The Kombucha Craze Comes to Connecticut | FOOD & DRINK | connecticutmag.com
Sounds yummy, and they are, but there’s a kicker. They are all supposedly good for you thanks to the rising popularity of the main ingredient, kombucha, a fermented tea with ancient roots that has made the transition from emperor’s elixir to the shelves and taps of mainstream bars, restaurants and grocery stores.
What is kombucha?
A tea that has been fermented with bacteria and yeast, giving it a tart, vinegar-like taste and high levels of bacteria that some believe impart health benefits.
“I think the popularity is a combination of factors, including the popularity of probiotics in products now,” says 18-year-old entrepreneur Aishah Avdiu, owner of Westport’s Bar ’Bucha, where the non-alcoholic kombucha rules the menu. “And I think it is another case of really good marketing of a product.”
No longer just an alternative beverage found only in health food stores, the effervescent tea has become the new “it” drink that fans insist is not only refreshing, but good — very good — for you. Retailers and restaurants have been quick to get in on the new craze.
“I had started drinking it a couple of years ago, but knew then it was going to become the new hip drink,” says Peter Lemnotis, who closed his Confetti Restaurant in Plainville recently, replacing it with two eateries, JV’s Taproom and Rebel Dog Coffee Co. “When I knew we were going to add the coffee house to our business, I knew we had to have kombucha.”
Long before it made its way to modern times, kombucha was considered a medicinal remedy believed to have been introduced in Manchuria around 220 B.C. The drink, also known as mushroom tea, was imported to Japan in 414 A.D. by a physician name Kombu. Produced by combining green or black tea with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), the liquid ferments as the SCOBY culture, which resembles a large mushroom, floats on top, oozing its rumored therapeutic bacteria and nutrients into the brew.
That ancient Asian drink once considered medicine fit for a king has been touted and criticized in more modern times. Fans, including a growing number who brew their own, extol its health and wellness benefits, especially for digestive maladies. Critics counter that the tea has no proven therapeutic values and can actually be dangerous if a non-pasteurized version is consumed.
Regardless of its true health properties, industry watchers report drinking the bubbly is hot right now, estimating a 15-20 percent increase in consumption in the next few years as companies and microbreweries including Middlebury, Vermont-based Aqua ViTea Kombucha; Oceanside, Long Island-based Coastal Craft Kombucha; as well as Oxnard, California-based KeVita, recently purchased by soft drink giant PepsiCo, jump on the mushroom tea wagon.
“I think there are health benefits to kombucha. I think this will be a long-term trend,” says Avdiu, who recently graduated from high school and is headed to Europe for college. “Food has become so over-processed,” she says, also planning to expand her Westport business to include a vegan eatery, as well. “You can see the trend featuring probiotics now.”
While virgin kombucha is considered the purest of the tea varieties, business owners know you need a little extra something to sell it to the masses and are coming up with new flavors and innovative ideas to make it even more trendy and marketable.
“We sell kombucha floats with flavored kombucha and non-dairy ice cream, you know, kind of like a root beer float,” Avdiu says. Also on the Bar ’Bucha menu are frozen fruit and kombucha popsicles, mocktails including the martini, with grape kombucha infused with juniper berries, and sangria, featuring pink lady apple and orange kombucha with pomegranate seeds and floral ice.
At Highland Park grocery store in Farmington, shoppers can pony up to a kombucha draft bar where three or four flavors are featured daily. Employees noted that while the store has offered bottled versions for many months, the fresh-from-the-tap, large-bottle offerings, including ginger, blood orange and hibiscus, have already proven a popular hit.
While the non-alcoholic version of kombucha is a big hit in the Rebel Dog Coffee Co. eatery in Plainville, Lemnotis has taken the non-alcoholic beverage and turned it into something suitable for the JV’s Taproom business, as well.
“You want to diversify its use, so we have come up with a couple of things so far but are still working on it,” says Lemnotis, who is experimenting with using kombucha for poaching in some of the taproom menu items. “We see it as a tea that is going to have a lot of possibilities.”
There is also experimentation in the drinks menu, aimed at the niche market that has made the elixir so “in.”
“We call it the Millennial mimosa,” he says, referring to a new bar menu drink featuring kombucha and Prosecco wine. “It’s tasty as well as good for you.”