Kombucha, the effervescent, fermented drink known for its gut-healing, microbial benefits, has been exploding onto the food trend landscape lately. While the national brands have been around for a while, and are easily found at your local grocers, attention is shifting to regional producers. Kombucha-lovers are turning toward unique, you-can-only-get-it-here varieties, in the same way one would search for unique craft brews or wines.
The same holds true for Centre County, with new small-batch producers catching onto the trend and popping up around the region, appearing at local eateries and farmers markets.
‘Mini adventure in a glass’
One of these new businesses is Mount NitaNee Kombucha. Joan Karp and her family have been at it for about a year, producing several varieties, such as Beet & Berry (one of the crowd favorites), ginger, concord, pomegranate/orange/carrot and Citrus Sunshine. Each comes in a 32-ounce or 16-ounce reusable and returnable glass vessel, while other blends are cultured especially for weekly growler delivery patrons and for the Friends and Farmers Cooperative online market.
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Mount NitaNee Kombucha has already spread far and wide, to venues ranging from Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe and The Barn at Lemont, to Big Springs Distillery and Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks. Beyond the normal spots, though, Mount NitaNee Kombucha also delivers.
“There’s something quite charming and almost Mayberry-esque about swapping out growlers and waving to neighbors,” Karp said. “We get to leave 64 ounces of liquid nirvana on peoples’ doorsteps every week. It’s a great job.”
She chalks the family’s success thus far up to quite a few blessings along the entrepreneurship journey.
“To date, we’ve been met only with curiosity and encouragement every step of the way,” she said. “We couldn’t ask for more wonderful patrons. And the establishments which have invited our beverage into their businesses have been beyond gracious.”
The most rewarding part of the business, Karp said, is introducing people to kombucha and answering questions about the beverage.
“Some have never heard of it. Some have heard of it and had pre-conceived ideas regarding the taste. And some have tried it before and figured all kombucha tasted the same,” she said. “It’s very cool to be the invitation to try (or try again) something new. Kombucha isn’t a singular experience. It will be as varied and unique as the people who culture it. We joke that it’s like a mini adventure in a glass.”
Karp and her family are looking to expand their line to include water kefir soda, which she describes as “a super, probiotic-rich beverage that tastes nothing like kombucha, which is available now at The Barn At Lemont.”
‘Solar powered kombucha’
While Karp is moving from the world of kombucha into water kefir, for another local producer, the process was reversed.
Becca Robertson, at Salúd Kombucha, began her beverage fermentation experiments with water kefir while living in Costa Rica for graduate school. When she returned to the United States and was unable to find the water kefir cultures needed to begin brewing, she found kombucha.
“I’ve been making both booch and water kefir on and off ever since (once I finally found some water kefir grains locally),” she said. “A few years ago, I sold some bottles of kombucha to some friends. Then I started making regular deliveries to friends’ homes. I continued to do that for a while, and then decided to get certified so we could sell it at farmers markets.”
With an ever-changing list of varieties, Salúd Kombucha sets itself apart by choosing not to bottle. Instead, Robertson and her husband keg their kombucha to serve on tap, both at farmers markets and local spots (or you can even book them to bring their kombucha “kegerator” to an event!).
They can be found with their kombucha tent and portable kegerator each Tuesday starting in May at the Boalsburg Farmers Market. Until recently, they also sold wholesale kegs year-round, but cut back in order to travel through the winter. They just delivered their final kegs to Webster’s Cafe (a green tea with pineapple-turmeric and a floral tea called “butterfly pea flower” with blueberry-ginger), where they helped install a kegerator.
“When (Webster’s Cafe) started selling Salúd Kombucha, it was the first draft kombucha available in State College,” Robertson said. “Now that we’re stepping back from wholesales, our friends at Mount NitaNee Kombucha will be taking over for us to keep the draft booch flowing at Webster’s.”
Since Salúd Kombucha doesn’t bottle its brew, the Robertsons have more flexibility to play with their flavor combinations and come up with new, exciting varieties.
“Although we were only monthly guest vendors at the Boalsburg Farmers Market last season, we began getting folks that would seek us out and ask ‘so, what do you have on tap today?’ I love explaining each flavor and tea combination and offering free sample pours,” Robertson said.
Salúd Kombucha is made with spring water and powered by the sun, in a way.
“Our home in Spring Mills, where our certified kitchen is located, is powered by an off-grid solar system,” Robertson said. “The spring water we brew with comes from a spring on our property that supplies our home tap water system. The water is UV-filtered and tested regularly ... both the water pump and the UV filter are run by our solar batteries, so we make ‘solar powered kombucha.’ ”
‘Settling into our niche’
If you’re looking to buy your kombucha by the six- or 12-pack, Moody Culture has you covered. John Schaffer and Lisa Harpster offer seven varieties (with best-sellers including blueberry-ginger and pomegranate-rosemary), plus their Hopped Up line, “which features (their) base kombucha intensely dry-hopped with some of (their) favorite hops. Depending on the variety, one may enjoy flavors of tropical fruit, mango, citrus, earthy pine, etc.” You can get the cases via private sale, or you can grab a serving at Rothrock Coffee Shop, Saint’s Cafe, Cafe Lemont or Nature’s Pantry. Moody Culture is also on tap at Home D Pizzeria and The Millworks in Harrisburg.
When discussing what sets Moody Culture apart from other kombucha makers, Schaffer turns to two key differentiators — taste and image.
“Moody Culture offers a unique blend of tea and fresh produce that maintains the authenticity of our unique tea blend while also bursting with flavor,” he said. “In addition, our image sets us apart. Each craft kombucha company has its own identity and so settling into our niche has been an exciting process and we’re very pleased with where we’ve settled in the local market.”
According to Schaffer, the Moody Culture identity most appeals to health-conscious coffee and beer enthusiasts, who want “to keep up with what’s current and also make the right decisions for their bodies.”
‘Fresh, local and seasonal’
Most recently creeping into the local market is Wild Water Kombucha, which is based out of Lewistown but is found in several Centre County venues, such as Sowers Harvest Cafe and Nature’s Pantry.
Founded by Jean and Loren Kauffman, Wild Water Kombucha currently offers three flavors — strawberry, grape and apple cinnamon.
“Since we are only using seasonal fruits, those were the varieties that we were able to snatch up and freeze (or) store when we were in the baby stages of getting started,” Jean Kauffman said. “Our goal is to have several ‘house’ flavors and then rotate flavors out according to the season. Keeping things fresh, local and seasonal is more important to me than having a wide variety of flavors.”
“I love that I can support local farmers and orchards with buying as much fruit as I can locally,” she added. “In return, I can offer a probiotic drink to others which, of course, supports our business. Shopping small and local is important to me and being part of that circle is something I enjoy tremendously!”
Beyond buying ingredients locally, the Kauffmans give back from their business in another way.
“We donate 30 cents for each empty jar that our customers return to locations that sell Wild Water Kombucha. We will be dividing it between three charities: Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, The Ronald McDonald House and the program from Christian Aid Ministries that (provides) small business loans to impoverished people to get their own self-sustaining businesses started. It’s a great incentive to recycle and help out some wonderful charities at the same time.”
These charities hold a special place in the Kauffmans’ lives, as they benefited from both the Ronald McDonald House and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in 2015, when their first daughter and child passed away shortly after being born.
“Being able to give back to them is my way of including our daughter, Shalom, into our family business and showing appreciation for their thoughtful work,” Joan Kauffman said.
As Wild Water Kombucha expands, the Kauffmans plan to add several new flavors in the coming season — lemon-ginger-pepper and grapefruit. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for information on upcoming tastings.
Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.