liquid culture

SWEET SENSATION

Local brewers create a buzz in the kombucha market.

WRITTEN BY JORDAN VENEMA
PHOTOS BY CLEBER BONATO

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From left, Zac Nelson and Bobby Mull, owners of Zeal Kombucha in Rancho Cordova

With company names that include Holy, Synergy, and Unity, kombucha neophytes might wonder whether they’re purchasing a beverage or a spiritual experience. But the names aren’t entirely unfair. Known for its health benefits, kombucha has gone hand in glove with yoga studios and vegan restaurants. But two local brewers are introducing the beverage to a wider audience, proving an ohm tattoo isn’t a requisite.

So what is kombucha? Fermented tea, essentially, and often made with white or black tea leaves. Most die-hard fans of the drink will argue that kombucha should be caffeinated, but it also can be made with hibiscus, and what really makes the drink anyway isn’t the caffeine, but the SCOBY.

SCOBY, an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is used to describe the membrane or film sometimes found inside kombucha. In most basic terms, the SCOBY hosts the metabolic process in which the yeast bacteria lactobacillus consumes sugar, thereby transforming ordinary tea into fermented goodness.

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Zeal Kombucha is manufactured in Rancho Cordova

Health benefits?

Bobby Mull of local brewer Zeal Kombucha calls the drink “fermented food.”

“There’s a lot of science to show the relationship between the gut and the brain,” Mull says. “Serotonin is produced in the gut.”

“You could definitely take kombucha as a probiotic,” adds Mull’s partner, Zac Nelson. “And I know I feel a lot better when I’ve eaten probiotics.”

In fact, Nelson says, drinking kombucha sometimes can create a sensation that people may confuse with an alcohol buzz.

As a probiotic, kombucha is known for helping with indigestion, mood stability, and mental clarity. High in glucaric acid, kombucha also is beneficial to the liver and performs natural detoxification. In addition, since most kombucha is under 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, the drink can be had anytime and anywhere … well, almost. There is such a thing as too much good stuff.

“There is sugar in it, though way less sugar than soda,” Mull says, adding he probably wouldn’t drink more than three at a time.

Local brewers

Now could be the golden era of kombucha, and two commercial brewers local to the Sacramento area are tapping into the market. Nash’s Kombucha operates out of Auburn and officially started doing business in 2015, and Zeal Kombucha of Rancho Cordova was founded in 2012. Though neither company is older than five years, both are brewing at capacity.

Coincidentally, both Nash’s and Zeal have roots in home brewing on the Central California coast. Claire Dunlap and Sean Nash of Nash’s Kombucha got their start in Santa Cruz, while Mull and Nelson of Zeal got theirs in Santa Barbara.

Though each brewer learned the tricks of their trade elsewhere, they’ve brought their skills to the Sacramento area, introducing the drink to an admittedly wary audience.

“We knew when we were starting that most of our customers would never have tried kombucha or that they tried it once and didn’t like it,” Nash says, adding that common complaints include “it tastes like vinegar, smells like feet.”

“We brew ours really mellow and with no caffeine,” Dunlap adds, “and we use hibiscus leaves, so they’re super high in vitamin C, they’re herbal, and that way anyone can drink it.”

Dunlap also concedes that because it’s perceived as a health drink, kombucha brewers haven’t focused on flavor.

“People are sacrificing good taste for health benefits, but we firmly believe you don’t have to sacrifice health for taste,” Dunlap says.

Mull agrees.

“We are definitely driven by flavor more than as a health drink,” he says.

Like Nash’s, Zeal began with friends Mull and Nelson brewing at home, then moving to Rancho Cordova, where they began brewing batches in a small kitchen on a stove top. Though they long ago outgrew the small kitchen, the folks at Zeal, as with Nash’s, again may be looking to expand and move into a larger facility.

“Kombucha is not a hype thing anymore,” Nelson says.

“Even Starbucks is looking to produce it,” Mull says. “Kombucha is where craft beer was in the ’80s. It’s getting pushed out of the new-age, yoga world.”

While both brewers admit that the actual process of making kombucha is rather easy, it’s the craft and care that allow for diversity and make for an especially delicious drink.

“One of the exciting things about kombucha is it’s so different,” Mull says.

In that spirit, Nash agrees.

“We’re not competing with [Zeal] – we’re complementing them,” he says.

Freelance writer Jordan Venema is a fan of wild stories, impetuous traveling, loud music, and all food … but mostly of his son, Cassian, the greatest storyteller this side of the Prime Meridian.

Resources

Where to find it

If you’re looking for Nash’s Kombucha on tap locally, head to Joe Caribe in Auburn, Yolo Brewing Co. in West Sac, or Auburn Coffee Co. in Auburn. Flavors include Blueberry Bliss, Citrus Ginger, Cherry Blossom, Harvest Spice, and Lavender Chamomile. For details, visit Nashsbrewco.com.

Zeal can be found in the Sacramento area, with its kombucha either on tap or served in bottles at many local coffee houses. Flavors include Red Heather, Vanilla Pine, Earl Noir, and Peachless. For details, visit Zealkombucha.com.

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