Ethan Zuckerman, Barefoot Bucha co-owner and master brewer along with wife Kate, shared the tricks of the kombucha brewing trade at a seminar hosted by Rebecca’s Natural Food on July 30 to a group of burgeoning ’bucha brewers. The seminar was one of a six-part series on the local food system, sponsored by Rebecca’s, Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, Wolf Creek Farm and the Piedmont Environmental Council.
An acquired taste for some, kombucha is a vinegary but sweet drink, often containing strings of bacteria and yeast in its raw form. After bottling, the drink’s carbonation makes it more like a soda, while still retaining the fermented taste.
Popular among the health-food crowd, kombucha is said to contain live probiotic bacteria that can aid digestive health, similar to some yogurts. It’s also known for its immune boosting and detoxification qualities, but some people seem to drink it just for the taste.
Barefoot Bucha has grown from its humble beginnings in 2010, when a truck tinkered up and down the streets of Charlottesville milkman-style, delivering kombucha to customers and retrieving each bottle to recycle.
“We realized that for our business model, this idea of returning the bottle–which I think is awesome–wasn’t working for us,” Zuckerman said.
Now, customers refill and reuse their bottles themselves at retailers around town with kegs, a model that fits better with Barefoot Bucha’s no waste principle. Currently about 8,000 bottles are in circulation in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Alexandria, and Richmond.
Zuckerman recalled his first homebrewing days 11 years ago, and was happy to share his method with the 20-some people at Rebecca’s last Tuesday. Many were new to brewing, but the majority had dabbled in the past. The crowd, diverse in ages from their 20s and onward, came armed with questions and notebooks.
Kombucha starts with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY, which can be purchased online or locally at Rebecca’s, or shared from a fellow brewer who may have a layer to spare.
After being added to green or black tea brewed in unchlorinated, filtered water, with enough sugar to make you pucker, the SCOBY begins growing at the surface. Then it’s all sealed off in a large brewing vessel and covered with a thin, breathable cloth, where it ferments for anywhere between five days and two weeks.
Once it’s fermented, it’s really up to the brewer’s personal taste to decide when to bottle. Stick a straw in there every couple days, and when it reaches the desired level of sweetness and acidity, remove the SCOBY and a little bit of liquid to save for the next brew.
Zuckerman encourages home brewers to try different flavoring techniques—like adding rose petals while steeping the tea or fruit slices right before bottling—while being mindful of the changes their SCOBY undertakes after each addition.
“It’s all a science experiment – we’re all figuring it out,” he said.
The third seminar in the six-part Restoring Our Local Food System series is Tuesday, August 6 at Rebecca’s. Join Sharondale Farm’s Mark Jones at 6:30pm for an hour-long discussion about how to incorporate mushrooms and fungi into gardens and small farms using ecological design principles.—Annalee Grant