2017-11-01 / Dishing

The New (but Ancient) Home Brew

A cottage kombucha industry is growing — and fermenting — in Centre County
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Rebecca Robertson has already answered the question three times in the past half hour.
“What is it?” asks a shopper accompanied by an equally suspicious friend.

Robertson smiles, launches into the umpteenth version of a well-rehearsed reply and works her blue lacquered fingers over the tap of her portable kegerator, offering a sample. A guest vendor at the Boalsburg Farmers Market, Robertson knows education is part of the game.

That’s what you get when you sell a good-for-your-gut beverage with a funny-sounding name.
So, what is kombucha? An ancient beverage revolutionized by modern marketing and new and emerging research on the benefits of healthy gut bacteria, kombucha is made with fermented tea and, at its best, local, seasonal fruit.

Robertson is one of two Penns Valley women with cottage kombucha businesses. Robertson’s Salúd Kombucha, launched this past summer, can be found on tap at Webster’s Bookstore Café and at private parties, pumped through a portable kegerator she found on eBay. In October, she debuted her new 32-ounce growlers and was looking forward to moving production from her licensed kitchen to the new test incubator downtown. “A year out, I’d love to see at least one brewery carrying my kombucha.”

Mount NitaNee Kombucha, which uses the commercial kitchen space at the historic Aaronsburg Civic Club, has been on the scene since spring of this year, and is available at The Barn at Lemont, Big Spring Spirits, Elk Creek Café & Aleworks, Burkholder’s Market, Sunshine Natural Health Foods and several other Penns Valley businesses. Owner Joan Karp, who is also a personal trainer, delivers to your doorstep and has a weekly date with customers who pick up at the Old Gregg School parking lot.

Becca RobertsonBecca Robertson

Apparently, Central Pennsylvania is thirsty for the beverage because yet another company (officially) entered the market in September. Lisa Harpster, co-owner of Moody Culture Kombucha, says she and her co-owner, John Schaffer, have been making kombucha at home since January; their kombucha is now available at several State College locations, including Rothrock Coffee, and in Bellefonte at Robin Hood Brewing Co. A little further out, Elysburg-based Natalie’s Craft Kombucha is also on the local scene at McClanahan’s Downtown Market, Barranquero Café, Nature’s Pantry and Saint’s Cafe.  

For two months in late summer and early fall, I drank a lot of kombucha from Mount NitaNee and Salúd. What began as a story turned into an obsession that filled nearly every available space in my fridge and generated some befuddlement from my family.

Mount NitaNee evolved from Karp’s desire to keep her family supplied with a nutritious, delicious beverage. When word of her brew spread to her children’s martial arts studio, a few black belts provided a mini test market. Their review: Karp’s kombucha gave them more energy and enabled them to kick their soda habits. For Karp, a triathlete and former NCAA All American swimmer at Grove City College, the drink was a natural extension of her work helping people achieve “a vibrant life.”

Salúd’s story begins with Robertson’s experience making water kefir (another fermented beverage) as a grad student in Costa Rica. After a failed attempt to find it in Pennsylvania, she decided to make kombucha instead. Starting a business never even entered her thought process. “It was for fun,” she says. “It was like a chemistry experiment. You can turn tea into this awesome fizzy liquid, then add all these flavors.” After selling unofficially to friends for a few years, “it made sense to make it legal,” says Robertson, who balances her business with a part-time job as an instructional designer in the Penn State department of Ag Sciences.

The community’s response to both businesses has been encouraging. The folks at the Lemont Barn brought Karp’s kombucha to the Mother Earth News Fair and quickly realized they should have brought more. When Robertson debuted her kombucha at Webster’s Bookstore Café, a keg sold out in about two days; by October Robertson was scaling up to three kegs a week. Collectively, the two entrepreneurs are brewing between 75 and 90 gallons of the stuff weekly.

Among the many I sampled this summer, my favorites included Karp’s “Beet & Berry” and Robertson’s “Summer Dreams,” made with a floral tea from Thailand called Butterfly Pea Flower and Concord grapes from Groundwork Farms. The latter is a fine name for a tea so vibrant we may only experience the color in our dreams (unless we’re lucky enough to get to Thailand).

Joan Karp and her sonJoan Karp and her son

Karp uses black and green loose  leaf teas; Robertson prefers green or floral blends. Both women rely heavily on local fruit. Depending on which flavor I’m drinking, they remind me of a healthier version of a gourmet soda or a fine sour beer. The effervescence gives my taste buds a lovely little jolt and the seasonal fruit flavoring satisfies my sweet tooth without hurting my head.

So how much kombucha do you have to drink to get the health benefits? Robertson says one sip has millions of beneficial bacteria. Some folks drink kombucha as a tincture; I drink it when I’m thirsty.

Both Robertson and Karp point to the growing body of research on the benefits of adding healthy bacteria to our gut biome, that mysterious part of the body that uses a host of diverse bacteria to regulate fundamental bodily systems, not to mention the brain. And the funkier your gut bacteria, the better.

My new obsession with this beverage has more to do with taste and a proclivity for local food and businesses. It’s impossible not to root for these ladies. They’re supporting local farmers, forming relationships with important community organizations and businesses and bringing some excitement to the non-alcoholic beverage market.

So cheers to our collective guts, but also to businesswomen who have given us a sweet reward for raising our glasses. •SCM

A Cultured Beverage

The basic ingredients of kombucha are tea, sugar and water. The fourth addition isn’t really an ingredient as much as a living organism. It’s called a SCOBY, an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It also looks like, and is sometimes erroneously called, a mushroom — an unfortunate turnoff for the world’s shroom eschewers.

Think of the SCOBY as a biochemical factory. “The tea and the sugar are food and fuel for the SCOBY,” explains Karp, who, like Robertson, can sometimes sound like the fascinating science teacher you unfortunately never had. “It’s a magical, but very scientific process. As it digests those, the resulting kombucha is filled with an assortment of beautiful organic acids and a rich variety of probiotics.”

So while you won’t find mushroom particles floating in your kombucha, you may find the makings of a baby SCOBY in your glass. Strain them out or keep them in; it all depends on preference. “I know some people who grind them up and make gummy treats out of them,” Robertson says.

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