To get a sense of how popular kombucha is, you need to go no further than your local Whole Foods and see the many rows of various branded and flavored bottles of the probiotic tea, referred to by many as a healthy elixir. All of those bottles were shipped hundreds of miles to reach refrigerated shelves in Salt Lake City. “There’s no reason why kombucha should travel 800 miles in order for us to drink it,” says Christy Jensen, the 28-year-old founder of Salt Lake City-based Mamachari Kombucha. “The tea and the sugar already travel far enough.”
To get a sense of how popular kombucha is, you need to go no further than your local Whole Foods and see the many rows of various branded and flavored bottles of the probiotic tea, referred to by many as a healthy elixir. All of those bottles were shipped hundreds of miles to reach refrigerated shelves in Salt Lake City. While some cities have multiple microbreweries making craft, small-batch kombucha—Austin, Texas has four—until recently, Salt Lake’s most “locally” produced kombucha, High Country, came from Colorado.
“There’s no reason why kombucha should travel 800 miles in order for us to drink it,” says Christy Jensen, the 28-year-old founder of Salt Lake City-based Mamachari Kombucha. “The tea and the sugar already travel far enough.”
Kombucha is a fizzy, tart and sometimes controversial fermented tea loaded with probiotics (live micro-organisms that aid in digestion) as well as organic acids. It has been around for centuries, perhaps millenia. You can trace stories of the healing tea back to the Chinese Twin dynasty (212 BC), and from there, presumably via trade routes, people carried the means to make it—the starter, which is a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY; see sidebar)—to Russia, Japan, Germany and beyond. Kombucha SCOBYs are like sourdough starters; you feed them, they grow and multiply; you share the “offspring” and the cycle begins again.
Growing up in Japan, Jensen had always been fascinated by tea and fermented foods. After college, she apprenticed with an artisan baker. “I was really into fermenting sourdough,” she said. Her self-proclaimed nerdy fascination with fermentation quickly evolved to include other foods.
“I like the idea of thousands of living organisms in one small jar, eating sugars and producing tasty food,” says Jensen. “They live together symbiotically. If the smallest of living organisms can do that, I think larger organisms like Homo sapiens can learn to as well.”
Tired of paying $4 a pop for a bottle of kombucha at the grocery store, Jensen got a SCOBY from a friend and started making her own. After a couple of months, Jensen offered her friend a taste and received high praise in return. Encouraged, Jensen started selling her brew to friends and coworkers.
At first Jensen had some reservations about starting the business, worrying that kombucha drinkers like herself were mostly DIY people who would rather make their own than buy it. But, she figured, if the home-brewing boom doesn’t keep people from ordering a cold one at a bar, and people with coffee pots at home still get coffee at drive-throughs and coffee shops, then maybe a kombucha business had a chance.
Like a bottle of shaken kombucha, business started exploding. By the time she had six one-gallon containers of kombucha in various stages of fermentation and was still selling out, she sought a commercial kitchen to produce legal “‘booch.”
Jensen marketed her first brew at the Chocolate Conspiracy and later Laziz before expanding to Frisch, Blue Star Coffee, Real Foods, Urban Pioneer Foods and the farmer’s market—where her kegs and cases of kombucha bottles often sold out before noon.
What began as a side project has since turned into a full-blown business. Jensen now produces about 400 gallons a month with the cheerful Mamachari Kombucha logo—the name over a bicycle sprocket, designed by her friend Nate King. She still does all of the production by herself— “brewing, bottling, labeling, the whole shebang.” But she is grateful for good friends who are always willing to stop by and do a few dishes, or roll labels on bottles when she has a big production day.
Recently, she moved into her own commercial space on 600 South where I met her to learn more about kombucha.
Wearing all black clothing and a hat adorned with a Siamese cat face (she also loves cats), she washed a crate as we talked. For one thing, Jensen explained, it’s easy to make your own kombucha. All you need is tea, water, a SCOBY, about a cup of kombucha as a starter, and a cloth-topped vessel in which to culture it. As those DIYers who have made it can tell you, though, it is more challenging to get consistent results. Variations in temperature and types of tea are big factors.
A living organism, the SCOBY looks a bit like a slimy pancake and touching it can be a bit daunting to the squeamish. The SCOBY, culturing at the top of the tea, grows to fit the size of its vessel. Over time it produces “daughters”—layers that can be separated and used to start new batches or passed on to friends.
Sliding open a door, Jensen led me into the noticeably warmer fermentation room. Racks of white five-gallon food-grade plastic buckets labeled by type and date sat on stainless steel racks.
When you brew kombucha at home, Jensen told me, you can make the brew more carbonated by doing a “secondary fermentation,” adding juice, fruit or other sweetener, either to an cloth-covered container or to bottled brew. As the yeast eats the sugar, it produces carbonation. It also produces alcohol. Occasionally, the brew can become “too” alcoholic. (Remember the kombucha crisis of 2010, when the popular brand G.T. Dave’s pulled its product because it was exceeding the 0.5% legal limit?)
Instead of a secondary fermentation, the kombucha in Jensen’s buckets is force-carbonated when she kegs it, and independently tested to make sure it’s below 0.5% alcohol.
Flavors for her brews are on the sweeter side, says Jensen, influenced by the Utah palate. One flavor, lavender honey, is sweetened with Aseda wild honey. Others take their flavor from added fruit juice like Concord grape. This summer, Jensen hopes to produce a new huckleberry kombucha.
Mamachari continues to expand. This month Jensen is opening a taproom where customers can buy bottles or fill up growlers with Mamachari kombucha Thursday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. If all goes well (Mamachari in Whole Foods, perhaps?) she could brew kombucha fulltime. For now, she’s keeping her part time job at Saturday Cycles, a commuter-based bike shop where she sells and repairs bikes.
“I’m all about local,” says Jensen, who hopes that others take inspiration from her story and start their own businesses. “Go for it,” she says. “Whether it’s food, a clothing line, bike tech—you never know what’s going to happen. What you give to the universe, you get back.”
Jodi Mardesich is a home kombucha brewer, terrarium builder and bonne vivant. This is her first article for CATALYST.