Best of the Midwest!
As America's Heartland, the Midwest has always been at the forefront of innovative and indispensable production. So it's no wonder that a new generation of kombucha brewers is sprouting up all over its wide-open spaces. We got to sample a wide range of flavors from new and familiar brands in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio, and discovered that, despite those brutal Midwest winters, these breweries are churning out some remarkable kombucha. So come along with us, on our special booch tour of the Midwest, starring some of our favorite finds: Deane's Kombucha, Arize, Northstar, Lake State Kombucha, Prohibition, Bucha Bill and Tapuat Brewing Co.!
Kombucha brewed in oak barrels is still a rare commodity, so when we find one, we get pretty excited. There are only a handful of commercial kombucha brewers that use oak barrels, and they include Golda in Atlanta, GA; Elixirz in Los Angeles, CA; Awaken in Vero Beach, FL; Marin Kombucha in San Francisco. In Minneapolis, Bryan Deane Bertsch has been brewing his booch in oak barrels since 2006, and we were absolutely wowed by his flavors—like Pear Sage, Strawberry Lemon, and Wild Blueberry Lemon Lavender. Bryan second ferments with fresh fruit and herbs and the booch is crisp, perfectly fizzy and has that subtle oaky note that is so unique. For a really fun blueberry lemon home-brew version, check out this recipe!
We visited Bryan at his brewery, and chatted with him about his rather awe-inspiring kombucha journey.
Kombucha Hunter: Having brewed in both ceramic and glass vessels, how do you think oak barrel brewing compares? What made it your chosen method of brewing kombucha?
Bryan: I fell in love with oak barrels after my first batch, and love it even more today. In the first few batches especially you get a nice oak flavor to the brew, but what is really important to me is that it is the perfect environment for the micro-organisms. First, wood is a natural material. There are sugars present in the oak and the bacteria and yeast actually penetrate the wood to get at that, literally becoming part of the brewing vessel. My batches taste so much better in oak, and I believe a big part of that is the micro-organisms are happy in there!
KH: How would you compare the kombucha scene in Minneapolis when you first started over a decade ago to what it’s like now?
Bryan: When I was first licensed, you could find kombucha at the local Co-Ops and Whole Foods, and that was it. After seeing the cooler space Whole Foods was offering up for kombucha, and knowing my personal drinking habits, I knew kombucha was for real and here to stay. So part of the challenge at that time was getting cooler space that was already taken up, while sharing kombucha with others and building the market. I believed then and still believe, that part of my responsibility is to introduce kombucha to as many people as I can. At that time, there were no other kombuchas being made in Minnesota. There was one local “probiotic beverage” and they were doing quite well.
Fast forward to today and Minnesota now has 8 commercial kombucha brands. So the challenge today is differentiating our brand as opposed to educating on what kombucha is or why stores should carry it. Our focus is kombucha on tap and we are seeing more and more restaurants offering a tap handle or two for kombucha, and that is very inspiring.
KH: How hands-on are you in the brewing process today? And do you still self-distribute?
Bryan: I have two employees who help me in brewing, but I still taste each and every batch. We have 17 oak barrels going and we are brewing in a very traditional way. What this means is that each barrel has its own flavor profile (some oak barrels are 1 month old, while some are 10 years old). My primary job on brewing days is to taste each barrel and decide which fruits will go with what barrel. So there is a little art to our brewing process. Deane’s Kombucha currently has two distributors, but we still self-distribute dozens of accounts.
KH: We’d love to know a bit more about your background. Is true that you were/are an interfaith minister, meditation coach, and energy healer?
Bryan: Yes I still teach meditation and offer sporadic healing sessions, but my main passion now is brewing kombucha. When I first started selling kombucha, I was having a bit of a crisis because I felt my life purpose was more on the energy healing/meditation path. But at one point, I made a spiritual connection with the consciousness of the micro-organisms and learned that, for now, my mission is to get the micro-organisms into as many bellies as I can. I believe on one level that all commercial kombucha brewers share this mission. I heard one brewer call herself a “slave to the bacteria.” The bacteria definitely does guide us and keeps us very busy! There is a deep level of understanding and camaraderie among most of us that is hard to explain, but it is there. We’re all in the healing realm.
KH: What advice can you offer to a home-brewer who is thinking about going commercial? What do you wish you had known before you started your journey?
Bryan: Making kombucha on a commercial level is very hard work and is also very gratifying. As with starting any business, be ready for immense challenges and constantly walking into the unknown. Moving from brewing small batches to a larger scale isn’t always easy. Making a consistent product isn’t always easy. Finding new accounts is rarely easy. Take your time, don’t quit your job, and be as resourceful as you can. Kombucha is still a growing market, but there are some big fish players out there now that make competing more challenging. Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, and Anheuser Busch have brands.
