The questions and answers below come from an interview with Renewal Kombucha founder Jeremy Sayer, conducted by Jennifer Hetrick for an article published on Weaver's Orchard's blog in April of 2017. To see the final version of the article, go here.
In what year did Renewal Kombucha open, and was it always in Lititz, or was it anywhere else first?
We founded Renewal Kombucha in early 2015, and first sold our kombucha at the Lititz Farmer's Market and West Reading Farmer’s Market that May. Although we started brewing out of a community kitchen in Lancaster City, we have always seen Lititz as where we are based.
What inspired the name of the business?
The name Renewal Kombucha grew out of our 3 core values, which are to be "good for the body, good for the community, and good for the earth". Beyond just making and selling kombucha, we want to do good, and while we want to grow and be successful, we want to do that in a way that fosters renewal in our customers and employees, in our communities, and in the earth as a whole. That effects everything from the ingredients that we choose to use, the way that we brew our kombucha, our involvement in community events and partnership with non-profit organizations, the use of renewable and recyclable supplies, etc. Something that we don’t publicize much is that 5% of our proceeds go to organizations that are combating food insecurity in our community, such as Lititz-Warwick Community Chest, Lancaster Meals on Wheels, and the Central PA Food Bank.
In your own words, what is kombucha?
Kombucha is a probiotic fermented tea, naturally live-cultured, and served cold and fizzy.
What is the history of kombucha, to your knowledge?
There's some conjecture as to where and when kombucha was first brewed. Theories about its start put the date at anywhere from 200BC and 500AD. It seems to have started in Asia and eventually traveled to Russia and Europe, and there's some historical evidence that Genghis Khan and his armies took flasks of kombucha with them to the battlefront. The legend behind the name kombucha is that it was named as a tribute to a Korean doctor named Kombu who brewed it as a healing tea for a Japanese emperor. The Japanese started referring to it as Kombucha, literally "Kombu's Tea". Whether or not that's true, it's a heck of a good story.
What ingredients are always in kombucha?
All kombucha has 4 essential ingredients: water, sugar (to feed the yeast), SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria & yeast), and some form of tea or herb that contains tannins (to feed the bacteria). Our kombucha flavors are all made with unique blends of organic teas, herbs, flowers and fruits, with organic evaporated cane juice used as the yeast food.
What are tannins, and what do they do?
Well, the definition given by wikipedia is that "A tannin (or tannoid) is an astringent, polyphenolic biomolecule that binds to and precipitates proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids." The deciphering of that sentence is beyond me, but what I do understand is that tannins are a molecule found in tea and many other herbs, fruits, nuts, etc, and that they have a bitter taste. Tannins have a calming effect, which might explain why people don't usually get "the jitters" from tea in the same way that they might from drinking coffee. There's some evidence that tannins help to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and boost the immune system.
What is the role of the SCOBY in kombucha?
The SCOBY is the culture that turns tea into kombucha. A very simplified explanation is that as kombucha is fermenting, the yeast in the culture eats sugar in the tea and turns it into ethanol and carbon dioxide, and the bacteria in the culture eats the ethanol and turns it into beneficial acids. During the ferment process, the probiotic bacteria also propagates and blends with the tea to create the finished product. The SCOBY is a pretty incredible organism. When kombucha is brewed correctly, the SCOBY will form a new "baby" layer with each batch. As these layers get thicker and healthier over time, they can be separated to be used in multiple batches of kombucha. When I started brewing, I grew my first SCOBY from a bottle of raw organic kombucha. Now, several years later, all of the SCOBYs that we use can be traced back to that first little culture.
What is probiotic bacteria, in your own words?
Probiotics are basically bacteria that are beneficial to the body and can help to combat the effects of harmful microbes that work their way into our bodies in various ways. Our guts contain hundreds of trillions of microbes, and when they get out of whack they can affect everything from our energy levels to our mental health to how our immune systems function. Probiotics help make our guts into more happy and peaceful places.
How long does it take to make kombucha, and what are the details behind creating it?
When we are making a new flavor of kombucha, there are basically four stages: 1. Brewing 2. Growth 3. Maturity
4. Kegging. Those stages blend into each other at times, but all are necessary steps. That process, from conception to serving of a new flavor, usually takes around 4-6 weeks. Once a batch of kombucha has fully matured, we are usually able to pull several kegs from it every 7-14 days.
Is any kombucha made with tea leaves going to have some degree of caffeine, and anything with only herbs is going to be caffeine-free? And is the caffeine content lower or higher, as much as you can gauge, than coffee and typical hot or iced tea, in your kombucha?
Yes, any tea made from the traditional tea leaf (white tea, green tea, black tea, oolong tea, etc) is going to have some measure of caffeine. Typically, a cup of straight black tea would have about half the caffeine of a cup of coffee, while a cup of straight green tea would have about 1/3 the caffeine of a cup of coffee. Oolong tea is somewhere in-between those two, and white tea has a good bit less than green. Of course, since none of our blends are made using only tea leaves, the caffeine is going to be a little lower in our kombucha. I would estimate that a cup of our hibiscus mint green tea kombucha, for instance would have about 1/5 the caffeine of a cup of coffee, but that's just my guess, not based on any chemical testing. There are a couple other ingredients that we sometimes use that contain some caffeine, such as yerba mate. Anything that's brewed with ingredients that don't contain caffeine will be completely caffeine free.
What are some examples of ingredients which are in certain blends of your kombucha?
