by Claire Cella • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
In a casual phone conversation with an old friend from upstate New York, I mentioned I was writing an article about kombucha brewers in Austin. After a noticeable pause, my friend asked, “What’s kombucha?”
I was astounded. Within Austin’s city limits, it seems nearly impossible to walk into any convenience store, grocery or even restaurant without seeing some presence of this fermented beverage, and I was incredulous that kombucha’s fame wasn’t yet nationwide. But with this realization came another: Not only do Austinites have access to, and a general familiarity with—if not an acute affection for—kombucha, we’re also home turf to four very distinct and very committed brewers.
For those unfamiliar, brewing kombucha is rather easy, with the caveat that the process can also be painfully particular and often capricious. It all starts with a sweetened tea base that’s allowed to ferment along with the help of mature kombucha and a kombucha “mother”—also called a mushroom or SCOBY (short for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”)—which forms a gelatinous, almost jellyfish-like, layer at the top of the brewing vessel when left to sit at room temperature for five to 30 days. When this natural community of cultures is introduced to the tea, the yeast begins to eat away at the sugar—resulting in an almost magical transformation as the base emerges slightly (or very) sour and the liquid turns fizzy. Although admittedly alien in appearance, the cultures of live bacteria introduced to, and grown within, the fermenting tea have been linked to myriad health benefits in recent years—mainly from the resulting concentration of probiotics in every batch.
But before kombucha was touted as a healthful drink, and before it was readily available in bottles, among shelves and on tap, people were introduced to the tea through the homebrews of friends and family, at office parties, social gatherings and farmers markets. For years, the kombucha community grew in this small, almost-secret way—circulating and sharing unlabeled mason jars through a close-knit group of devoted drinkers. In fact, that’s how almost all of Austin’s local brewers began: Their ventures were born out of an instant and impassioned connection to their first scintillating sip and then the subsequent desire to share the charms of this concoction.
Trevor Ross, Live Soda
Trevor Ross can relate. As the founder and owner of LIVE Soda, he’s been brewing kombucha commercially since 2009—an effort propelled largely by a goal to get his father, a proud Coca-Cola devotee, to drink kombucha instead. A year earlier, Ross’ family had been devastated by the early death of his sister, Courtney, and following this loss, Ross devoted himself to the cause of helping his family and others live healthier lives through diet. The result is a distinctive line of brews, crafted and cultured to mimic the tastes of the sodas many of us grew up with—Coca-Cola, root beer, ginger ale, Dr. Pepper, lemon-lime and orange. Because the taste is more familiar, and often more palatable than the vinegary tartness of plain kombucha, Ross thinks his product helps bring people into the kombucha market. It certainly worked for his father, who is now a regular customer. “We’ve found that people usually start drinking our [kombucha] first,” Ross says. “And then they start to experiment and get more adventurous with flavors and brands. We like to think that LIVE Soda does the work of introducing people to the idea of kombucha.”
Kimberly Lanski And John-Paxton Gremillion, Buddha’s Brew
And once they’re hooked, Austin fans can turn to brands such as Buddha’s Brew. As the first commercial brewer in Austin, Buddha’s Brew co-owners Kimberly Lanski and John-Paxton Gremillion started officially bottling their teas in January 2008. A year before that, Lanski had been introduced to kombucha when a friend happened to pour her a glass. She loved it and immediately started to brew her own. When a local vendor at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market decided to give up his spot, Lanski jumped at the chance. At that time, Buddha’s Brew had two main flavors: blueberry and ginger. Now, they have 12, in addition to brewery-specific specials and rotating seasonal flavors. This past summer, they used basil grown in their brewery’s garden to make a strawberry-basil blend.
While LIVE Soda is focused on the power of persuasion and personal passion, Buddha’s Brew aims to attract drinkers based on the potency of their probiotics. Since Lanski and Gremillion don’t dilute or filter their recipes, they claim their brews are richer and more full-bodied, with a purported 19 billion strains of probiotics in every bottle. “Everything we do is to keep the probiotics alive,” Lanski says. “Instead of being afraid of the fermentation process and the potential for traces of alcohol, we embraced it and nurtured it.”
