TNT Diner

Here’s something new to sip. Kombucha, a tea-based fizzy drink, is on tap in Tacoma

In a region swimming in pale ales, vineyards and coffee roasts, why worry about kombucha? Surely we have enough beverages to go around.

But kombucha is a drink on the rise — National Kombucha Day was Wednesday — and it’s becoming more readily available in the Puget Sound region.

For the uninitiated, kombucha is a blend of black tea and sugar fermented with a previous batch and a Scoby, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Its sister beverage, jun, uses green tea and honey.

Though nascent in the western world, the effervescent probiotic drink likely originated along the Silk Road in China, where it’s known as hong cha jun, or “red tea bacteria.” Formal studies on its health benefits remain scarce, but kombucha junkies extol the virtues of its anti-inflammatory effects and its gut friendly cultures.

Think of it as tea seltzer with residual alcohol content (legally under 0.5% by volume), but with way more flavor than La Croix and far less sugar than Fanta.

Kombucha has long been stocked at health food stores, but mainstream grocers now carry a few brands and dozens of flavors. According to Chicago-based IRI, a market research firm dialed into consumer packaged goods, it has upended the market for once ubiquitous bottled iced teas.

At Marlene’s Market & Deli, an organics retailer with locations in Federal Way and near the Tacoma Mall, the selection of nearly 20 brands — including six Washington makers — and dozens of flavors consumes an entire cooler. The store also offers a draft system for a cup ($3.59 for a 16-ounce pour) or a growler ($3.19/lb) from Olympia’s Rainbow Cloud.

The kegerator allows shoppers to use their own containers and provides a different kombucha experience. Soft foam fills the glass as you pour, which settles after a few seconds.

Jennifer Johnson offers a similar system to her customers at Happy Belly, a cafe and juice bar in downtown Tacoma, but her staff does the pouring. She rotates through about a dozen flavors from Rainbow Cloud and Iggy’s, a producer on Bainbridge Island. Kegs make for easy sampling for the “kombucha-curious,” she says, plus it’s more cost-effective and cuts down on waste.

“It’s definitely worth it,” she says. “I like it more when it’s on tap because it seems more lively than out of the bottle,” though the taste and texture shouldn’t differ greatly from bottled versions.

‘Mindful drinking’

Bars are gradually catching onto the “mindful drinking” — as the industry calls it — trend, too. Peaks and Pints, a beer bar and bottle shop in the Proctor District with more than two dozen taps, has kept kombucha on draft since opening in 2016.

Owner Ron Swarner originally poured a Tacoma-made brand called Vimana Culture, which is no longer in production. After tasting 10 or so brands, he and his team decided that GT’s — one of the oldest and perhaps most prolific producers — most closely resembled Vimana’s. Right now, it’s Pink Lady Apple Basil, but sometimes it’s Gingerade or Trilogy, a blend of lemon, ginger and raspberry.

“People relied on us for their kombucha fix,” Swarner said. Perhaps so much so that the bar is tinkering with hard kombucha. Fermented for longer periods of time with more sugar (or honey), this alcoholic version runs in the same 5% to 6% ABV range as the it-drink of 2019: hard seltzer.

San Diego-based JuneShine believes “hard kombucha isn’t just having a moment, but (is) here to stay.” According to the company, its jun (that’s honey and green tea) packs less sugar than cider — up to seven grams compared to more than 20.

Tacomans can try their palate on JuneShine during a Jan. 30 tasting at Peaks and Pints, which Swarner hopes will “help us guage if hard kombucha is a thing” — just don’t call it “kombucha-style beer.”

Kombucha, he said, “isn’t close to beer,” but with wellness and sustainability “on the rise in every aspect of our lives, it’s only natural that they would eventually make their way to booze.”

Iggy’s co-owner and general manager Mikail Kiva doesn’t necessarily think hard kombucha is the way of our alcoholic future, but he does believe in the future of kombucha at bars.

“It’s come so far tangibly in this region and across the world in the last few years,” he said in a wide-ranging conversation about the 8-year-old Iggy’s, the consumer’s understanding of kombucha and the road ahead for a still-nascent industry.

While the trade group Kombucha Brewers International strives to build a standard of identity, the market continues to evolve from its hippie-and-granola roots to a drink people just enjoy. The vibrancy, culture and innovation of the Pacific Northwest gives our region a unique path to move the needle.

“Fermentation,” he said, “is mere metaphor for culture: taking something simple and creating more value through the process of this ancient technology. Really we’re just going for something that people like drinking, that’s better for you.”

Iggy’s makes four flavors of what it calls “honeybrew” as well as kvass, a concentrated fermented beverage from Eastern Europe. The kvass is deep purple from its local beet base, pressed in-house with carrots and fermented with salt and a lacto culture. Kiva recommends mixing four ounces with sparkling water and a citrus twist for a “very tangy, earthy, effervescent” experience.

Woah, woah: first kombucha, then jun, and now kvass? Don’t let the verbiage dissuade you from trying one of these drinks, says Kiva, whether from a bottle at the store or a tap at the bar.

“People should drink it because it tastes friggin’ good,” he said.

A couple of years ago, “kombucha” was foreign to many of us, but he already sees the category segmenting into “having actual connoisseurs” of people who started with a readily available kombucha, discovered jun, and then became regulars.

As happened in craft beer, in kombucha, Kiva said there is “the same human pattern of diversifying in tastes and looking for new things that are innovative, and there is a gigantic surge across the board of brands that are coming up to meet that need.”

Here in the South Puget Sound, you have your pick from all of the above, plus other regional producers including Peshastin’s Huney Jun and Lakewood’s KombuchaLuv. At the latter, with five flavors of fizzy, fruit-filled kombuchas like mango and lavender lemonade, strategy director Virginia Reston agreed the category has barely reached “the tip of the iceberg.”

Iggy’s, for one, will try its hand at a kombucha-only bar, slated to open this spring. The taproom will pour its products alongside creative mocktails, according to Kiva, who hopes that everyday bars learn to welcome kombucha as part of their culture, too.

Here’s a few spots to find kombucha:

Marlene’s Market & Deli, 2951 S. 38th Street, 253-472-4080

Stadium Thriftway, 618 N. 1st Street, 253-627-8275

Delightful Neighborhood Market, 4818 N. 45th Street, 253-327-1144

Happy Belly Restaurant & Juice Bar, 1122 Market Street, 253-365-6706

Peaks and Pints, 3816 N. 26th Street, 253-328-5621

Want to try making your own?

Talk to Darrell Anderson at The Beer Essentials in Lakewood, where you can find The Big Book of Kombucha (“the only book people will ever need” to DIY it), starter supplies (a glass jar, cheesecloth, etc.) and Scobys from another kind of local fermentation specialist, OLY Cultures. But, cautions Anderson, “It’s like having a pet: you have to care of it (the Scoby) because it’s a living thing.”

The Beer Essentials, 2624 112th St., 253-581-4288

Kristine Sherred joined The News Tribune in December 2019. She spent the past decade immersed in the culinary scene of Chicago and, for a time, covered the global chocolate and snacks industries. An avid home cook and beer/cocktail pro, she now explores all things edible and sippable throughout Pierce County. Reach her also at @kriscarasher on Twitter.