by Josh Seaburg | photograph by Keith Lanpher
When it comes to fermented beverages, alcohol production is typically the goal. But kombucha is a different beast. A lightly effervescent, tart, somewhat vinegary tasting brew made by fermenting sweetened black or green tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, it has been consumed for hundreds of years for its purported health benefits rather than an alcoholic punch.
Turns out, kombucha’s signature puckering bite makes a great base for cocktails.
On its own, a straightforward ferment of black tea is not particularly delicious. Fortunately, there are several producers making kombucha with interesting flavors geared for leisurely consumption.
Maha Kombucha Company in Virginia Beach, for example, produces Raspberry Brilliance, which is flavored with in-house concentrates made from berries, ginger and lime. It’s a drink that begs to be poured into a pitcher of ice and garnished with a big sprig of mint.
Born out of a desire to have something healthy to drink with meals, Nathan Mahadeva Elstein, a devout teacher and practitioner of yoga, started Maha Kombucha with a partner out of their kitchen. It’s now made in 150-gallon batches in commercial space near the Oceanfront and carried as a nonalcoholic option at several breweries and restaurants in the area.
Elstein says most of his customers buy Maha Kombucha, which has six flagship flavors and a Thanksgiving offering, because it is both healthy and tasty.
Local kombucha makers ride a fine line to ensure consistency while maintaining a small-batch feel. Commercial kombucha is generally labeled nonalcoholic, as it contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. Homebrews can easily exceed that, however, creeping to as high as 3 percent ABV, according to Nikki Hopkins, owner of Norfolk’s Red Mushroom Brewing Company. There is also a trend among some brewers toward “hard” kombucha with higher ABVs.
Hopkins, who drinks kombucha daily, believes people buy it to feel healthy rather than buzzed, but she supports its use in cocktails. Red Mushroom’s Buch’arita flavor, with its heavy lime and orange essence, acidity and carbonation, make it well suited to the task.
For most flavors we tried, a stiff pour of a compatible spirit and a squeeze of citrus sufficed, but the world of kombucha cocktails is ripe for experimentation. Here are a few recipes to get you started.
1 ½ ounces aged rum (Plantation 5 or similar)
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Red Mushroom Pineapple Chai kombucha
Combine rum and lemon juice in a highball glass over ice. Top with kombucha and stir gently to incorporate.
1 ½ ounces Tequila Blanco
½ ounce fresh lime juice
2 dashes orange bitters
Red Mushroom BluRoo kombucha
Combine tequila, lime and bitters in a highball glass over ice. Top with kombucha and garnish with a lime wheel.
Josh Seaburg has established several award-winning bar programs and a series of innovative pop-ups, highlighting elaborate cocktails and food from local chefs.