Kombucha, Youbetcha: Seattle’s Fermented Tea Scene Is Fizzing
Fermented tea—better known as kombucha—isn’t on the fringe anymore. In Seattle, various styles
By Jessica Yadegaran
January 27, 2017
Christopher joyner took his first sip of kombucha 24 years ago while living in a Quaker intentional community in southeast Ohio, where members raised free-range chickens, grew organic vegetables and advocated to protect Appalachian hills from strip-mining. We know what you’re thinking: The fermented tea—a centuries-old elixir known for its gut-friendly high probiotic content and slightly pungent aroma—was a natural fit for Joyner’s health-conscious (OK, hippie—we said it) lifestyle.
But, even after moving to Seattle in 2006, Joyner continued brewing the naturally carbonated, slightly sour beverage—made by combining tea and sugar with yeast and letting them ferment—and in 2008, launched Washington’s first kombucha company, CommuniTea Kombucha as a way “to share the healthful and delightful beverage with the community,” Joyner says. Last year, Joyner took his mission further by opening a 1,300-square-foot brewery to the public in the Central District, with a mezzanine fermentation room and brick-walled café, where visitors sip his biodynamic green-tea-based kombucha with cheese-and-nut pairings.
Image by Maria Billorou
Chris Joyner from CommuniTea, Washington’s first kombucha companybrew pub
Joyner’s story may sound unique, but his passion for kombucha is not. What started as a DIY craze in the 1990s is now the fastest-growing segment of the functional beverage category (beverages that are good for you based on their purported healthy ingredients). Consumers are seeking healthy beverages like never before, and kombucha sales are expected to jump from $600 million in 2015 to $1.8 billion by 2020, according to retail analyst MarketsandMarkets. In Seattle, the trend is toward light, refreshing nonalcoholic (0.5 or lower alcohol by volume, or ABV) kombuchas—not too vinegary, not cloying like sugary soda—made with organic teas and organic evaporated cane sugar. Some brewers (Kombucha Town in Bellingham, Mystic Kombucha in Capitol Hill) add juices and other ingredients to enhance the flavor (and some might argue, make it more palatable), while others (CommuniTea and Magnolia’s Puget Sound Kombucha Co.) seek to make kombucha flavored by tea alone.
Seattle offers many different ways to experience the fizzy beverage: on tap and in cocktails at bars and restaurants, via weekly bottle delivery, alongside like-minded sippers in that coffeehouse-like third place and at home, of course, after purchasing a supply from local stores.
Casey and Emily Malone launched Puget Sound Kombucha Co. more than a year ago and are already in more than 100 locations—including Washington State Ferries cafés—and just started a weekly home delivery service ($15 for six bottles). Casey says the health aspect of kombucha is certainly important—probiotics consumption has been linked not only to bowel health but also to improved immunity and overall mood—but it isn’t the only reason this beverage is thriving in Seattle.
“It is also a craft beverage, and the idea of getting something locally made that happens to be a fermented, lightly carbonated and complex beverage is equally as appealing,” he says.
The Malones take that craft part seriously. They start with organic teas selected for their robust flavor profiles. “It’s like making wine with grapes,” Casey explains. “Tea leaves have similar structure and polyphenols that can yield those complex flavors, aromas and tannins.” They make four kombuchas: Green Tea Blend (earthy, energizing), Earl Grey Blend (slightly orange, with bergamot), Black and White Blend (zippy and balanced) and the new Spiced Rooibos Blend (with added cinnamon).
Kombucha Town, which started five years ago, is a modern kombucha hangout closely aligned with the craft beer movement. The 3,500-square-foot brewery features a 500-gallon commercial brew kettle, more than a dozen fermentation vessels and, as of last year, a full-service restaurant, Culture Cafe, which serves seafood, salads and panini in a 1,700-square-foot space decked out with local art and repurposed tables.
“People who drink kombucha want a place to hang out, just like beer and wine drinkers do,” says owner Chris McCoy, who hosts weekly game nights and winter warmup dance parties. “We’re trying to give them that third place.”
His lineup includes six kombuchas (the most popular, Kombucha Town Gold Light, is made with organic Ceylon black tea and house-made ginger ale) and kombucha cocktails, including The Workhorse, a kombucha version of the Moscow mule. McCoy is also the only producer offering his kombucha in 16-ounce cans ($5 at Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market and PCC), perfect for pre- and post-exercise hydration.
Image by Maria Billorou
Carlos da Silva (gray beanie) and Caitlin Matteson da Silva (teal shirt) and the Mystic Kombucha team in their tiny Capitol Hill tasting room
Yoga instructors Carlos da Silva and his wife, Caitlin Matteson da Silva, began making their own kombucha with a starter kit from CommuniTea back in 2012. Carlos, ever the host, would offer a glass to whomever visited the couple’s Capitol Hill home. His unique floral and fruity combinations were a hit, and friends began asking Carlos to make weekly kombucha deliveries to their homes. It wasn’t long before he landed his first account with Victrola Coffee Roasters, and Mystic Kombucha was born.
“I wasn’t even looking for a second career, but as my buddy said, ‘Dude, the market has spoken,’” da Silva recalls. His buddy was right. Today, Mystic provides kombucha to dozens of bars and restaurants in Seattle, including Queen Anne’s Bounty Kitchen and Oddfellows Cafe & Bar on Capitol Hill, which each drain a keg (40–50 servings) of Mystic per day.
Using teas exclusively from Remedy Teas on Capitol Hill, da Silva and head brewer Mike Swei craft 25 flavors, with several only available seasonally, including a popular winter brew made with chile and passionfruit. They also do inventive specialty brews for some of Seattle’s hottest restaurants, including Mamnoon (apricot and orange blossom kombucha) and Café Presse (French lavender, pear and elderflower kombucha).
A few years ago, da Silva stopped teaching yoga to focus on ramping up production of Mystic—there are about 80 restaurants on the waiting list for his product—and building the brewery’s intimate, 160-square-foot Capitol Hill tasting room, with its cedar and Indonesian teak walls and delicate, acacia-topped stools, which opened last year. While he misses teaching yoga, he says making craft kombucha has fundamental similarities.
“In the yoga community, you have people seeking transformation into a healthier state and you’re helping to get them there,” he says. “I think, for me, being able to make a product that has the same sensibilities of positivity and healthy living is how we support people now.”