The funky, fermented flavors of Minnesota kombucha

Minnesota is home to five kombucha makers

Minnesota is home to five kombucha makers

Minnesota is home to five commercial kombucha producers, up from one in 2010. And as the scene grows, so do the number of places eager to serve it. Locating a bottle of ‘booch is often as easy as ducking into a nearby grocery store or brewery—and if you work for Best Buy or Medtronic, you’ll find it on tap at corporate headquarters.

Even so, kombucha consumers face an undefined landscape of flavor and style. Funky, sour, fizzing, sweet—brewers can freely experiment, beholden only to alcohol regulations and creeping competition for shelf and tap territory. Local brewers agree that standardizing flavor styles lies at the crux of kombucha’s next chapter, along with scaling business—two goals that are closely linked to consumer education.

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Kombucha has no IPA or stout equivalent, leaving producers untethered from norms, but also without a guide to help consumers learn what flavors they prefer. Nate Uri of Prohibition Kombucha, Minnesota’s second-oldest producer, says he’s excited to work with the organization Kombucha Brewers International, and other brewers, to create a flavor wheel that categorizes the currently roving spectrum of options. This type categorization will also help consumers distinguish between kombucha producers by connecting the brands with the distinct types they produce.

At the same time, producers face stringent regulations when it comes to alcohol content. To avoid being categorized as an alcoholic beverage, kombucha’s ABV must fall below 0.5 percent. This burdens brewers with production challenges; measuring alcohol content is a complex process, especially since the percentage changes as kombucha ferments. Legislation that would raise the minimum allowable level of ABV for kombucha to 1.25 percent was introduced to Congress in February: the bill’s bipartisan supporters argue that current regulations unnecessarily complicate the process (and increase the cost) for small businesses.

Even as the kombucha scene expands and brewers tackle challenges of regulation and definition, there’s one venture we shouldn’t expect any time soon: a nothing-but-booch tasting room. There’s a general consensus that kombucha’s popularity is not yet widespread enough to sustain a venue dedicated solely to the beverage. More likely is an independently owned bar that pours only kombucha but sources from multiple producers. One such bar, The Kombucha Room, opened in Chicago this spring.

Even without recognized standards, local producers are finding ways to carve out their names and niches. Here’s a look at what some of our brewers are up to.

Lake State Kombucha

Photo Courtesy of Lake State Kombucha

Photo Courtesy of Lake State Kombucha

Lake State Kombucha operates in a 800-square-foot room in Minnetonka that smells like peaches and cream—at least when they’re brewing their Orange Mango kombucha, one of four core flavors that also include ginger, and blueberry hibiscus. Drake Ellingboe runs Lake State with his parents and wife, brewing the same recipe he and his mother honed in their family home kitchen. They bottle uncarbonated kombucha, an anomaly among local producers. This eliminates an entire step of the brewing process, making the company more nimble—but that’s not what inspired the style choice. Unlike some producers whose marketing efforts work to distance the drink from its roots as a natural health drink, Ellingboe’s vision for the beverage embraces it. He wants to see athletes and fitness junkies reaching for kombucha instead of energy and sports drinks.

“We understand it’s hard to be healthy. There’s that tension of everyone wanting to be healthy,” Ellingboe said. “That’s where we come in: kombucha makes it fun and makes it easy.”

In addition to stocking Hy-Vee and Lunds & Byerlys, Lake State hosts pop-ups and samplings at local gyms, where they can meet and talk directly to their target audience. They also plan to sponsor several athletes, including competition weightlifter Sarah Keener, world-class Spartan Racer Kirk DeWindt, and the Team Rhyme curling team. From Ellingboe’s standpoint, the drink reflects and embodies this active lifestyle.

“It’s a living thing,” Ellingboe said. “That’s what’s so cool about it.”

Quick Stats

Year Founded: 2014
Production Facility: Minnetonka
Number of Employees: 4
Signature Flavors: Ginger, Blueberry Hibiscus, Orange Mango, and Original
More info: lakestatekombucha.com

Prohibition Kombucha

Photo courtesy of Prohibition Kombucha

Photo courtesy of Prohibition Kombucha

Prohibition Kombucha owner Nate Uri tackles the lingering unfamiliarity toward kombucha by focusing on approachability and accessibility. He bottles and kegs effervescent, dancing flavors like guava and rosemary-citrus, wrapping them in whimsical labels such as Pink Robot and White Elephant.  Early in Prohibition’s development, Uri made a major push to get on tap at co-ops and breweries, eyeing the craft beer drinker demographic (it’s working—the company’s current challenge is keeping up with demand). He’s keen to promote kombucha’s potential as an alternative to beer that matches its complexity and carbonation (Uri recommends drinking it in stemware).

“[It’s] the same experience as alcohol in terms of a cultural experience, but it’s not intoxicating,” Uri said. “It’s still complex and adult and interesting. I’m super excited that there’s a real viable, non-alcoholic beverage that can bring a large community together.”

