By Thu., Feb. 12, 2015
When hashing out Dandylion restaurant’s drink menu, chef Trevor Stockwell’s imagination beelined to kombucha.
The sweet, naturally carbonated, non-alcoholic drink made from strong brewed tea fermented with live cultures and usually granulated sugar is simple to make, easy to customize and totally in line with the new, Queen St. West eatery’s holistic approach to food.
Not only is this age-old fermented tea drink purportedly healthy and teeming with good bacteria, it comes alive with seasonal, fresh ingredients from mango to yuzu. And it tastes, more or less, like a cross between wine and mildly sweet, slightly fizzy, fruit juice.
It’s an ideal drink for those who don’t drink alcohol.
“It’s awesome,” says Dandylion owner Jay Carter, “Like an adult Kool-Aid.”
And like that popular drink, kombucha has hit the big time.
Sold widely at chain grocery and corner stores, it’s a go-to beverage for health buffs and flavour-seekers alike. Local bottlers, such as Tonica Kombucha and Vams, have been steadily ramping up production.
Late last year, Pekoe Kombucha Bar, the city’s first dedicated kombucha watering hole, opened on Dundas St. W. in the Yoga Tree. Restaurants such as Fonda Lola on Queen St. W. and Parts & Labour in Parkdale are using kombucha as a base for cocktails.
There’s even a rumour — though, flatly denied — that Tim Hortons has been “investigating” the brew.
“It’s definitely hit the mainstream,” says Zoey Shamai, owner of Tonica, Toronto’s first local bottler.
The fermenting process preserves the tea, experts say, so it doesn’t need to be pasteurized, enabling all the good, healthy bacteria to thrive.
Once it’s fermented, which can take seven to 10 days (any longer and the sugars will turn to alcohol and eventually vinegar), the base mixture can accommodate any flavour, from pine needles to coffee.
Some manufacturers add fruit juice, purees or more sugar, possibly putting their drinks in a different beverage category — but that’s another story.
A hard sell at first, some say, because of true kombucha’s mildly acidic, slightly lactic, aftertaste. The concoction was used for centuries in far-flung countries — reportedly China, Japan and beyond. It was popular with home-brewing hippies in North America in the 1970s.
Today, the trend is a liquid manifestation of the current fermented foods craze, which includes an obsession with kimchi and sauerkraut. Along with a host of drinks, including Kvass, fermented beet juice and Kefir water, a cross between apple juice and non-alcoholic champagne.
Fans believe it rids the body of toxins, cures hangovers and aids digestion.
Michael Doehle, along with wife Vanessa Montemurro, founded 4-year-old Vams, in part, because he was blown away with how a few weeks of kombucha consumption healed his gut, strengthened his hair and fortified his nails.
“It’s really changed our lives,” he says. “It’s something anyone can put into their diet.”
At 30 calories per cup of pure kombucha, where no fruit juice or puree is added, it is a better choice than chugging soda pop, which can contain more than 90 calories per cup, says registered dietitian Shauna Lindzon.
As far as the other health claims, she says the scientific jury is still out. And unless the makers list the precise bacteria in the brew, it’s unclear, Lindzon says, whether it’s beneficial at all.
What’s more, she says, kombucha can be dangerous if it’s not made in an appropriate, sterile environment.
That’s apropos right now, because kombucha is not only exploding in the retail sector, but also at home.
More and more, people are brewing their own, says Joel MacCharles, co-founder of popular blog WellPreserved.ca.
Not only is DIYing kombucha more cost-effective — commercial bottles can retail for as much as $6 — it’s fun, easy to do and a great outlet for foodies searching for a “hobby of the hands.”
Alex Currie, co-owner of Pyramid Farm and Ferments, says so many people are making their own kombucha these days he can barely keep the symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) in stock.
SCOBY — also called the “mother” — is a large, gelatinous disk that looks like a floppy mushroom cap and contains the live cultures necessary to ferment tea into kombucha.
Currie, and other home brewers, used to snip off pieces and give them away, but not anymore. These days, SCOBYs are bought, traded and sold on Kijiji. Some can cost as much as $40.
“It’s actually a part of our business now,” he says.
Dayna Moritz got her first SCOBY from a friend in Sault Ste. Marie who mailed it to her last year.
Now, her kitchen in Little Italy looks like a “science experiment,” she says, with pots of brewing tea hooch covering an entire shelf and jars of SCOBYs in the fridge. Friends, she says, ask questions about the operation; it can all get a little funky.
“It can be a little off-putting,” she says. “It can smell like vinegar.”
That smell — especially among home brews — is what gave kombucha a bad rap at first.
Frank Solarik, co-owner of Barchef and Furlough, both on Queen St. W., likes to put inventive flavours on his menu, such as perfume-scented cocktails. He’s experimenting with kombucha, deciding whether it’s fit for his restaurants.
But he’s not interested in it because it’s trendy. He’s trying out to see if it’s tasty, he says, “but it’s very early in the research stages for me.”
For Dandylion’s Stockwell and Carter, it’s well beyond that point.
Each day before he set the tables for the dinner service, Stockwell customizes the daily kombucha.
Today, he’s in the mood for hibiscus and picks up a small bowl of the dry, pink-tinged leaves. But the day’s flavour is really “a spur of the moment decision,” he says, based on what’s fresh, in season or leftover in the kitchen.
At Dandylion, a rustic, inventive restaurant, that could mean almost anything: blood orange, pear, grapefruit.
Stockwell, who started making kombucha six years ago, fetches the large stock pot he uses to brew Dandylion’s special tea every week and sets it down on the silver counter separating the open kitchen from the rustic, dining room.
Wearing gloves, he removes the pale-coloured SCOBY and suddenly, the air smells faintly like red wine vinegar.
Stockwell pours a small amount of the deep brown, fermented tea into a pitcher. In goes the hibiscus and, within minutes, as the leaves rehydrate, the liquid transforms to a brilliant fuchsia.
“Let’s taste,” Carter says, and pours the fresh hibiscus-flavoured kombucha into a wine glass ($5). He swishes his around and watches as it sticks, like wine, to the sides.
Somehow, it’s odourless in the glass. On the tongue, it’s crisp, clean, mild and slightly bubbly with an interesting, complex finish that makes it a bit intoxicating.
Carter takes a sip. “This is the flavour we’re after.”View the article