Do you know where your SCOBY is? How’s your booch hanging? Got shrub? If you aren’t familiar with these terms, you will be soon. Fermentation is hitting the food and beverage market as one the hottest new trends of 2015, like Birkenstocks and beards. Fermentation advocates on the frontline of this trend swear by its health benefits. Fermented foods and beverages are full of probiotics that help balance our gut flora. Some also say that it revitalizes your energy, and can clear up skin issues. (I’ll admit, I apply apple cider vinegar to my face daily and have noticed a huge difference in the radiance of my skin). I can’t deny that drinking kombucha, ciders and eating delicious cheese makes me feel better, but I also can’t say for sure whether it’s the good bacteria doing its thing, or it’s the booze and yummy flavors putting me in a good mood. Regardless, who cares? It’s delicious, it’s diverse, and it’s easy to DIY.

a flight of kombucha at Native Kitchen and Kombucha Bar

Locally made kombuchas at Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar

With the growth of the fermentation industry and our obsession with taste, there has been an uprising of fermented food cafes, kefir/kombucha bars and DIY supply stores. (Check out Beer Belly Fermentation Supply in Windsor, CA and The Kefiry in Sebastopol). Only now, it’s trendier than ever to talk about it and I am drinking the fermented Kool-Aid. I started with sauerkraut and kimchi, the gateway ferments. But what really converted me was kombucha. I started buying it from Whole Foods, and participating in Revive’s “bottle-return,” program, where you bring your empty bottles back to the store to receive a discount on your next kombucha purchase. But at the rate I was drinking the stuff, in addition to daily lattes and chai, I was spending a ton of money on drinks. I was recently gifted a SCOBY, which stands for  symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that is present in the production of kombucha. (Learn more about my DIY kombucha journey at Spoiled In Sonoma). I started making it at home and found that each batch is a learning experience. I’m still not totally happy with the “booch” I make and much prefer to get it elsewhere but it gets better with each batch, so don’t get discouraged if you try it on your own.

A bottle and jar of kombucha

My first DIY kombucha in bottle, and second batch brewing.

Here in Sonoma County we are known for being a mecca of fermentation due to our flourishing wine and beer industry, our rich soils and ideal climate for agriculture. We already have some of the most decadent and trendy restaurants in the world, so it’s no surprise that our kombucha and kefir bars and cafes are the crème de la crème as well. Not to mention most of our best and most popular restaurants are now serving some version of a “pickle” plate with house fermented veggies and other locally grown produce.

The Pickle Plate app at The Backyard in Forestville, CA

The Pickle Plate app at The Backyard in Forestville, CA

Take Sonoma Counties newest “it” destination: Native Kitchen and Kombucha Bar (recently featured in Sonoma Magazine) in Petaluma, CA, where they serve locally produced kombucha on tap and have a wide range of handcrafted kombucha cocktails and mocktails that are beyond gorgeous and Instagram-worthy. Our server was more than happy to serve us a flight from all six of their taps, which are no longer reserved for just wine and beer. I pulled out my note pad and started smelling the nose on each glass like I was at a wine tasting. I took notes on the palate, the flavor, and the nuance of each one. I was only about half way through the flight when I realized what I was doing. Did I just turn drinking kombucha into a Wine Enthusiast rating scale?

Native Kitchen and Kombucha Bar's booth at the Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival

Owners of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar at the Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival, Sept 12th, 2015

Joseph Dravis, who co-owns Native with his wife, Jasmine, believes that there is a place for kombucha tasting in the future. Joseph and Jasmine have partnered with Brian Igersheim, CEO and founder of Marin Kombucha; just one of the many local booches they serve on tap. Joseph believes that kombucha will one day replace all sodas at cafes, restaurants and bars. He is a huge advocate for process control, and strives to provide the community with a clean, approachable and consistent beverage. Joseph met Jasmine in the LA area, where they both discovered that his background in winemaking and her background in healthy, plant-based food preparation could lead to something much bigger. The concept for Native was originally all about the booch bar, but Jasmine’s love and knowledge for healthy food brought the dining aspect to the business organically.

Native is in good company in Sonoma County with several other businesses offering a kombucha or kefir flight. The SHED, in Healdsburg, CA offers an incredible selection of house-made kombuchas, kefir waters and shrubs at their Fermentation Bar that are sure to send your taste buds on a flavorful adventure. The word “shrub” is most commonly used to refer to drinking vinegar that has been infused with fruit juices, herbs and or spices. This liqueur-like substance is used to make mixed drinks, or stirred with carbonated water to make a refreshing soda beverage.

Emily Somple enjoying kefir soda at the Backyard restaurant in Forrestville

Enjoying kefir soda from The Kefiry, served on tap at The Backyard.

