Like kale, kombucha has hit maximum mainstream. Funky-hued bottles of the probiotic fermented tea line shelves at Whole Foods, and even fine dining restaurants are getting into the game of making custom blends.
But what, exactly, is kombucha? The bubbly beverage begins with a mother starter known as "scoby," which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Similar to the way a bread starter feeds off flour, kombucha culture needs nutrients to survive, such as nitrogen, tannins and polyphenols. Sugar, too. Many of these compounds occur naturally in camellia sinensis, the tea plant. To brew kombucha, basically one adds the scoby to sweetened tea. Total fermentation time can be anywhere from ten days to three weeks or longer.
Though kombucha has long been considered a drink for heath, with fans pointing out its antioxidant and probiotic benefits, that's not stopping restaurants and bars from spiking the brew with booze. Below, nine bars that are getting creative with kombucha.
Ch Distillery & Cocktail Bar
Location: 564 West Randolph Street, Chicago
Head distiller Tremaine Atkinson was a home brewer working in financial services before following his dream of launching a spirits company. Situated in downtown Chicago, Atkinson’s first liquor release was a vodka, though he’s since added gin, Amaro, rum and whiskey to his portfolio. Earlier this month, Atkinson launched a series of local fruit liqueurs made in the classic European eau de vie style. And using his cherry distillate, the team behind CH Distillery's cocktail bar recently rolled out a drink called Frog Juice, which also calls for lemon, honey syrup, and local Frog’s Kombucha. The custom flavor for CH Distillery includes a blend of hibiscus, apples, cherries and ginger.
Crooked Stave Taproom
Location: 3350 Brighton Blvd., Denver
In a former 1880s brick foundry building in Denver’s River North District is a food market packed with artisanal vendors, including, of course, a taproom. Crooked Stave, a local Colorado brewery, stays focused on beer, but recently began collaborating with across-the-street neighbor Happy Leaf Kombucha. The folks at Happy Leaf keep themselves busy hand selecting fruits, vegetables, herbs and botanicals each week for their ever-changing flavors. Crooked Stave always has at least one kombucha on tap—the house is cranberry-lavender—and blends it with one of their saison beers. Right now one will find also find mango kombucha on draft, which the brewery mixes with their Vieille Saison. Other flavors range from rose to lemongrass mint to tangerine vanilla.
Location: 25 North Street, Healdsburg
Amongst the perfect rolling hills of Healdsburg, California one will find a big light-filled building serving wines on tap, local beers, two different house made kombuchas, a kefir water from Sebastapol, and shrubs and shims. Billed as a market, café and community gathering space, SHED feels like an indoor/outdoor farmers market for beverages. Gillian Helquist, the in-house fermentation crafter, is tasked with creating seasonal flavors inspired by the surrounding landscape. While many of her drinks are virgin, she's also playing around with adding shochu to kombucha. This month she’s serving Black Rose, a kombucha made from black tea and rose petals that is fermented for fourteen days before undergoing a secondary fermentation (for extra carbonation) in a keg along with some blackberry honey. Also look out for pu-erh tea kombucha, made with Australian licorice syrup that imparts a smokey twist.
Venice Ale House
Location: 2 Rose Ave, Venice
Those looking for a bar which embraces SoCal's local and sustainable mantra need look no further than Venice Ale House. In addition to house-made ginger-lemonade, there's local Kombucha Dog kombucha on draft (to avoid extra bottle waste). In the past, VAH has offered blueberry and ginger/mint kombucha, but flavors change regularly. Here, the standard kombucha cocktail named the "longbucha," calls for half beer—Longboard Island Lager from Kona Brewing—and half kombucha. But VAH's two newest kombucha creations are the Kombucha Chaos, which is one part ginger kombucha and one part Golden Chaos Belgian Strong Ale from local brewer, Bootlegger; and the Hardbucha, made with soju, blueberry kombucha and fresh fruit.
Location: 41 W 57th Street, New York
Eamon Rockey, GM at Manhattan's lauded fine dining restaurant Betony, has had a kombucha scoby in his fridge for years, and his dexterity with the tea-based beverage is impressive. Rockey’s first kombucha cocktail hit the menu a year ago, and each season he works to introduce it anew. On the menu now one will find the Marco Polo, which is served like a shandy and mixes a black tea kombucha, Amaro Montenegro, a splash of IPA beer and a slice of cucumber. Not content to only use tea to sustain his kombucha mother, Rockey, raised in the south and with a deep fondness for pipe tobacco, picked up Black Parrot, a Virginia tobacco from nearby shop Davidoff. This unique ingredient is the nutrient for his latest kombucha. The resulting non-alcoholic drink comes to the table in a dark brown medicine bottle, and the sour, tangy taste is the perfect alternate to the caffeine-zing of iced coffee or tea.
Alchemy Kombucha and Culture
Location: 1123 N. Flores Street, San Antonio
Not only does Tim Trofimenkov co-own Alchemy Kombucha and Culture with partner Kevin Rayhons, but they also operate a kombucha company called Element. And of course it’s sold at Alchemy. Trofimenkov sources the tea for his four kombuchas (green tea, jasmine-hibiscus, milk oolong and smokey black) from a Chinese importer who works directly with small estate tea farmers. One of their most popular drinks is the Fixed Element, which blends Pimm's with raspberry, cucumber, lemon, sumac and hibiscus jasmine kombucha. Meanwhile, Devil Makes Three incorporates sherry, blueberry jam, lime, bay leaf gomme, and smokey black kombucha; and then there's Greener Pastures with Zu Bison Grass Vodka, lime oleo and green tea kombucha.
Location: 660 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad
With a dog-friendly patio and a vast selection of craft and premium beers, 83 Degrees, a gastropub in North County, San Diego, also manages to fit in a few flavors of kombucha. GM Nick Wheeler is an unabashed fan of the tea and dedicates two of his 48 taps to different flavors. Choose straight up kombucha or have the tea mixed into one of three cocktails. Wheeler incorporates Living Tea ginger kombucha into his take on a Moscow Mule, and he also offers a kombucha-rita. On the floral side, try TheBU lavender kombucha, which stars in the restaurant's kombucha breeze cocktail.
Location: 323 Occidental Ave S, Seattle
Located in Seattle's Pioneer Square, restaurateur and chef Matt Dillon’s Bar Sajor celebrates local eating to the nth degree. Case in point, the chef forages for herbs and grows food on his nearby farm to supply his six restaurants. As for the restaurant’s drink program, bartender Joel Cuplin and the kitchen crew work together to create endless variety. Their house-made kombucha starts with Earl Gray tea and sugar. They let it ferment for ten to fourteen days, and once it’s got the right zip, they use it to spruce up a basic gin and tonic, and a Moscow mule, which also incorporates a homemade ginger soda concentrate. Their latest summer drink calls for equal parts vodka and Suze (a French brand of bitters flavored with gentian roots) and is topped off with kombucha and an orange twist.
Location: 942 Queen Street West, Toronto, Canada
This casual Mexican restaurant in Toronto doesn’t exactly scream kombucha what with its corrugated metal walls and patterned tiles. Regardless, co-owner Andres Marquez offers a kombucha margarita built from a citrus base with smoked horchata and house-brewed kombucha.