YOU LOVE YOUR kombucha, Washington. You nurture your gut flora like an organic communal garden, flooding it with oceans of the vinegary, fruity fermented tea that has taken the packaged-beverage world by storm over the past decade.
You can, of course, get probiotics from yogurt, from kimchi, from fermented sauerkraut — any food that has been allowed to properly stew in its own juices (or, “rot”) in the proper way. But none of these will get you drunk, which is doubtless why alcoholic kombucha, aka “hard kombucha,” is growing in popularity.
To make regular, nonhard kombucha, you first brew a vat of tea. Black tea is most common, or sometimes pu-erh, though some prefer green tea (this is properly called “jun,” but it’s the same thing essentially). You add sugar and a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), a whitish mucus of microorganisms that looks like something you sneezed.
The sugared tea ferments, creating a probiotic, bubbly brew that can taste anywhere from truly vinegary to more like traditional soda, depending on the brand. Now, ordinary kombucha is a fermented beverage and is thus very slightly alcoholic to begin with, and most off-the-shelf kombuchas have an alcohol content of between .5% and 2%, which is not enough to impair you, but was enough to cause quite a bit of drama 10 years ago when Whole Foods panicked and temporarily pulled it from its shelves. But recently, there has been a real push to create a truly alcoholic version that could be a viable alternative to cider or beer.
The traditional home-brewing process used to make kombucha will result in something that is roughly 1.5% alcohol. If you leave it out of the fridge, it will continue to ferment, and the alcohol content will rise (which is why it’s always in the cold case at the store). It will not, however, get much higher than 2.5% by itself, so companies producing hard kombucha add more sugar to encourage further fermentation out of that SCOBY. The big question is: Does the additional alcohol kill off all that good bacteria you were going for in the first place?
Sorry, but yes. The more alcohol in the drink, the more likely it’s going to be just … alcoholic fermented tea.
Several years ago, when alcoholic kombucha was barely a gleam in some brewer’s eye, I interviewed a kombucha brewer in New Mexico (honeymoonbrewery.com) who was crafting some of the first boozy “booch” in the country. As it was explained, more alcohol creates a more anaerobic environment, and the more anaerobic the environment, the more inhospitable it is to the probiotic bacteria, to the point where HoneyMoon Brewery was working with a biologist at Los Alamos National Lab to try to bioengineer its yeast culture to better survive the process. Plus, many mass-produced kombuchas are not even fermented at all; they’re essentially tea sodas with probiotics added after the fact. So don’t expect the addition of alcohol to make them some kind of boozy wonder elixir.
Hard kombucha is, however, a pleasant and somewhat caffeinated alternative to beer, cider or alcoholic soda. It’s crisp and refreshing, and often has the kind of zingy tang you get from a sour beer. Hard kombuchas often have a relatively low ABV (alcohol by volume) but a much more sophisticated flavor profile than, say, “light” beer, and they come in a whole range of exotic flavors.
Locally, you can sip Boochcraft‘s libations, which come in flavors such as Apple Jasmine, Grapefruit Hibiscus and Orange Pomegranate (plus some heirloom versions), or Oregon’s KYLA hard kombucha, sparkling with tropical flavors including Pineapple Ginger Colada and Coconut Crush. And, while it might do nothing for your gut flora, it does up your hipster factor, which in the PNW is a virtue all by itself.