You never hear about all those cavalrymen who, on their way to battle, puked next to their horses. While before the invention of pasteurization and refrigerator, a lot of spoiled food must have been processed antiperistaltically.
Far more mythical is the story of those Mongol warriors, centuries ago, who carried a pouch of sweet tea that slowly fermented on their long journey, actually spoiled, until a sour drink remained that turned out to be very drinkable. And even got the status of elixir of life.
That is also the story that Charlotte Krijger (that is her real name) tells when she shows on Saturday morning in the brand new business space in the Westelijk Havengebied in Amsterdam where she and her partner Tom Vollebregt and a handful of employees make their YAYA kombucha. She tells how that drink traveled across the continents over the centuries. And how a son of California hippies produced the drink, which was always a homebrew until the 1990s, on a commercial scale for the first time.
Kombucha, which has been displayed in wall-wide refrigerators in all flavors in the US for years, is still trying to conquer its place in the Netherlands. It started a few years ago at health food stores. Major supermarkets now also sell it. Sometimes you come across it in the catering industry or at the gym. The fact that PepsiCo and Coca Cola have kombucha daughters shows that there is a broader market for it.
Meanwhile, home brewers, sometimes also cider and beer brewers, are busy with their own ‘craft’ kombucha. Those worlds know each other well in the Netherlands, says Vollebregt. And knowledge is shared with love. Because the sour drink is by no means generally known and loved.
YAYA, currently probably the largest Dutch brand, is cautious about the alleged positive effects on the intestinal flora. They hope to prove once again that the live bacterial culture (probiotics) in their drinks is good for the gut – but they are looking forward to making that claim now. How they make kombucha, on the other hand, is no exception. Rarely do you come to a factory where the blacksmith reveals his secret so enthusiastically. “It’s not about the manufacturing process,” says Vollebregt, who has little fear that competitors will take advantage of it. “It’s in everything around it.” They have been busy for years before this professional brewery was here, you can’t just imitate that. At YAYA they now produce about 18,000 bottles per week. And demand in the Netherlands is still growing faster than the brewers can handle.
Between the kettles, tanks and thousand-litre containers full of black and green tea, there is a very homely vase on a workbench, the type in which you can put a bunch of lilies. The vase shows how kombucha has been made for centuries and what it essentially is. At the bottom floats a rubbery slab, a mixture of bacteria and yeast that starts the fermentation of the sweet strong tea with which the vase is filled.
This scoby – short for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast’ – is a descendant of the disc that Vollebregt found on Marktplaats in 2013. It is also the primordial mother of the scobies, which are the size of half mattresses at the bottom of the large containers.
The sugar in the tea has already fermented under the cheesecloth, which is stretched over the neck of the vase with elastic. In the beginning, the taste is quite ‘funky’, as brewers call it, yeast-like. Over the course of days, weeks, bacteria break down the alcohol and sugar, forming acids. The result is a clear drink that distantly evokes associations with Rivella, cider or sour beer.
If that sounds simple, watch what you do at home, because a lot of things can go wrong. Molds grow that don’t belong there, too much alcohol remains, it looks more like vinegar than soda, it’s full of dirty fliebers.
Anyone who has ever tried to make kombucha will understand that it took some time before Vollebregt and Krijger went from an exciting kitchen concoction – one time fantastic, the next time unbelievable – to a safe product with a constant quality and an acidity and alcohol content that after the decimal point is under control.
And therein lies their answer to the question whether it is actually safe, such a living drink. Because although fermentation is a right way to preserve food (cheese, sauerkraut), wrong fermentation is the accelerator for pathogenic bacteria. If the acidity remains below a pH of 4 during fermentation, Vollebregt explains, those bad bacteria don’t stand a chance. By comparison, lemon juice has a pH of 2, tap water has a pH of 7.
It is safest to pasteurize the result of a month’s fermentation. All manufacturers who sell their kombucha unrefrigerated do that. And it is allowed, because unlike beer, there is no Kombucha regulation or Reinheitsgebot.
At YAYA they find pasteurized kombucha dead kombucha. Its charm, and the reason many people drink it, is precisely that living culture. “Why use fermentation if you’re pasteurizing afterwards? Then it just becomes a soft drink,” says Vollebregt.
And you can say anything about kombucha, but “normal” isn’t a compliment for kombucha. It’s that funky yeasty flavor that makes it one acquired taste makes, a taste that you have to learn to appreciate. And then there is also plenty of experimentation – with teas, with carbon dioxide, with flavors. At YAYA we taste yuzu, ginger, blueberry and one with citra hops – which is reminiscent of beer in a pleasantly fresh way. “Unfortunately, citra hops are no longer supplied due to failed harvests.” And synthetic flavors are not an option for YAYA, which also does everything organic.
All on the kombucha, that will not happen with only uncompromising brewers. It is too expensive for that, with prices around 3 euros. But if the general public falls for commercial kombucha, pasteurized, less pronounced in flavor and made with flavors, there will probably be more room for more extreme flavors and small brewers – as has been the case with beer for some time.
At YAYA they have already installed a tap. Warrior, half serious, half joking: „If we all just consistently ask in cafes: ‘Which kombucha do you have from the barrel?’ Then one day it should be available everywhere.”