The kombucha market is being inundated with volume driven, mass produced super low cost Kombucha. There’s still room for us little guys, but make sure to know your identity and share that through farmer’s markets, festivals and the like. I believe the whole food industry will continue angling toward locally produced sustainable sourcing. And especially with fermented foods and beverages this makes sense. Kombucha is a wild fermentation that attracts healthy microbes out of the air. The microbes in Minnesota, for instance, may have a slight variation than the ones in California. So I believe the health benefits are greater if you drink your probiotics locally. And really, why truck kombucha from different parts of the country if you have quality, locally crafted kombucha available?
In Chicago, Arize Kombucha makes their booch using triple-filtered water, and a blend of Pu-Erh black tea and Yerba Mate. Their Dry Hopped flavor would surely convert a beer-drinkers to kombucha. It incorporates simcoe hops which are commonly used in IPA's. So it's got that light citrusy hoppy note with a smooth booch bite.
And we like that they use Pu Erh black tea, which we don't see often enough in kombucha. Definitely gives it a certain dimension.
Northstar Kombucha and Lake State Kombucha
Founded by married couple Dan and Christina Fischer, Northstar is the new kid on the block, and is becoming a staple presence at local farmer's market. We were instantly drawn to their clean, modern packaging, which compliments the booch—crisp, light and smooth.
Meanwhile, Lake State is the brainchild of a young entrepreneur Drake Ellingboe, who operates his company with his parents and also self-distributes his product.
We chatted with Drake and Dan about their brewing journeys and unique visions for their brands.
Kombucha Hunter: What’s your favorite thing about being a kombucha brewer in the Midwest, and specifically in Minneapolis?
Dan Fischer, Northstar Kombucha: The kombucha scene is really starting to pick up in Minneapolis. It has been fun sharing our kombucha with people who have never tried it before and surprising them with how delicious it can be! The Twin Cities has an amazing food culture, and it is great to see kombucha becoming a bigger part of that.
Drake Ellingboe, Lake State Kombucha: I really like how popular kombucha is becoming here. When we first started it wasn’t really super popular but Minnesota is really starting to grab on to what kombucha is and why it’s so healthy. That’s fun because more and more people are willing to try it. I also really like the strong local pride here. Minnesotans love locally-made products—it’s pretty cool to be on the receiving end of that.
KH: Tell us about how you first discovered kombucha?
Dan: My wife introduced me to it! A friend gave her a home brew to try and she knew it was something that would interest me since I love fermented foods and brewing. I was hooked from the first sip and was soon brewing my own!
Drake: I discovered kombucha during my time in college while I was working full-time construction with my family’s business and doing a full-time school load. To make it through the days, I was slamming multiple Red Bulls a day. About 2011 we built out a chiropractor’s suite and he introduced us to his brand of kombucha. I immediately fell in love with how it tasted and how it made me feel.
KH: How long were you brewing recreationally before you decided to go commercial, and what facilitated the transition?
Drake: A little over 3 years. The big thing that facilitated the transition to commercial was realizing how much I enjoyed brewing and sharing a healthy drink with friends. I saw the opportunity to help people by introducing them to one of the best things you can drink. Another big part of it was looking at the market and seeing that there weren’t many local brands out there—at the time we launched anyway.
Dan: I’ve been brewing for about three and a half years, and working on Northstar Kombucha for a year and a half. We decided to share our kombucha with people after visiting Maui Kombucha and being inspired by their cozy, lively taproom. We knew then that we wanted to help grow the kombucha culture in the city that we love!
KH: What has been the toughest part about transitioning to commercial brewing?
Dan: Scaling up! The time and energy required to maintain an ever-growing collection of fermenters is significant, especially while having a full-time job!
Drake: Scaling up to large batches. Its one thing to make the perfect brew in a gallon jar but once you start doing larger batches it gets a bit more tricky.
KH: Which of your current flavors date back to when you first began brewing?
Drake: Our Original flavor is the brew that started it all. After some finagling, we landed on the original brew as our favorite recipe and built out our other flavors from there.
Dan: Cherry Elderberry has been a flavor that I've wanted in the Northstar Kombucha lineup from the beginning. It was a struggle to get this flavor profile right and at one point I even abandoned it. After countless test batches, it finally came together and it is my personal favorite in addition to being a huge hit at the farmers markets! I am constantly trying new things and making adjustments to refine each flavor.
KH: What do you think sets your brewing process apart from other brands?
Dan: My background and education is in food science (specializing in fermentation) so I approach my brewing from a very technical perspective. I track everything about my kombucha and have extensive formula and tasting notes for every single batch. This allows me to be consistent and deliver the same amazing flavor profile in every bottle. Much like the flavors themselves, I am constantly re-evaluating my brewing methods to identify where improvements can be made. Having a background in fermentation definitely helps!
