Kombucha at Verdant Tea

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper MidwestReaders: What are you toasting? Which brewery has the best fall seasonal? Where did you have your latest amazing cocktail? What’s your go-to bottle of wine? Email john@heavytable.com or tweet @johnpgarland and let us know. Each month, the best submission will receive a Heavy Table pint glass.

Cheers to… Relaxing. So we’ve already brought you a Märzen taste-off in Part I of this month’s Toast. Our tasting panel was right on the money when we named Schell’s Oktoberfest the winner; it has since won a prestigious silver medal at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival in the “American-style Amber Lager” category.

For Part II, we wanted to move on from Oktoberfest and begin October-Rest. That’s right, the latter half of the month that we should all devote to taking it easy. Summer’s euphoria is long gone; the leaves are dropping, the kids are back in the school routine. But the holidays aren’t here yet and there’s new stuff on TV. So let’s all just relax and enjoy this month with a good kombucha cocktail.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Nathan For You:

Nate Uri (below, left) is nothing if not enthusiastic. He beams at the smell of good oolong; he radiates when describing his work and travels. His Web series on cooking, Hot Date With Nate, gives you a good idea of the passion he’s now bringing to the menu at Verdant Tea (we raved earlier about his sweet potato soba noodles). The guy positively oozes joie de vivre, so it makes sense that his newest project is something just as lively and effervescent.

He’s brewing kombucha. Currently, three flavors of the fermented sweet tea are available at Verdant — not because it’s a trendy drink, but because Uri makes a version that actually tastes good.

“Kombucha tastes like sewage run-off… I mean, except ours,” he says laughing. “I want people to take kombucha less seriously. The mythology behind it is crazy. It’s just a damn good drink that’s very complex.” He’s created a fresh and clean-tasting beverage, one completely unrecognizable to most kombuchas in your grocer’s refrigerator. He’s refined his technique through years of homebrewing and on a commercial scale during a stint in Portland.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Verdant Tea founder David Duckler was never planning on serving kombucha in his tasting room. “I was a total kombucha skeptic,” he says, “I always thought it was a fad. But it ceases to be a fad when it starts tasting good.” To see what he means, you can drink a big mason jar full at the tasting room for $4 or bring your own container for kombucha to go at $0.25 per ounce (about $8 per liter).

They’ve selected two different kinds of oolong tea to use as a base for their kombucha. “It’s all about the tea,” says Uri. “I’m using teas that have all these great flavors. I’m trying to take the components of the tea and amplify them.” Duckler adds that oolong also has the tannic qualities you’d expect from a green tea with more floral and citrus notes that work well with the added flavors in kombucha.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The process begins with a mother culture called a SCOBY (a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) that’s used as a catalyst to start each batch, in much the way you’d have a yeast starter for sourdough bread. The SCOBY is added to ferment the lightly sweetened tea (Uri uses plain old white sugar), and any alcohols produced by the yeasts are eaten up by different strains of bacteria which convert them to acetic acid. When Uri determines that the brew has reached the right balance of flavors and acidity, it’s stabilized and carbonated. The whole process can take up to a month and a half to complete. (Check out this month’s Growler Magazine on D.I.Y. kombucha to get a good sense of how it works.)

His three current flavors are bright, elegant, and complex. The White Elephant shows off the tea’s gripping tannin amid flavors of lychee juice and Thai jasmine. The Pink Robot does the same with guava juice. The Ginger Vesper was inspired by the flavors in a gin-gin mule, and yes, it’s already been extensively tested for its ability to take on Tanqueray.

Which got us to thinking, we really should be spiking this stuff…

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Kombucha, the “Easy” Way:

Uri has scaled up production with the hopes of gaining retail accounts and he’s currently in talks with the local co-ops. But we figure some enterprising bar manager could introduce this local kombucha as a way to differentiate a cocktail program. So we brought Erik Eastman (above) of Easy & Oskey to Verdant Tea to mix a few drinks and test that theory. Eastman starts with a simple highball, having already made this drink to rave reviews at a recent Yelp! event.

The Favourite Cousin: In a glass with ice, add a nice slug of Prairie Gin, top it off with Pink Robot kombucha (about 1.5x as much as the gin), Easy & Oskey five-spice bitters, and a lime wedge.

Then Eastman worked on a more intricate highball, leveraging the intense ginger of the kombucha with a similar liqueur while the tequila and Cynar strike a nice earthy balance.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Take Me Somewhere Nice: (Has Eastman taken to the Johnny Michaels strategy of naming drinks after Mogwai songs?)

1.5 oz tequila (Eastman used Hussong’s Reposado)
0.5 oz Canton ginger liqueur
0.25 oz Cynar
1.5 eyedroppers of Easy & Oskey habañero bitters
Approx. 4 oz Ginger Vesper kombucha
Large swath of orange peel

Build the drink in a pint glass full of ice in the order listed, topping the drink with the kombucha and expressing the oils of the orange peel over the glass before dropping it in. Add a few slices of hot peppers to the drink if you want a little more kick.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

“Wow,” says Uri as he takes a sip. “If they made these in Cancun, I’d actually go to Cancun.” Ashlee Olds of Sweet Science Ice Cream (below right), who has recently moved her production kitchen to Verdant Tea, disagrees. “Not me,” she says, gesturing at Eastman, “I’m staying here. I know a guy.” She is currently collaborating with Easy & Oskey on a run of cocktail-inspired ice creams (an Old Fashioned flavor will debut in the coming months).

It was Olds (below, right) who made the finest suggestion of this impromptu cocktail party: a boozy kombucha float (below, left). “I have some cognac,” says Uri, dashing to the back and returning with a bottle of Courvoisier. Olds proffers a pint of her classic vanilla and Eastman goes to work.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

In a lowball glass, add 1 scoop of Sweet Science vanilla ice cream to a heavy 3/4 oz of cognac and 1 eye dropper of Easy & Oskey cacao bitters. Top with an ounce or two White Elephant kombucha and garnish with a few more drops of bitters.

You wouldn’t think that a drink with lychee and jasmine would be a natural ally with vanilla and cognac. Instead, that background hit of citrus bounced off the cognac to simulate a brandied-cherry flavor (something you definitely want on your vanilla ice cream).

We were slightly worried that strong alcohols and pungent liqueurs would decimate the delicate flavor of Uri’s kombucha. Instead, we found the tea holds its own thanks to its depth of acidity, adding to the drinks what a lot of citrus would otherwise. Any drink involving tonic, soda, club soda, or sparkling wine could receive new life with this stuff as a substitution. If you pick some up and take it home to your bar, be sure to comment below and let us know what you’ve dreamed up.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

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About the Author

John Garland

John Garland is a freelance writer living in the East Isles neighborhood of Minneapolis. His area of expertise is wine - thanks to schooling from the International Sommelier Guild and more than a few winery visits during his time at the American University of Rome. He also contributes to Beer Dabbler's Growler Magazine and is always available for writing opportunities and happy hours.

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