Some of the flavors that we make use ingredients commonly found in kombuchas, such as green, white and black teas, ginger, peppermint, lemongrass, hibiscus, and various fruits. But we love experimenting with different flavors. Some of the more unique ingredients that have gone into some of our kombucha flavors include raspberry leaf, sassafras, fennel, chili peppers, butterfly pea flower, and juniper berries.
Where do you source the ingredients for your kombucha?
We get our dried ingredients from several organic wholesale suppliers that we've grown to know and trust. We also love making small-batch brews with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients such as strawberries, peaches, and apples.
How do you describe the taste of it to someone who has never tried it?
Kombucha flavors can be as varied as flavors of coffee or wine. Some are more tangy, floral, sweet, or savory than others, and this can vary from brewer to brewer using similar ingredients. Most kombucha will have a mildly acidic flavor that is somewhat reminiscent of the flavor of apple cider vinegar. This is because of the acetic acid that is created during the ferment process. That acidic character is sometimes a very small part of the overall flavor profile of a kombucha, or it can be more accentuated. My advice is, if you try one kind of kombucha and don't like it, don't give up! Try a different flavor, or if you're at our taproom, tell us what sort of flavors you tend to like and let us make a recommendation.
Health and Misconceptions
Are there any health benefits of kombucha besides those listed with links on your website?
The stuff on the website is pretty much what I'm comfortable telling people that kombucha does, because it's what’s been demonstrated in scientific studies. Aside from that, I can give some anecdotal evidence. We've had customers tell us about improvements in conditions like colitis, IBS, chronic fatigue, UTI, yeast infections, and stomach ulcers since starting to drink our kombucha regularly. For myself, I noticed a drastic improvement in my acid reflux when I started to drink kombucha. I used to get flare-ups so bad that I couldn't sleep at night, now I very rarely struggle with it at all.
Are there any misconceptions you'd like to dispel about kombucha in general?
There are a few misconceptions that I hear often. One is that kombucha uses vinegar. Kombucha and vinegar are two totally different liquids. However, one of the byproducts of the kombucha fermentation process is acetic acid, which is also a prominent component of apple cider vinegar, and because of that people often think that they are connected in some way. Another misconception is that kombucha requires caffeine in order to ferment. This thought seems to come from the fact that the tea leaf is traditionally used in kombucha brewing, and the tea leaf naturally contains caffeine. However, what the culture needs to flourish is tannins, not caffeine. Also, there’s the issue of alcohol. Our kombucha, and all kombucha that is considered non-alcoholic, contains only trace amounts of alcohol (less than 0.5% alcohol by volume) as a result of the fermentation. Some people claim to get a “buzz” from drinking kombucha. While this might be possible, it’s pretty unlikely, since the alcohol content of kombucha is somewhere around one-tenth that of a typical domestic beer. I’ve seen some researchers suggest that people do sometimes get a “B-Vitamin Buzz” from kombucha, since people who are given shots of b-vitamins report similar feelings, and kombucha is supposed to be high in b-vitamins.
What kind of drinks do you think kombucha is a good alternative to today?
These days a lot of people are realizing that sodas and iced teas and even a lot of juices are loaded with sugars and artificial ingredients and colors and things like that, so they're looking for healthier alternatives that still have flavor and are fun to drink. Kombucha can be a great choice in place of any of those. It's refreshing, it's effervescent, and there are a variety of flavor options available. We also have had some people tell us that they are trying to cut back on drinking beer or other alcoholic beverages, and have found that drinking our kombucha has helped them with that. As a fermented, craft beverage, it's not out of place at a picnic or a pub, and whether someone is the designated driver or just trying to cut carbs, drinking kombucha might be a good choice.
How long is your kombucha shelf-stable, if refrigerated?
Any live kombucha (non-pasteurized) needs to be kept refrigerated. The reason for that is that the active cultures are still doing their thing, but refrigeration basically puts them to sleep until they get back in your system. Because of these active cultures, your kombucha will change slowly over time, even in the refrigerator. Because of that, we recommend drinking our draft kombucha within a week of when you get your bottle filled. After that time, it's still safe to drink, as long as it's been properly refrigerated. Because of the fermentation process, it takes a long time to "go bad" in the sense that it would be unsafe to drink. However, drinking it as fresh as possible will give you the best flavor, as flavors can become muted after sitting for weeks, and acetic acid builds up over time, making the kombucha more tangy.
*There's one question that didn't come up directly in the interview, that I want to cover here. We have a lot of people ask us how much sugar, calories, and carbs our kombucha contains. To get exact amounts, we'd need access to some sophisticated lab tests that we just can't afford, but we can give approximate values based on the nutritional content of the sugar that we use in our fermentation. When we broke down how much of the organic evaporated cane sugar we add to each batch while brewing, we got a value of about 10 grams per 8 ounces. That sugar would equal 37 calories and 10 grams of carbs (2.5% of recommended daily allotment). We'll take a conservative guess and say that only half of that sugar is used up in the ferment process (it's probably more like 70%-80%). We can assume that the majority of the teas and herbs that we use add very little to the batch in terms of sugar, calories or carbs. Some ingredients, like fruits or cacao nibs might add a little bit. Also the exact amount of sugar being metabolized in each batch will vary slightly. But our best guess, based on these figures, is this:
8oz Renewal Kombucha ≈ 5 grams of sugar, 18 calories, 5 grams of carbs