Drake: We do a single ferment only and never add any carbonation, sweeteners or sugars. This gives an ultra smooth/clean taste.
KH: Tell us a bit about how you developed your packaging?
Drake: We worked with a local freelance designer to really try and reflect our brand personality and product as well as our Minnesota roots. What we landed on is a super clean and simple design that incorporates the iconic MN state shape as well as a sail-shaped color banner to help distinguish between flavors.
Dan: My wife [and Northstar's co-founder] Christina is an amazing graphic designer so I really lucked out with this one! She is just as passionate about design as I am about food science! She spent months working on the Northstar brand identity and packaging. It really paid off—we receive a lot of positive feedback about how clean and timeless our brand is. I think that often people are visually drawn to our brand and then fall in love with the flavors.
KH: How do you see your brand developing in the years to come?
Dan: We would love to see our brand grow in the Midwest, while still remaining locally brewed. A Northstar Kombucha taproom is a dream and goal of ours for the future!
Drake: Lake State is all about living healthy lives. A big thing for us is balancing a healthy diet and fitness. We do a lot with local athletes and I would love to see us doing more to support athletics in the future. I am also excited to introduce new product lines to the brand that help people live out active lives in as healthy a way as possible. As we grow, I am also excited to get out and involved in more events so we can share our kombucha with as many people as possible.
KH: What kinds of experiences, both in your personal and professional life, have you found most helpful in applying to your kombucha business?
Drake: Growing up in an entrepreneurial family has been huge. My parents instilled a very solid work ethic in me from a young age and that is paying off big time. My time down at the Carlson School of Management (at the University of MN) was also extremely valuable. I also worked for a little over 3 years in the frozen food industry which helped me learn the ins and outs of the grocery world. I was able to get a lot of experience launching products and developing relationships with retailers.
Dan: My professional experience is in research and development for a large yogurt brand. Day-to-day I work on creating new formulas as well as improving upon existing products. My work has given me incredible perspective on how to approach product development from a consumer-first standpoint. My co-workers have been fantastic guinea pigs for flavor development!
Started by former beer brewer Nate Uri during his time of alcohol abstinence (he was seeking a beer-like beverage to quell his cravings), this Minnesota brand has developed a flavor profile that is uniquely their own. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the other partner in the company, Dave Duckler, is also the owner of the esteemed tea company, Verdant Tea, which is also based in Minneapolis and from which all of Prohibition's tea bases are sourced.
White Elephant aka Lychee Jasmine uses a Yunnan Black Tea, also known as Dianhong, which is a high-end, robust and refined tea that is grown in the Yunnan Province of China. The Sicilian is citrusy and tart, with Rosemary, Lemon and Orange Blossom Water. This one uses Tieguanyin tea, which is a premium variety of Chinese Oolong tea. Pink Robot, which is probably our favorite of the bunch, also uses an Oolong, but a different variety—this one is called Big Red Robe and it's grown in Wuyi Mountains. It's a heavily oxidized, dark oolong that is one of the priciest teas in the world. As the main ingredient in this brew, it lends a certain nuanced texture, especially when combined with the juiciness pink guava. And we love the long-necked dark amber bottles, a feature that is shared with this next brand.
If this kombucha could talk, it would say, proudly: “I am kombucha. I am raw. I am fermented. And you are going to taste both when you drink me.”
This is the earthiest kombucha we’ve ever tried. It’s has almost no sweetness, which is just fine. There is a perfect amount of fizz—doesn’t gush out of the bottle, but also doesn’t sit flat. It has great, strong bite. It has an almost tart/sour finish, but it’s not aggressive. All of the flavors were very mild and subdued, but our favorite was Lemongrass, which had kind of ginger-aley notes. Very refreshing. Overall, this a very unique kombucha that sits kind of in its own category!
Bill in this case is Bill Bond, who together with his partner and fellow “kombucha cultivator” Mark Slyder (as well brother-in-law or, as they like to say, “bucha brother”) has been brewing Bucha Bill commercially for the past few years out of Ms. Julie’s Kitchen, which is a vegan farm-to-table restaurant in Akron.
Tapuat Brewing Co.
Sister Bay, WI
This Lemuria flavor from Wisconsin's Tapuat Kombucha has hints of rose, currant and hibiscus, and an almost candy-like taste. Interesting fact about the name of the brand: The Tapuat is a Hopi symbol of life, connection and rebirth and represents mother and her child. The founders of the company (who are a married couple, incidentally) picked the name because, well, kombucha is all about the mother. Isn't that cool?