Everyone remembers their first time. Drinking kombucha, that is. Mine happened to take place at a local corner store. Intrigued by the cute label, and the fact that it was locally sourced and made (ingredients from Red Blossom Tea Company and San Francisco Herb Co.), I purchased my first bottle of House Kombucha. I opened it and slipped into a kind of ceremonial reverie. It may sound hyperbolic, but I can clearly recall how evocative that initial taste was. Slightly effervescent, sour, funky, perfumey, cider-like. A delicate vinegar soda.
There is something addictive about kombucha. Live, raw, and probiotic would normally be words used to describe a drink I’d steer clear of, yet I’ve found myself compulsively drawn to the drink ever since that first sip. And I’m not alone. Kombucha has been around for thousands of years, passed along from warriors to royalty to hippies to hipsters. To understand the appeal of this mysterious fermented drink, I decide to pay a visit to House Kombucha to discover the secret behind the strange elixir.
When I first step inside House Kombucha’s production room, I mistakenly think I’m in a bakery. There’s a yeasty warm odor wafting through the space, but sadly not a croissant in sight. Instead, that sour, rising smell is coming from a host of vats containing that singularly strange, yet alluring brew called kombucha. Rana Chang, founder of House Kombucha, is wearing a homey red apron, and leads me over to check out her babies. The containers are all huddled together, with space heaters warming them. The tops of each are wrapped in swaddling cloths, and Rana attends to them like a doting mother. “There was a cold front this weekend, that’s why they need the heat,” she explains. Apparently kombucha does best around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes producing the batches in San Francisco slightly challenging.
She lifts off one of the cloths from the vat so I can see the magic happening inside. There’s a thin layer of what appears to be pond scum growing on the surface. This is what’s referred to as a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), the active ingredient in kombucha. The SCOBY, once it gets large enough, is also referred to as the mother. It turns out everyone has a mother, even a fermented cup of tea. While my mother is a striking five-foot-ten Italian woman who prefers Chanel, the kombucha mother isn’t quite as comely. A thick rubbery pancake-like combination of bacteria and yeast, it’s the strain that’s passed on from batch to batch, mother to child. Looking at the fungal scum, I think, now that’s definitely a face only a mother could love. Yet it’s this SCOBY that allows the kombucha to be reproduced and passed around for thousands of years. When I ask Rana where the original SCOBY came from, the mother of all mothers, she says, “Nobody knows. That’s the true mystery of kombucha.”
Most people aren’t aware that the main ingredient in kombucha is tea. In fact, tea is to kombucha as grapes are to wine. Kombucha is essentially tea, a sweetener, and the SCOBY strain. While that may sound like child’s play, remember this is wild fermentation and therefore can be highly unpredictable. Rana takes a small cup and hands it to me. “Here try this.” I hold the cup up to my nose and inhale a wind of sulfur. I hesitate and take a sip of what tastes like spoiled egg water. She interprets my expression and says, “That’s what happens when things go awry, and a lot of the time we have no idea why.” After that foul taste, she rewards me with sips from her array of teas: Jasmine Green, Rose Black, Lavender Green, Vanilla Orchid-Root, and Sun Blossom. House Kombucha is different from many other brands I’ve tried. Other companies add flavorings and juice; House Kombucha is purely tea, and therefore has a restrained delicacy to it. As soon as she’s done checking in on all of her little ones, Rana sits down to tell me the story of how it all began.
Like many businesses, necessity was the mother of invention. In June 2009, Rana had just graduated from law school and was propelled into an impossible economy. “I was walking down the street with my friend Assad. We were thirsty, poor, and had a craving for kombucha, but we couldn’t afford it. So we decided we’d just make it ourselves.”
When Rana and her friend began making kombucha, they encountered a problem that most homebrewers do. “My mother made it when I was growing up, but there was always one problem. She made way too much, and was invariably giving it away. I had the idea that with all our excess kombucha, we could just sell it. Thus the business was born.”
Rana began brewing it in a rented space the size of a closet and selling
it at the former Metreon farmers’ market. When the market closed down,
she tried to sell it to bars and restaurants. “I’m an environmentalist. I
don’t believe in packaged goods. Originally I wanted it to be a drink
that would only be on tap. You could order a beer on tap, or a kombucha.
But it turns out the demand was for individual bottles.” She met that
demand while preserving her environmental integrity by putting a deposit
on the bottles, with part of the fee being donated to Save The Bay.
Yet, she says, some local businesses still get tap deliveries. One of
them? Airbnb. “Those guys are great. They love House Kombucha; they
probably go through two
kegs a week.”
I ask her where she first learned about kombucha. Not without irony, the inspiration came from her mother. When recalling her mother’s homebrew, Rana’s face wrinkles up with a nostalgic disgust. “It was in a big bowl, and there was this floppy gross thing, like an animal, growing inside of it. The strains were so thick; my mother would scoop it straight out, add ice, and drink it. She was addicted to it. We always made fun of her.”
So how did she go from thinking that kombucha was disgusting to having it be the center of her life’s work? “I was always intrigued by kombucha but my mother’s homebrew was too pungent. Then in 2005, I tried GT’s Synergy Trilogy and thought it was much more drinkable but still a little too syrupy. Then I remember thinking, ‘What if I could make a more delicate brew with just tea?’ I experimented by lengthening the fermentation and decreasing the sugar to produce a refreshing beverage that accentuates the floral notes of the tea.”
As kombucha becomes more and more the rage (in 2009, local SF food blogger Tamara Palmer wrote that it was “on its way to becoming the new bacon”), Rana tells me that business is growing and she is trying to stock her kombucha in more places. I ask Rana if her mother is proud of her. “Not really. My parents don’t understand it just yet. I used to think my mother was crazy for making that gross stuff. Now my parents think I’m crazy.”
As I leave, she hands me a bottle of my favorite flavor, Rose Black. I take a sip, close my eyes, and as the rose essence fills my olfactory senses, I remember that my mother always bathed in rose water. My sisters and I would sit at the edge of the tub and look at our mother, soaking in the hot steaming rose water, her eyes closed, at peace, her long hair brushed up behind her head.
I’m standing on a city sidewalk, miles from where my mother is. I take another sip of the rose kombucha and am transported back to my childhood. A rose is not just a rose. A cup of tea is not just a cup of tea. As with everything, it’s so much more.
House Kombucha can be found at a myriad of local shops, including Bi-Rite Market and Rainbow Grocery.
If your office has a continual craving for kombucha, why not get it on tap?
If you’re feeling brave, here’s House Kombucha’s recipe for making your own batch at home. While House doesn’t sell its SCOBYs, there are plenty of gelatinous mothers for sale on Craigslist.