IN JANUARY 2020, chef Brendan McGill posted a selfie on Instagram with a lengthy caption he titled “TED TALK.” In it, he wrote about how the year 2020 would see him celebrating turning 40, working 25 years in the hospitality industry, and the 10-year anniversary of his Hitchcock Restaurant Group.
It was a soul-searching post culminating in the announcement that he would be taking somewhat of a sabbatical, spending extended periods of time with his family in Maui.
“I thought it would be a really nice time to reassess, and then focus on what I had built and enjoy running the company,” McGill says.
However, shortly after arriving in Maui, the pandemic hit and had him reeling, in lockdown on the island and trying to manage long-distance his restaurants in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island, doing the same pivot scrambles nearly every restaurateur was doing in March 2020. Starting a new arm of his business was the last thing on his mind.
Yet, because he wasn’t able to physically be in Seattle to manage his restaurants, he had time. Time to think, time to be creative.
McGill had been making kombucha — a fermented, slightly fizzy tea known as much for its vinegary smell as its probiotic benefits — since 2009, using black tea, cane sugar, and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). After meeting a neighboring farmer with an apiary in Maui, McGill swapped the sugar for honey and black tea for green, and mixed in botanicals grown in his own garden for a jun-style kombucha.
Fermented foods aren’t a new thing for McGill, or even for Hitchcock Restaurant Group.
“We had an entirely vegan juice bar on Bainbridge. I’ve been immersed in restaurants for over two decades, and that’s a lot of salty, fatty, rich, tasty bites over time. It’s not like I don’t want to or don’t love eating rich, decadent foods, but I feel like we all need a break from it sometimes,” McGill says.
McGill and his crew have been making kraut, kimchi, mustard, jams and jellies at the restaurants for years. When it came to turning this kombucha into something more than a home brew, McGill says, “I thought: There’s always room in the market for good things.”
McGill was back in Seattle by April 2020, deep in R&D mode, getting his Hitchcock Foods manager Matt Quinn (another fellow kombucha home brewer) on board to be the head brewer. They built a koji muro — a heat/humidity-controlled environment in which to bloom koji spores across barley sourced from the Skagit Valley — to turn the koji into amazake, a product that’s often used in the first step of sake production. McGill will be using the amazake (which is similar to a sugar-sweet syrup) instead of fruit or a fruit purée to make kombucha fizzy during a secondary fermentation.
“The base of the barley amazake secondary fermentation is like wildly delicious, feels like a new frontier,” McGill says.
Then McGill and Quinn began playing around with honeys sourced from all over the world, spending the past year dialing in acidity and flavor profiles. Beginning June 1, everyone will be able to taste their efforts with Junbug.
In McGill’s mind, it’s not just the jun-style that sets Junbug apart from other kombuchas crowding grocery store shelves. Although the Japanese-sourced green tea and wild honey produces a milder, more balanced flavor than other styles of kombucha (meaning less of that often-overpowering vinegar scent), it’s the foraged ingredients paired with different honeys that will make Junbug memorable.
Quinn says he’s got two favorite flavors in the initial lineup, the first being a mushroom root beer he calls “the brainchild” of McGill. “It’s super unique. I don’t think anyone has done anything like that in the kombucha realm, and it tastes like root beer, spot on.” Along with matsutake and chagga mushrooms, the root beer kombucha has sassafras, molasses and a black sage honey.
Quinn also loves a chili raspberry flavor kombucha that he’s been making at home for a while. He says it will be a great summer drink, “nice and sweet upfront, and then finishes with a burn from the chili.”
There are also plans for a Juneberry Kombucha with cherry and elderflower, and many more ideas — from a stout with buckwheat honey and cardamom, to a “Casablanca” with orange blossom honey, rose petal, ginger and saffron — in the works as flavors continue to be tweaked and perfected.
McGill says Junbug is “chef-driven flavors, and we’re also having fun with it. A lot of the people in the kombucha space focus so much on probiotic that they don’t focus on making it taste really great.” The initial launch will have Junbug offered on tap at all Hitchcock Foods locations, from Bruciato and Hitchcock Deli on Bainbridge Island to Café Hitchcock in downtown Seattle, with plans to keep expanding to bars, restaurants and even grocery stores in the future.