Kombucha, the fermented tea drink, could be headed for the mainstream. It's benefited from increased interest in fermented foods across the board. Sourdough, yogurt, wine and beer are fermented products familiar to everyone, but fermenting as an alternative preservation method to canning is also on the rise.
However, the slight alcohol content from kombucha's fermentation has recently run afoul of a Prohibition-era law requiring that anything with more than .5% alcohol be labeled as, well, alcohol, and taxed as alcohol.
This has prompted kombucha makers to tinker with their recipes to make sure alcohol content is below .5%, which advocates say isn't necessary.
"You'd have to drink two gallons of kombucha to absorb as much alcohol as is found in one Pabst Blue Ribbon," says Alla Shapiro of NessAlla Kombucha, Madison's own commercial kombucha operation.
If she and business partner Vanessa Tortolano hadn't changed their recipe, they would have had to register their operation as a brewery. The rules have to change, they insist. "This is not beer. Kombucha should be a separate category," says Tortolano.
Shapiro and Tortolano met seven years ago and discovered a shared interest in herbs and healthy eating. They began brewing kombucha together, then teaching classes on kombucha homebrewing at the Willy St. Co-op. "People went crazy for it," says Shapiro. Classes sold out.
The pair started selling kombucha at the east-side Farmers' Market in 2008. This past October they formalized their operation, moving into the old Anderson-Thomas building on Winnebago Street. The large room looks like a wicked urban party space, mostly empty save for a few stainless-steel tables and sinks, energy-efficient induction burners and lots of glass jugs. They make, by hand, 100-500 gallons of kombucha a week, depending on the season.
The process starts with reverse-osmosis-filtered water - to remove impurities from tap water and additives like chlorine that would give the brew an off taste - and organic fair trade teas from Rishi, in Milwaukee. "It's important to use the best quality of tea," says Shapiro. "It really affects the flavor."
The cultures (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY) used to ferment the tea and organic sugar are large, gelatinous, amoebalike blobs that can also be used, lotion-like, to soften the skin.
Different kombucha brews can taste as different from each other as ginger ale does from applejack. NessAlla makes four flavors - a basic oolong, passion fruit, lemongrass-ginger and blueberry - along with a changing seasonal special flavor.
NessAlla's primary competitor is GT's Kombucha of Beverly Hills, a nationally distributed drink with 20-plus flavors. GT's brews are sweeter and taste a little more like pop, whereas the tea base comes through more clearly with the NessAlla brews. There's also a slightly vinegary tang to NessAlla kombucha, lending it a more complex flavor.
"We are local and fresh," Tortolano notes; NessAlla "doesn't sit around." The two stress that NessAlla's flavors come from the base teas, and sometimes herbs. They don't add fruit juices, as GT's does to some of its drinks.
Many kombucha drinkers tout its health benefits, from boosting the immune system to halting hair loss and benefiting digestion, but these claims always appear alongside the caveat "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration."
Others enjoy the fizzy effervescence of a drink that doesn't contain a lot of sugar yet has more personality than carbonated water.
Kombucha makes a great cocktail mixer, Shapiro and Tortolano suggest. There's no high-fructose corn syrup as with some mixers, less sugar than in others. It's a less sweet alternative to soda, and an alternative to beer, as well.
The alcohol level in the kombucha, usually between .3 and .5%, begins to drop after 16 days, says Shapiro.
Even so, they have adjusted their recipe, cutting down on sugar to reduce the alcohol. They've also had the product tested at the UW to make sure they are in compliance with current laws. "Eventually, we don't want to have to do that," says Shapiro. "We want the original."
NessAlla (nessalla.com) is available at a handful of local eateries as well as the Jenifer Street and Regent Street Markets, the Willy Street Co-op and Woodman's.