Wall Street Journal Article…Jan 18, 2012
At Lexington Brass, an upscale hotel bar and restaurant in Midtown, the offerings on tap on a recent night included Palmina Dolcetto wine, Brooklyn Pilsner and a more unusual beverage: an increasingly popular fermented tea, kombucha.
Queens Kickshaw’s owner, Ben Sandler, pours kombucha from a tap.
Downtown at the Brooklyneer, ginger-mint kombucha is mixed with vodka for a cocktail called the “Stoop,” and it is also used in the house dressing.
And across the river at the Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, a brand-new high-alcohol version of kombucha, called Mava Roka, is literally creating a buzz.
Kombucha, a fermented tea that has long been popular among the health-conscious and hippie crowds—particularly on the West Coast—is becoming more mainstream. The drink is popping up on New York restaurant and bar menus and being sold as a mixer, on tap and even in growlers.
Kombucha’s sour, acidic bite can make it an acquired taste, though flavored versions are more palatable. Devotees make their own by brewing tea and sugar with a flat, solid mass of yeasts and bacteria.
As the tea ferments, some believe it creates a variety of health-boosting acids and enzymes that can aid digestion and improve immunity. But there has been no conclusive scientific evidence to back such claims.
Eric Childs, whose company KBBK Kombucha Brooklyn produces the tea in a variety of flavors, says he delivers kegs to nearly 30 restaurants, bars and cafes across the city. His clients include Taproom No. 307 on East 23rd Street, where patrons can get a jasmine margarita made with kombucha, and Urban Rustic in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, which runs two self-serve taps and also sells “beer bucha,” a 50-50 mix of a light beer and kombucha.
Other clients include the Dive Bar’s Amsterdam Avenue location and Local 61 in Cobble Hill, which both sell growlers for kombucha to-go.
Most telling, he says, is that a high-end Midtown spot such as Lexington Brass, a creation of the EMM Group, chose to get kombucha on tap.
“That’s totally new territory,” Mr. Childs said.
Lexington Brass’s general manager, Todd Enany, said the restaurant sells about 100 glasses a week, especially during breakfast. “It’s a nice alternative to an orange juice or coffee or tea because it does have that effervescent sort of awakening effect, sort of like taking your morning vitamins,” he said.
Beyond Kombucha in Astoria launched in 2010 but last month received the federal and state alcohol licenses enabling it to produce alcoholic kombucha.
Now, owner and brewer Spiro Theofilatos runs a licensed brewery, enabling him to produce and sell the region’s first kombucha ale. He hopes to quadruple production to 1,000 gallons a week and is in negotiations with a beer distributor.
Mr. Theofilatos is making six basic flavors with low alcohol contents and currently has one high-alcohol flavor, Mava Roka, which has an alcoholic content of about 7 %.
“Imagine a rooibos tea with a strong vanilla note,” said Mr. Theofilatos. “A maple syrup sort of coats it and it’s also sour from the kombucha.”
He’s in the process of making a second high-alcohol flavor, which will be a honey mead kombucha called “Love Potion #10,” made with a South American root bark said to have aphrodisiac qualities.
The trace alcohol levels in kombucha led the federal government to warn manufacturers in 2010 that if they exceed an 0.5% alcohol-content level, they would be subject to the same regulations that apply to other alcoholic beverages.
Many companies had to tweak their recipes. Mr. Theofilatos sought to get a brewery license instead.
“Everyone knows a little about” kombucha, he said. “It’s got health benefits. But this particular stuff…it leaves an impression. It’s a beautiful high. It has this real charge to it; it lifts you up. And it tastes amazing, the balance of sweet and sour.”
At Queens Kickshaw on Friday night, the Mava Roka on tap was selling, and going over well.
Bryan Mercado, a 39-year-old private chef who lives on the Upper East Side, said he has been drinking nonalcoholic kombucha for about two years.
And what did he think of an alcoholic version?
“It’s outstanding,” he said. “Really, really nice. It’s really fresh tasting, kind of reminds me of Champagne, or a cider.”
Peter Hepp Jr., a 28-year-old professional brewer at Eataly’s rooftop restaurant, Birreria, had a different thought.
“I’d be interested in what it’s like to be kombucha-ale drunk,” he said. “I think it would just cancel each other out and you’d actually feel better in the morning.”
Not everyone thinks kombucha kegs and the mass commercial production of the tea is a good idea.
Rich Awn, founder of Mombucha, is a home brewer of a variety of different flavors in Greenpoint.
“The actual product is such that it’s not pasteurized, it’s not diluted,” he said. “I use premium ingredients. I make it as my mom made it for me.”
Mr. Awn operates a delivery service: He bikes liters of kombucha to his customers, brewing several different flavors every 10 days. He counts about 100 customers at any given time.
He also sells his product to the Brooklyneer, which uses it as a mixer, an idea that he considers excellent.
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