Just like the symbiotic relationship among bacteria, culture and yeast in every bottle, the Austin community has equally supported Buddha’s Brew over the years. Although now bottling for more than 300 stores across the Central Texas region, Lanski has stayed committed to the farmers markets where she got her start. Buddha’s Brew is available at eight farmers markets in Austin, New Braunfels and San Antonio, and Lanski claims her interactions at the markets are a constant inspiration to keep flavors delicious and probiotics paramount in the production. And although they are always looking for ways to expand, both Lanski and Gremillion hope that kombucha brewing doesn’t become industrialized. “It’s a craft,” Gremillion explains. “And I think that is a huge part of the attraction—it’s a really romantic idea. I hope it remains true to this form.”
Omar and Mina Rios, Kosmic Kombucha
The almost spiritual connection to craft and consumption inherent in kombucha is what first captured Omar and Mina Rios, co-owners of Kosmic Kombucha. Inspired by a friend’s brew they tried at their yoga studio, the Rioses began to brew their own flavors at home to share among yogis and friends. When they launched Kosmic Kombucha in 2010, Omar and Mina devoted themselves to the idea of creating a drink that was “more than just taste.” They wanted their customers to feel like they were part of an experience, similar to how it felt for them—one that involves vibrant colors, intriguing smells and the comfort of a rounded bottle in hand. “You can’t quantify the feeling of well-being,” Omar explains. “But when I drink kombucha, and when others drink it, they tell me that they experience an uplifted feeling, a replenishing energy and buzz.”
In an effort to cultivate these enlivening qualities, the Rioses knew they would have to make a drink that was complex and layered in flavor but light enough to resist the heavy, sour weight of vinegar, which is common to the beverage’s taste profile. They now have a line of 15 flavors they feel accomplish just that. When trying a swig of Black Magic, for instance, it’s hard not to feel spiritually influenced by the flavors of berries, ginger, spirulina and agave that come together in a swirl of sweet satisfaction on the tongue.
Kosmic Kombucha achieves this effect through their own brewing process—starting with one base tea and adding the fruitful purees after fermentation. This helps them maintain a consistency with every sip and an effervescent effect, both of which their ever-expanding clientele enjoy. In the past two years, Kosmic Kombucha went from being available in five locations to more than 70, and the rapid expansion has the Rioses looking into a bigger facility in 2015 to accommodate the increasing orders. But they take comfort in the fact that, at the end of the day—a very long day now—they, and others, can come home to what they like to drink.
Bill Nadalini, Wunder-Pilz
Of course, as with all consumable beverages, what one likes to drink is not always what others enjoy. Personal palates are extremely important, and kombucha producer Wunder-Pilz is a testament to the diversity of flavors one can find in fermentation. Founder Bill Nadalini is known for trying to stay as true to raw-form tea as possible. He does this by adding only herbs and botanicals to his brews during the fermentation process. And while this means the resulting batches can be unpredictable at times (and he admits to having thrown out entire batches), Nadalini is stubbornly committed to brewing this way. He and his three team members believe that the beneficial qualities of the herbs they use—mugwort, Yaupon holly and dandelion root, among others—are compounded and exponentially heightened when allowed to ferment with the tea.
With every batch, Nadalini is focused on quality and, if not matching the previous brew, improving on it. And the almost erratic and mysterious personality of every batch is part of what Nadalini and others love about the final Wunder-Pilz product. Although arguably more intense and drier than other brands, Nadalini explains that kombucha is similar to beer and wine in this regard. “Just like there’s a brown ale and an IPA, or a pinot grigio and a merlot, there’s differences in class of kombucha, too,” he says. “It depends on your palate. I personally appreciate the drier drinks, and you know—you can’t please everyone—so I make what I’m interested in and also try to give people a different option than what’s on the market.”
Although Wunder-Pilz has enjoyed success in Austin, Nadalini likens his business to a turtle in terms of growth. “We’re a small company and we’re slow,” he says with a laugh. Currently, Wunder-Pilz produces four flavors—strength, calm, energy and heart—and these are only available in growlers and kegs on tap at a handful of locations. In addition to brewing tea, Nadalini is also working on a new recipe for a tea-soda blend that has many of the qualities of, but isn’t actually, kombucha. He’s also collaborated with a host of other local crafters, artisans and talents to build the Wunder-Pilz Tea Gallery on South Congress. The building serves as a place to enjoy art, listen to music, peruse handmade and curated goods and, of course, drink tea.
Despite similar origins and a small, shared city space, all four of our kombucha producers express deep feelings of support and camaraderie toward each other as opposed to competition, because they admit they all have the same goal in mind: to get more and more people to drink kombucha and to honestly like it, health benefits or not, taste and all.