The Nectary Juice and Smoothie Bar in The Barlow is a great place to find house-fermented beverages along with freshly pressed juices and smoothies. You can also stop and have breakfast, lunch and dinner at The Backyard in Forestville, where they serve “The Kefiry,” Kefir soda on tap. Read more about my totally fermented lunch at Spoiled In Sonoma.

Coffee shops are starting to jump on the fermentation train as well, and are installing taps to pour kombucha. Next time you’re in downtown Santa Rosa, stop by Trek Bike Store on Mendocino Ave, where inside they have the RKTO coffee shop with Revive Kombucha on tap. So what’s really going on here? Could it be that we are slowly but surely ridding ourselves of the stigma that we are a Coca-Cola generation and that we are now consciously making healthier beverage choices that actually taste really good! Are our palate preferences changing?

Kefir and Kombucha are certainly not new. I reached out to our local fermentress, Jennifer Harris, to shed some light on the history of these “mother cultures,” and what makes them so special. Jennifer explained that while there may be folklore about the evidence of production and consumption dating back to the Chinese Tsin Dynasty in 212 BC or to a Korean physician named Kombu, who brought it to Japan to treat the emperor, Inkyo, we can’t be sure. Harris believes, “We simply weren’t around then, so any stories you may hear about kefir or kombucha are simply that: stories. They have existed in multiple places across accounts of history and are found in many parts of the world. What we do know is that they are recognized by many and these two ‘mother cultures’ have been valued by many, many different civilizations.”

 

What makes these beverages stand out among other fermented goods is that their cultures are a symbiosis of many different strains of bacteria and yeast, meaning that they can proliferate and regenerate while maintaining this balance. When comparing them to pickled or fermented foods, Harris explained, “In other ferments that don’t have a ‘mother culture’ (like making a single batch of wild sauerkraut or pickles) the development of different bacteria strains will change drastically between days and weeks.”

SCOBY mother on a plate

SCOBY mother, with new baby SCOBY forming on top.

 

Kombucha and Kefir are mother cultures and can make more of themselves while maintaining their hierarchy of microorganism activity. The difference between the two cultures is that kombucha is a lot of acetobacter as well as some other healthy, beneficial lactic acid bacteria that need oxygen to live and reproduce. Although kefir grains have some acetobacter in it, it is a “balance” of microbe life and has a much lower amount in it. The kefir culture mother (that people call the grains or crystals) actually lives underneath the surface of the water.

So why have these fermented beverages become all the rage? Perhaps it’s due to health trends in general. It’s more popular than ever to be healthy, exercise, and eat fresh food and water. We actively seek out non-GMO, organic products, and we are conscious about our fat and sugar intake. We are inventing new, fun ways to stay active, like Zumba and Crossfit. Generation X and Y have watched countless viral videos about the things Coca-Cola can do, like clean a rusty penny and self scrub your toilet, which begs the follow-up question: “If it can do that, imagine what it’s doing to the insides of our stomachs.” In the past, Pepsi and Coke had always rivaled each other, constantly competing in ad campaigns and sales. Now they have a common rival, the health conscious public. Soda sales have been slipping for 10 straight years.

The nature of a trend is for one to slip in popularity to make room for something else to rise. As soon as something becomes popular, levels of sophistication and quality rise. There are plenty of veteran kombucha people that refuse to drink the “big guys, “like GT Kombucha and much prefer local, small-batch companies, like It’s Alive Kombucha and The Kefiry. Does that make these fermented beverages better? Maybe. Is it really any different than a wine business model that starts out small, makes incredible wine, and then becomes so popular that they lose their handcrafted artisan edge to produce larger quantities?

With the popularity of DIY and food brands expanding into fermented goods, we are only going to see this industry improve. Fermented goods introduce a new level of flavor and depth to food. What I enjoy about the fermentation movement is how it incorporates science in to the DIY foodie culture. New generations of foodies are becoming passionate about the culture of the fermentation industry, which shows us that it’s not going away any time soon.

two kombucha cocktails

Hand crafted “mocktails,” made with Kombucha, from Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar.

 

Definitions:

Kombucha– Fermented Tea using a mother culture

Booch– slang used to refer to kombucha

Kefir grains-“Kefir is made from gelatinous white or yellow particles called “grains.” This makes kefir unique, as no other milk culture forms grains. These grains contain the bacteria/yeast mixture clumped together with casein (milk proteins) and complex sugars.”

Shrub– a drinking vinegar, infused with fruit juices, herbs and or spices. Used to make mixed drinks, or mixed with water or carbonated water.

SCOBY-a symbiotic culture os bacteria and yeast, used to ferment kombucha. Often referred to as the mother, or kombucha mushroom.

References for this article are:

Jennifer Harris, The Kefiry, Sebastopol, CA

Soda Trends and Sales: www.docturated.comwww.fortune.com

Kombucha’s History: www.kombuchacultures.com

Information about Kefir: www.kefir.net

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