Change Agents: A series of fermentation projects at Colita is making old cocktails taste fresh and new

Several ferments used in the cocktail program at Colita // Photo by Nina Perkins

Several ferments used in the cocktail program at Colita // Photo by Nina Perkins

We squeeze past the crush of people in the entryway and snag two seats at the end of the bar at Colita. This is how we usually eat there—take a drive on Penn Avenue, slow down at 54th Street, assess the regular chaos (is that a new crowd or the six o’clock crowd finishing up?) and weasel into the back for a nightcap and a tostada.

A few tables will free up as the crowd thins, but we’re happy to stay at the bar, beneath a towering wall of greenery, facing a glowing assortment of large glass vessels. They’re each full of a different rainbow-colored liquid—radiations of amber, yellow, and orange, in bulbous jugs surrounded by flowers. The whole scene looks mercurial and enticing, posed like a still-life painting but one that feels very much alive.

Dustin Nguyen sees us and offers a warm smile and two glasses of a liquid on that same spectrum of neon. He says it’s a housemade ferment. It has powerful aromatics and a flavor that evolves through the sip—sweet like honey, then zippy like lemonade, lively like kombucha, and woodsy like gin (but also like the actual woods.) Somehow it tastes both unique and familiar.

We ask Nguyen about the ferment and soon he’s leading us to a room behind the bar. He shows us what looks like a laboratory—rows of demijohns and carboys arrayed in frantic succession, each loaded with liquid, from murky to clear, bubbling to still, with thermometers, gauges, and notebooks strewn about.

This is where one of the Twin Cities’ most ambitious and exploratory bar programs is slowly—very slowly—creating cocktails with a vibrance you can’t get from products on the back bar. 

■ ■ ■

Here’s how the Five Suns cocktail reads on the drink menu at Colita:

London dry gin, linden flower balché (birch-honey ferment)

That’s two ingredients. It seems like a simple highball—a spiffy gin and tonic. Later, I’ll ask Colita’s bar team about that balché. Turns out, it’s not so simple. 

It involves a combination of silver birch from Minnesota and bark from a specific tree in Mexico with other botanicals, mixed with water and a couple different raw honeys from Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s left to ferment on its ambient bacteria (plus a dose of healthy microbes from the previous batch of balché) for somewhere around a month to six weeks. When the solution reaches the right pH and sweetness, fermentation is stopped and the solution is mixed with gin that’s been macerated with damiana, cat’s claw, and tilia linden leaf.

All this for a spiffy gin and tonic.

In the light of day, those same jars that looked mystical in the moonlight now look more gruesome. We notice things floating on the top of the liquid and sediment collecting on the bottom—the messy, sometimes unpredictable machinations of flavor development.

L to R: Dustin Nguyen, Marco Zappia, and Adam Witherspoon from the bar program at Colita // Photos by Nina Perkins

We’ve returned to Colita to talk more with Nguyen, along with Marco Zappia and Adam Witherspoon, about how this extensive foray into fermentation came into being. When they found out the menu at Colita would be influenced by Oaxaca, they examined the drinking traditions of Mesoamerica. What they found were ferments—a wealth of examples in which corn and other grains, fruits, flowers, saps, and barks were collected and left to bubble and change.

“We started seeing a cross pattern between Zapotec, Lacandon, Aztec, and Mayan cultures, with what all these producers were doing in Italy—alcohol was a means to preserve these botanicals that were for health,” Zappia explains. “We started looking at pulque and tejuino and thought, alright, let’s explore fermentation. That started snowballing into—what if every cocktail had a fermented product in it?’”

They set about standardizing a group of ferments. The formula starts with a detailed mix of botanicals, plus some kind of sugar, and water—not too terribly different from making kombucha. They’d expose the solution to the open air, hoping to entice the ambient bacteria inside, plus adding back in a portion of the previous ferment (full of microbes already accustomed to the unique environment.) 

“It’s the same thing with wine,” Zappia says. “How does grape juice turn into something so beautiful, this bouquet? It’s malolactic fermentation.”

The ferments at Colita are taking the restaurant’s cocktails in a novel and delicious direction // Photo by Nina Perkins

From this base of lacto-ferments, they remembered back to Martina, where the team had built a menu around macerations. To make a maceration, you steep botanicals in high-proof alcohol, and then soften the mixture with sugar and water until the flavors of your housemade liqueur are to your liking. 

“But instead of diluting our liqueurs with water, what if we diluted it with the ferment of said product?” Zappia says, comparing this strategy to how a chef layers slightly different versions of the same flavor on top of one another to achieve a fuller expression of that taste. 

And so each ferment at Colita is bolstered by a secondary wave of flavor from a macerated spirit. And together, they form the basis of a familiar classic cocktail.  

Even if you’ve had a drink at Colita, you might not know about this fermentation program. Despite listing the pH and Brix content of each cocktail on the menu, they don’t push the microbiology angle on you. On the contrary, if you search the Colita location tag on Instagram, you’ll be confronted with a flock of rubber ducks.

The Naked Dani is the name of the drink—a wine goblet cocktail full of tequila and crushed ice and topped with a giant puff of foam and a duck to complete the bubble bath scene. It’s a presentation tailor-made to the medium—whimsical and frivolous, seemingly existing for no reason but stupid fun.

But there’s not one but two complicated ferments somewhere beneath that flight of fancy—an orange liqueur and citrus kombucha. They stem from techniques and bacterial colonies that have been refined over many months. But if you didn’t know that, you’d just be drinking a fun and delicious margarita, and that’s a great thing in and of itself. 

It’s a true delight watching grown men joyously sip this drink. These drinks are as deep or shallow as you care for them to be.

The Pool Boy before (right) and after (left) spending an extended stint in a sous vide // Photo by Nina Perkins

We ask the team about the future of cocktails: are fermentation-derived flavors going to be where true innovation will take place? Zappia says no, but introducing house ferments to cocktails is giving bartenders another tool in their arsenal. Like adding a new shade of blue to the painter’s palette, it’s just one more way for bartenders to make something more personal. 

“Every bar program has a Rolodex of ratios and we go through these classic cocktails and play Mr. Potato Head by plugging certain ingredients into it,” he says. “There’s no new cocktails under the sun. You can’t reinvent the wheel.”

But you can refine the spokes. Since all their cocktails are built on a recognizable formula, they have the leeway to decide where a fermented product might fit in. Instead of Grand Marnier, it’s an orange ferment in the margarita. Instead of ginger beer in the mule, it’s a gingery ferment full of citrus. 

“Pool Boy is a fucking piña colada. Papa Noel is a Moscow mule,” Zappia runs through each provenance. “It’s not radically innovative, but the process to get there is radically innovative. Instead of highlighting spirits, producers, or heritage brands, we’re creating a venue that allows for originality, if we can showcase local terroir and regionalism, and preserve techniques.”

There’s a particular quality about the cocktails at Colita—they all taste rounded and complete. There are no stray notes. They’re holistic. The complex flavors are nurtured together over months in a carboy, instead of mere seconds beforehand in a shaker. “With these styles in the anaerobic environment and wild yeasts, it’s more like they melt together,” Zappia says, “and there’s this tang that happens—this cohesiveness, you know?”  

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.