made in collaboration with a local pizza shop and containing Chilton peaches, Sungold cherry tomatoes, and saffron. Unfortunately, Halupka and Whiteaker’s refrigerator failed—they’re working hard to get things back up and running again—so I haven't been able to try any of these products yet. Donate here to help them replace their walk-in cooler, or, if you live in the area, stop by their fundraiser party this Sunday.
Spring, located in in Guelph, Ontario, is all about “seasonal fermented drinks,” and cellarist Drea Scotland has been posting her adventures foraging tulips, violets, maple sap, lovage, apple blossoms, and more since mid-March. Four days ago, her first four blends—"Bright Green," a vinegar soda with lovage; "Garden Supply," tulip vinegar soda with holy basil and sweet fern; "Proof of Spring," maple sap with birch bark, birch leaf, and willow bark; and "Car Full of Flowers," elderflower soda made from cider vinegar aged for four years on Riesling skins—went live on Spring's website. The team at Spring, which is a sister project of Revel Cider and ibi wines, calls its products “agricultural sodas” or “living vinegars,” but, as fermentation is involved, I thought it appropriate to include them in this letter. Unfortunately, they're not shipping to the U.S. yet, but stay tuned.
* Joshua McLeod has rebranded Heirloom Provision as Heirloom New York. On June 27, I placed an order for the four new formulas and am waiting for things to be finalized and shipped, but they look promising.
After tasting the “Napoli” Vignette from Figment—my fiancé and I were both floored—I had to talk to Jason Dean about it. (Jason is the brewer; Jessica acts as “a CEO-type.”) He was a perfectly lovely and thoughtful gentleman! Here’s our conversation.
Tell me about the Vignettes. What made you want to make these in addition to your core products?
I hesitate to use words like "artistic," but these are my attempts at storytelling through fermentation. I wanted to see if I could create a feeling or sense memory, so each bottling is a moment in time, whether it's something I remember about a person or a place I've been to in my life. Then I try to communicate that in a bottle to someone else.
They're also my opportunity to play with more extravagant or more challenging flavors—I'm using super-expensive teas that I could never use in a canned kombucha—and you're going to discover new things about each Vignette as you drink it. As it warms up, it tastes different. As the carbonation changes, it's different in the glass. This isn't something you're going to chug.
So what is the story behind "Joyce"?
Joyce was my maternal grandmother, and I wanted to convey how I felt about her and my experience at her house. She was really into her roses, so there was a real floral aspect to this Vignette, and I used carbonic macerated grapes the way a natural wine producer would.
My wife had a business in southern Italy for 12 years, so I spent quite a bit of time there as well. One of the things I most enjoyed was the culture of getting off of work, going to a café, and having that aperitivo time before dinner, when you're winding down and relaxing with a spritz and watching people in the street—everyone's super well-dressed and fabulous—and chatting with others. So, this was my attempt to put people in that mode.
"Napoli" is dry, subtly funky, and even a little bitter at the end. I love it!
I try to keep all our beverage offerings on the dry side—I'm not trying to make a soda replacement—but for this one specifically, I took the things I love about Italian aperitivo and combined them in my own way. The gentian root is the bitter finish, and star anise and orange peel contribute to the subtle herbal and fruity aspects I was looking for.
Yes, both "Joyce" and "Napoli" are so pleasantly dry compared to many kombuchas I've tasted. How did you achieve that?
We are a small producer and, as such, we have to worry about alcohol production. Unless you freeze it or pasteurize it, kombucha is going to become more alcoholic in the bottle. If you were to pull a lot of brands off the shelf right now, many would be above the legal alcohol limit [of 0.5% ABV]. It's something we worry about all the time.
So, we came up with a process that helps negate that alcohol challenge and the potential for problems right around the beginning of Covid. We make our traditional, full-fledged kombucha extremely strong—like, we let it go for two months, so it's nearly vinegar—and then we blend that with fresh tea. So instead of adding water, we make fresh tea and blend that in, adding mouthfeel and tannins and avoiding a product that tastes watered down. And, of course, it also doesn't taste too sweet, because we let our initial kombucha ferment for so long and we haven't added any sugar, which also cuts down on the potential for alcohol production. We get it tested quarterly by a local brewery and we're always around 0.25% ABV.
So, technically, it's not that 100% kombucha culture that's super potent, but I'm less interested in tradition than I am in something that tastes good and is safe.
How many bottles of each Vignette do you make?
I only make one barrel, which is about 31 gallons, so bottle-wise, that would make about 120 bottles, I believe. Joyce is sold out, and Napoli, we comfortably have about 50 bottles left of that specific batch—but we are going to continue to make it because some restaurants have enjoyed it and want to bring it in.
I’m so glad to hear that. Are you working on any new Vignettes?
Always! It’s something I will continue to do indefinitely. I’m not putting it on a schedule, but I hope to do three or four every year.