Andrew Clark was a homebrewing obsessive. If he wasn’t brewing beer, he was probably drinking beer. It’s a classic narrative that often turns a passion into a career. But for Clark, there was a hiccup: He became sensitive to gluten. Pints began to deliver pain, not pleasure.
“I started feeling really crappy,” says Clark. “I needed an alternative so I wouldn’t feel like shit.”
With sulfites ultimately the likely culprit, wine and hard ciders were also off the menu.
“They have to kill everything, or [it] will keep fermenting,” he says.
Clark, who’s fermented grapes, grains and fruits alike, found one hard beverage that left him happily buzzed: kombucha.
Clark is now brewmaster and co-founder of Boochcraft, which currently distributes throughout California. He boosts the acidic fermented tea’s alcohol content with brewing yeast, and flavors the fermentations with cold-pressed turmeric and tangerine juices, plus herbs like rosehips and anise.
America is in a beverage-wellness moment, as consumers seek drinks that deliver taste and a sense of well-being. Kombucha producers are looking to take advantage of that trend.
Instead of an alternative to alcohol, hard kombucha are now an alternative alcohol. It’s no wild leap. Alcohol is already a byproduct of kombucha production. Take tea, add sugar, toss in a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (a k a SCOBY) and fermentation works its microscopic magic. The liquid turns fizzy, tingly and lightly alcoholic.
Most mainstream kombucha contains less than .5% alcohol by volume (abv), which is the Food and Drug Administration’s dividing line for booze-free beverages. To raise kombucha’s alcohol level to new heights requires a few tricks.
Turning Up Kombucha
To create beer, brewers simmer a grain broth, then the yeast. Microbes convert available sugars into alcohol in a comfortable environment. The yeast used to create hard kombucha takes a more trying path.
Boochcraft products first undergo standard SCOBY fermentation before a special yeast and organic cane sugar are added.
“The conditions for that yeast to ferment in are much harsher,” says Clark. “There’s high acidity. There’s lots of competition.”
He tested a number of yeasts before Boochcraft settled on a proprietary strain that thrived in the severe conditions and delivered the target abv.
“We chose 7% [abv], which is kind of like a standard IPA,” he says. The fermentation takes around five weeks. “No one ever says that it’s too high or too low. It’s sort of like the sweet spot.”
Michigan’s Unity Vibration is right around that number with its hopped hard kombuchas. Brooklyn-based Kombrewcha registers at 3.2% abv with products flavored with berries and hibiscus, lemongrass and lime.
“For us, we’re standing on a few of the attributes that we thought were important,” says Cory Comstock, CEO of Full Sail. “It’s a reasonable level of alcohol, 100 calories and less than two carbs and two grams of sugar. That is something consumers can feel good about drinking. They’re not afraid to have more than one.”
Instead of tossing another double IPA out there, Comstock says, “we were really inspired to do something that’s innovative in craft. This was a space that didn’t seem like it had a lot of brewers going down that path. If you think about it, it’s fermentation. It’s what brewers do every single day.”
To prevent the sour bacteria used for kombucha from infecting its beers, Full Sail leased an adjoining building. Over the better part of a year, it perfected the process for what became KYLA, an acronym for kombucha, yeast and Lactobacillus and Acetobacter bacteria, which supply sourness and acidity.
Thanks to a top-secret technique, KYLA’s unpasteurized offerings is loaded with gut-friendly live cultures, yet remains shelf-stable, a unique position. Most kombucha are refrigerated because the beverage is active and warm temperatures can cause re-fermentation. That can throw flavors off kilter and create extra carbonation that could potentially cause bottles to explode.
To prevent issues, unpasteurized and preservative-free Boochcraft is shipped cold, and the temperatures are monitored carefully throughout every link of the distribution chain. Boochcraft also educates retailers.
“If we frame the product as a food as opposed to an alcohol, it clicks a lot easier for them,” says Clark. “This is living alcohol infused with nutrition.”
Nationwide, breweries are also experimenting with kombucha-beer hybrids. Wisconsin’s Funk Factory Geuzeria has blended its sour beer with lemongrass-ginger kombucha, while Sweden’s Brekeriet created a sour beer with kombucha cultures.
“There are such sophisticated and powerful flavors in the kombucha that we couldn’t pick one of our beers off a shelf and throw kombucha in it,” says Rogue president Brett Joyce. “When you’re intentionally blending things together that were designed to blend together, you get a more complete product.”
Rogue doesn’t make health claims about the beer. For one reason, the probiotics are removed prior to packaging. Moreover, the FDA regulates all alcohol assertions.
Boochcraft also shies from sweeping health claims. However, Clark can’t help but listen to feedback from fans that swear they’re less groggy-eyed after a night out.
“We can attribute that to the high incidence of B vitamins—that’s our guess,” says Clark. “Some of the beneficial acids in kombucha might help metabolize alcohol in the human body.”
Driven by demand, Boochcraft’s rapid expansion plans are centered on cans and barrel-aging experiments. Clark is exploring flavor profiles from sweet to savory to sour, and he uses ingredients like grapes and apples to draw in drinkers and spread his message.
“We want to use this product as a platform to talk about this being the healthiest version of drinking you can do,” he says.