Prohibition’s other mission is promoting an awareness between the bubbly brew and its essence: tea. Uri’s business partner, David Duckler, sources organic, handpicked tea directly from tea farms (a more common practice is to use a wholesaler) and regularly travels to China to meet with farmers. Tea drinking is a fading practice in China, he says, as coffee’s popularity grows. Prohibition’s investment in tea farms supports families who otherwise might splinter as younger generations seek city jobs.

“What they see in us is a way to preserve their craft and their land and their way of life, because the domestic market is collapsing,” Uri said. “That’s what I’m most excited about: continuing to ensure positive results for all future generations.”

Quick Stats

Year Founded: 2013
Production Facility: Minneapolis
Number of Employees: 6
Signature Flavors: Guava, Lychee, Rosemary, Lemon and Orange Blossom
More info: prohibitionkombucha.com

Bootlegger Brewing

Photo courtesy of Bootlegger Brewing

Photo courtesy of Bootlegger Brewing

Bootlegger Brewing was founded by Jake Haneman, a former engineer and longtime hobby brewer, and John Skinner, who still works full time as a radiologist at Mayo Clinic, but played Haneman’s devil-on-the-shoulder, convincing him the pair could make brewing a full-time business. Barely a year old, the company is still small (they staff just one other full-time employee and have fully funded the project themselves), but they already have major partnerships to distribute at Medtronic and Best Buy’s corporate locations.

Another recent coup: gaining taps at the Vikings’ Winter Park practice facilities. This is particularly appropriate because Bootlegger champions its Midwest identity. They brew with local ingredients and products, from boxes to bottles, whenever possible.

“All our flavors and labeling are clearly Minnesotan,” Haneman said. Current flavors include Sturdy Girl Apple Cinnamon, Lookout Lemon Berry, Whopper Watermelon, and Hearty Woodsman Ginger.

Haneman’s comfort with the biology of the brewing process has pushed him to play with and fine-tune the balance of acidity in Bootlegger’s brew. Their kombucha ferments for at least 30 days—most producers follow a seven to 10-day fermentation period—to let additional acids form. According to Haneman, these round out the flavor. It’s this opportunity to experiment and adapt that excites Bootlegger: with undefined standards comes open possibility.

“People let their brew do what they think it needs to do,” Haneman said. “There’s an unintentional variation […] Similar to the beer styles we have today, I think we’ll see kombucha develop different styles in the coming years.”

Quick Stats

Year Founded: 2016
Production Facility: Apple Valley
Number of Employees: 3
Signature Flavors: Lemon Berry, Ginger, Apple Cinnamon, Watermelon
More info: bootlegger-brewing.us

Feral Beverage Co.

Photo courtesy of Feral Beverage Co.

Photo courtesy of Feral Beverage Co.

Feral Beverage Co. was founded by homebrewer Ken Bergee and Lucian Webb, who met while working at Ecolab. The company proved to be a spectacular marketplace for developing the business: the pair consulted with chefs and staff they worked alongside, sharing samples and tweaking recipes with feedback from their taste-testers—which even included Ecolab clients. After three years of fine-tuning, they left to produce kombucha full time.

Bergee and Webb both brew with an eye toward the health of the community and the earth.

“We are environmentally-minded in all we do,” Bergee said. This approach includes using Earth-friendly sanitizers, energy efficient equipment, and organic ingredients. The mission is reflected in their distribution as well: you’ll find Feral on tap at farm-to-table restaurants including Birchwood Cafe and Wise Acre Eatery.

Feral carries out its commitment to community by using local ingredients (Ames Farm supplied the honey for one of their top-selling flavors), hosting pop-ups, and even crowdsourcing suggestions to help guide their kombucha lineup.

“We developed many of our flavors in loose collaboration with the culinary talent here in the Twin Cities and from some of our current customers and friends,” Webb said. 

Quick Stats

Year Founded: 2015
Production Facility: Minneapolis
Signature Flavors: Raw Clover Honey
More info: feralbeverageco.com

Deane’s Kombucha

Photo courtesy of Deane's Kombucha

Photo courtesy of Deane’s Kombucha

Deane’s Kombucha claims the title of oldest kombucha producer in Minnesota (they’ve been around since 2010), and founder Bryan Deane Bertsch’s experience confirms that customer familiarity with kombucha has grown significantly since he first began distributing.

“For the first few farmers market seasons we were explaining to everyone what kombucha is,” Bertsch said. “Today most people are in the know, and instead we explain what differentiates ours.”

Deane’s is unique among Midwest brands in that they use small-batch, oak barrels to ferment their kombucha, producing upwards of 20 friendly flavors, like blueberry-lemon-lavender and cherry basil, that rotate with the seasons. Education remains a core focus for the company: they offer how-to-brew classes, where participants spend 75 minutes learning about the fermentation and flavoring processes, sample several different flavors of kombucha and leave home with a starter culture in tow. And if there’s one indication that the state is getting serious about the beverage, it might be Deane’s successful launch of another program—home-delivered kombucha kegs.

Quick Stats

Year Founded: 2010
Production Facility: Minneapolis
Signature Flavors: Ginger Cherry, Wild Blueberry Lemon Lavender, Pear Sage, Ginger Honey Turmeric
More info: deaneskombucha.com

 
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