Kombucha Hill—Brewer Q&A
Based in: St. Petersburg, Russia
Distribution: St. Petersburg; Moscow; Central, South & Eastern Russia
From Russia, with love! In this case, kombucha love. We are so fortunate to have gotten our hands on authentic, Russian-brewed kombucha. This is significant, because Russia is where kombucha has been brewed for many generations, long before it became commercialized. Russians have always been obsessed with fermented foods, as well as with tea (our founder Stacy is Russian, so we should know!)
Kombucha Hill is brewed in the gorgeous city of St. Petersburg, and we are quite smitten by their packaging and delicate flavors. Green and Hibiscus share a quality that we always relish in kombucha: They balance tart and sweet perfectly. The carbonation is subtle, as is the flavor, but there is a purity to these brews that can only come from Mother Russia! We chatted with the company's 27-year-old founder Daria Repina about Kombucha Hill's fascinating story, and the ever-growing booch scene in Russia.
Kombucha Hunter: When did you first discover kombucha, and when did you start brewing your own?
Daria Repina: Actually, I first discovered kombucha only a year and a half ago; a close friend of my grandmother gave me to try it. I really liked the taste, so she gave me the scoby as well. When I started to google the recipe and proportions of tea and sugar for fermentation, I discovered that our "mushroom tea" is also called kombucha and it’s incredibly popular in the US. Another discovery was the possibility of second fermentation. Nobody did it in Russia in Soviet time. After I started to ferment kombucha in my kitchen, my family realized its health benefits, including strong anti-hangover effect and immunity boost.
We started the production last autumn; it took some time to certify the product and to find a technologist, so we actively started to sell in April 2016. In September 2016 we started to sell our second fermentation kombucha and we have huge plans for the future.
KH: In the U.S., the regulations for becoming a commercial brewer are quite strict; how are the sales of kombucha regulated in Russia currently, and what kinds of challenges did you encounter when you decided to start selling?
DR: It’s also very strict in Russia, we have a lot of regulation concerning production facilities and controlling powers. The main challenge is that Russian legislation doesn’t know such a category of goods called "kombucha"; so far, it’s in the category of non-alcoholic drinks that could only contain maximum 0.5% of alcohol and this restriction limits crucially the possibilities of second fermentation.
Another challenge that we have is that, although it has a rich history in Russia, bottled kombucha is not a well-known product, so big market chains are too cautious to start selling it and it’s really hard to convince them.
KH: What is the kombucha scene like in St. Petersburg now?
DR: A few month ago we got a new producer in St. Petersburg—Royal Kombucha, so now we are two producers. Royal Kombucha has a different style; it’s more carbonated. We are not afraid of any competition—we believe that the kombucha market in Russia is potentially huge and will grow in few years.
KH: Where do you source your tea?
DR: We use Chinese oolong tea from a supplier that works directly with Chinese producers for our base taste and natural products for second fermentation (local apples, cinnamon, ginger). Hibiscus tea we just buy in Metro C&C.
KH: Can you describe your brewing/flavoring process a bit? Do you have a commercial kitchen where you brew?
DR: We do have a commercial kitchen—that was the first thing we were searching to start. The legislation in Russia is quite strict if it involves consumers. To produce food or drinks the producer should have or rent special certified place, that has potable water on tap and fulfills high hygienic restriction. It takes around 14 days to brew our base green kombucha, we just check Ph level and taste; sometimes it takes longer or faster. We thought about what kind of fermentation vessel to choose, experimented with glass and steel and decided that we prefer the taste from glass vessel better.
We do bottling manually now; it’s a real hand-crafted production, but maybe in the future we will make it more automatized and we will return to the idea of steel vessel. If we talk about second fermentation, we have two flavors now: hibiscus ginger and apple cinnamon. For both flavors, we use only natural ingredients, not even extracts. Our kombucha now is not very carbonated, because the regulation is strict in terms of alcohol, so for second fermentation we only use flavors that would not give extra sugar and alcohol.
We believe in the future, we could make more with second fermentation; meanwhile, we will experiment with non sugary flavors, such as vanilla, lavender, basil, estragon.
KH: What is your background, and who are the other partners are in the company?
DR: I am actually a freelance attorney and my occupation includes all kind of court hearings, drafting contracts and other legal work. From the day I discovered the taste of kombucha and the fact that kombucha is incredibly popular in the U.S., I just couldn’t stop thinking of production, so I found some investors and we started.
All members of my family are involved in the process: my father helps with production and logistics, my mother is busy with accounting, my sister Ksenia does PR and IT support, and I am immensely grateful to them. All members of my family are fans of good food and drinks, so I think it was a common dream of food startup. Also, I have few partners—friends that believed in this product and have invested in production.
KH: What are your plans for the future? Do you want to sell outside of St. Petersburg?
DR: We actually plan to take over the world with our kombucha! We are already selling it all around Russia: it’s available in many places in Moscow, in Perm (European Part of Russia near the Ural Mountains), in Krasnodar (South of Russia), in Yoshkar-Ola (Central Russia), Sevastopol (Crimea). We see a lot of interest in our product from different parts of Russia, but transportation to the Far East just takes too much time.
There is interesting research that was made in 1950's and recorded in Gunther W. Frank's book, Kombucha. After second world war, scientists discovered the growth of cancer all around the the world, so they decided to look at statistics in what regions of Russia people are more resistant to cancer disease. Unexpectedly, they almost didn’t find cancer in Perm Region, although the ecology in this region suffered from new factories, potassium, lead, mercury and asbestos mines and associated processing works. By that moment, trees and fish in Kama river were already dying due to pollution.
The clue to this fact was that people in this region had kombucha in every house. This research proves that kombucha in Russia is not just a trendy drink, the consumption of kombucha helped people to keep being healthy in a difficult environment for long time. Kombucha is well-known in every corner of Russia; some regions have their own kombucha history and culture. Of course, Moscow is a big market, but we do believe that all of Russia will be a huge market for kombucha.