A new sour ale lurks on the periphery of craft beer, and if you love lambics, it might just be your next favorite style.
by Christopher Staten
Walk down bustling Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, past a boxing gym, a clothing store and a Croatian travel agency, and you’d never suspect the block contains one of the most fascinating fermenting rooms in all of New York City. Just below street level, Spiro Theofilatos tends to open-air fermenting vessels lining the walls of his subterranean brewery. The mixture of glass carboys, oak barrels and stainless steel equipment looks like the workshop of a mad scientist who’s taken a sudden interest in Belgian lambics.
The bubbling concoctions are actually a new kind of sour ale, one that blends two ancient traditions and is creeping into New York’s craft beer scene. At Beyond Kombucha, Theofilatos crafts kombucha ale, a kombucha-beer hybrid. And the NYC culinary scene’s taken notice: Mava Roka, his maple-vanilla rooibos kombucha ale, has a regular tap at Brooklyn’s Bierkraft and Manhattan’s Colicchio & Sons.
But, let’s back up a moment: What the hell is kombucha?
The odd-sounding drink has skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade, mainly with the downward-dog warriors wandering the aisles of Whole Foods. The traditional Chinese fermented tea’s believed to be chock-full of health-promoting acids and probiotics.
Bottles were flying off the shelves until the summer of 2010, when the Food and Drug Administration and the Treasury Department investigated the alcohol content of the non-alcoholic drink—oddly enough, partially initiated by the suspicion that kombucha tea set off Lindsay Lohan’s alcohol-monitoring bracelet. Not all kombucha rang in under 0.5% ABV; most hovered around 1.5%. The Feds forced kombucha tea makers to either reformulate their recipes or apply for brewery licenses, so most producers shuttered or went back to the drawing board. Which brings us back to Astoria.
A mere two days after Theofilatos launched Beyond Kombucha, the new federal regulations were announced. But the DJ-turned- brewer powered through, and after a 6-month wait, Beyond Kombucha became the first federally licensed kombucha brewery on the East Coast.
Theofilatos debuted his traditional-strength kombucha tea at a local gastropub the very next day. “I wanted to keep the original formula and bottle-condition [the tea] with the residual alcohol,” he remembers. “But I needed to emotionally deal with the fact that I’m paying the alcohol tax.” Theofilatos’ first foray into higher-ABV kombucha was a batch of tea (fermented with a traditional pancake-looking symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria, or SCOBY, which includes familiar beer critters like Brettanomyces, lactobacillus and Saccharomyces), to which he added maple syrup and more yeast. The end result—the prototype of Mava Roka—reached around 6% ABV and balanced the sweetness of mead with the tea’s acidity. He’s gone on to brew kombucha ales like a smoky, sour rauchbier; a sweet-and-sour cream ale brewed with lactose sugar and a funky yerba mate IPA.
“We’re creating something brand-new that’s riding both waves: Kombucha is big and so is craft beer. It only makes sense to me,” Theofilatos says.
Beyond Kombucha isn’t the only company bridging health drinks and craft beer. Arguably the first kombucha tea company to launch kombucha beer was Michigan-based Unity Vibration, where husband-and-wife team Rachel and Tarek Kanaan drew from their love of Belgian lambics to create the 8%-ABV Triple Goddess Raspberry and Triple Goddess Ginger in late 2010.
“I compare them to lambic because people can relate; it has a similar flavor and fruit,” explains Rachel. “Then I tell them about the process, and most are surprised it’s tea-based.”
Outside of the tea—and the fact that Unity Vibration’s beers are non-boiled, unpasteurized drinks—the the Kanaans’ process is familiarly Belgian: barrel-aging in oak casks; aged hops; local fruit; and bottle conditioning.
Michigan neighbor Tim Faith, a brewer and woodmaster at New Holland Brewing, has made kombucha tea for years. But after he tasted Unity Vibration, brewing kombucha beer became his new pet project. Now, Faith brews 100-gallon batches for New Holland’s pub in flavors like blueberry, ginger, lemon and chamomile. He even has a few batches aging in barrels, and hopes to bottle the results.
Back in Queens, Theofilatos foresees kombucha as the next big hit in craft beer.
“I hope kombucha will achieve the same level of acceptance and notoriety of lambics,” he says. “In five years, I imagine this is something most people will know.”
THREE TO TRY:
Beyond Kombucha Mava Roka: earthy tea, hay, sour lemon
Vanberg & DeWulf Lambrucha: barnyard, lemon, cardamom
Unity Vibration Bourbon Peach American Wile Ale: tart, sweet peach, bubbly