Published on December 6th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour


Kombucha? Bless you

North East consumers are taking big note of a different style of fermented drink, as Alastair Gilmour discovers

Fermented food has soared in popularity thanks to the ever-increasing interest in gut health. We’re familiar with yogurt as a fermented foodstuff controlling digestion and supporting the immune system but others include kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and tempeh. Beer, wine and cider are fermented, too.

Kombucha is a fermented drink made from sweetened tea and a specific culture known as a scoby “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts”. Kombucha is slightly sour and can be either non-alcoholic or contain up to 0.5% abv. Health conscious consumers looking for an alternative to processed fizzy drinks that are often packed with sugar or artificial sweeteners have been turning to kombucha, particularly in the US – but we have some significant producers and suppliers here in the North East.

John Chilton, owner of Sunderland-based Funk! Kombucha, says: “We’re fermenting tea in the North East. Funk! is small-batch, hand-crafted and brewed from ethically sourced tea and fermented with a mixed culture of bacteria and yeast.”

John has had a long and varied career in IT and as a business analyst but it was while working with Peter Briggs who was making gluten-free beer in Castle Eden, County Durham, under the Autumn Brewing brand, that he became absorbed with kombucha.

“Peter had a distributor in London who took us round six breweries where we tried some kombucha,” says John. “I’d never had it before and was blown away by how good it was; it had a real depth of flavour. So I started making it at home in the utility room and the shed but with limited success as it ferments at a higher temperature than beer.”

A start-up brewing course at Brewlab in Sunderland got him going, as did a four-day kombucha workshop in Canada to where he bunked off from a family holiday in California.

“I would never have started this business if I hadn’t done that,” he says. “I developed the product over six to eight months using tea from the Estate Tea Company in Newcastle run by Tom Webb.

“It can cost £50 a kilo for tea, but you only use five grams per litre. It’s quite exciting experimenting with different ones. Northern Alchemy Brewery have done a hybrid kombucha beer which is the direction I’d like to go in.”

Now John has a line-up of five-litre containers sitting on heat pads, making 35-litre batches at a time over two to three weeks. Straight tea kombucha is as versatile as the tea variety (and there are certainly lots of those), but his latest is flavoured with raspberry and hibiscus. 

He says: “I’ve done a traditional Chinese Oolong kombucha and also tried adding fruits, but you have to be careful not to get a second fermentation going as you risk creating alcohol. You have to filter your water and the alcohol content can range from .01% to 2.0%. The trick is to keep it under 0.5%.

“A lot of kombucha production goes out in apothecary-style bottles to reflect a wellbeing theme (which has never been fully proven). The name Funk! came from me saying there was a lot of funk going on in the fermenter.

“Stockists include the Free Trade Inn and Arch 2 Brewhouse & Kitchen in Ouseburn, Newcastle, which we’re told can’t keep up with demand. I’ve been asked for a keg of kombucha from both of them but it’s difficult to fill a keg when you’re only doing 100 litres at a time. I just can’t ferment enough.”

The exact origins of the kombucha tradition are not known, although is thought to have originated in Manchuria, or in Russia, Japan or Eastern Europe, so take your pick.

As a response to this increasing consumer demand for health conscious, low- and no-alcohol beverages, County Durham-based Lanchester Wines has re-launched its Dragon Tree Kombucha – 16 years after its first incarnation. Served in a recyclable 250ml can, Dragon Tree Kombucha is a gently sparkling fruity tea with natural flavours of hibiscus and rosehip, which also gives the drink a light pink colour.

Andy Stephenson, who handles the Dragon Tree brand for the Lanchester group, says: “Dragon Tree was well ahead of its time, but never really got anywhere. The wave is taking off again driven by its Far Eastern heritage and a curiosity over fermented drinks.

“We’ve designed ours with a nod to heritage and tradition but made it a bit more on-stream with a versatile flavour profile. It’s a drink you can have on its own or mixed with spirits.

“We tested it through a national sampling campaign which has blown us away with its universal appeal. Results show that 82% of people really like it, from 18-year-olds to 50-plus. We just sat there going ‘wow’.”

With a light and fruity taste similar to strawberries and cream, Dragon Tree is gluten-free and suitable for vegans, with each 250ml can containing 50% daily NRV* of vitamins C, B6, B12, thiamin, folic acid, niacin and biotin. Each can contains only 93 calories which is less than an average apple. 

Furthermore, Dragon Tree is made with rosehip extract which has been shown to help increase joint mobility. Rosehip is also rich in the antioxidants vitamin C and polyphenols.

Both John Chilton and Andy Stephenson are keen for kombucha to be served in pubs and restaurants in a wine glass – a positive and fun alternative to fizzy, sugar-laden soft drinks.

*Daily NRV (Nutrient Reference Values) of an average adult.

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Alastair Gilmour

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