Mostly everyone in the realm of hippie-dippie-dome has heard of Kombucha at this point, and if you haven’t, then you are in for a whole new thing to obsess over. Kombucha is a fermented tea packed with helpful pro-biotics and liver-cleansing acids. It’s made with what brewers call a “SCOBY”, short for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”. Kombucha starts out with just tea, water, and sugar. The SCOBY (also sometimes called “mother” or “mushroom”) converts sugar into alcohol, which then turns into acid. The bacteria itself adds pro-biotic value to the mixture, creating a fizzy, tart-flavored cocktail for your digestive system.
Kombucha has been around for a very long time, dating all the way back to ancient China. Until recently though, it was tucked away under the sinks of only the most dedicated hippies and health food zealots. Our growing interest in home brewing, fermentation, and slow food has brought the drink out of obscurity and in to the spotlight. Suddenly, you can find kombucha everywhere.
An interest in home brewing was what inspired Bill Nadalini, founder of Wunder-Pilz, to try his hand at making kombucha. That, and a tummy ache. While Bill was impressed by the health benefits of kombucha, he wasn’t satisifed with the flavor of the bottled brands that were available at the time. Commercial kombuchas are sometimes sweetened with extra sugar or fruit juice. This process, referred to in kombucha-talk as back-sweetening is just the tip of the iceburg.
With kombucha growing in popularity, commercial formulators are scrambling to find ways to make it taste less like fermented tea and more like soda pop. Some companies are even using dyes and flavorings to de-kombucha their tea. After all of that meddling, some bottled kombuchas are even pasteurized. While pasteurized kombuchas probably still offer some benefits, it’s a natural assumption that the raw pro-biotics pack a heavier punch. Bill claims that he can feel the difference physically when drinking a strong, raw kombucha versus a weaker drink that has been sweetened and pasteurized.
Emboldened with fifteen years of prior home brewing experience, Bill set out to satisfy his curiosity about how tasty kombucha could be without the use of sweeteners and artificial additives. He tried using different varieties of tea and natural herbs to build complementary flavors and health benefits while fiddling with the basic kombucha recipe. As is the case with most grand experiments, Bill described a long line of failed batches before he finally nailed the formulation. Friends and family acted as taste-testers, and eventually his brew became so delicious that his guinea pigs were asking for more.
When he met Tamara Hoover, owner of Cheer Up Charlies, a bar on Austin’s East Side, Bill’s kombucha experiment transformed into a small business. Tamara began offering Bill’s kombucha by the bottle at her place. Soon after, she requested a larger amount for an upcoming South by Southwest party. Rather than fill what seemed like an endless amount of single-use bottles, Bill suggested serving the kombucha on tap. Forty gallons later, Wunder-Pilz had made its mark on Austin.
Besides being an Austin-based craft-kombucha brewery (which is pretty cool all on its own), there are quite a few things that make Wunder-Pilz special. For one thing, their brews are formulated using organic teas, herbs and botanical ingredients to enhance their flavor and health benefit. It’s also raw, which is part of the reason why this fascinating elixer is only available on tap.
Wunder-Pilz kombucha comes in four varieties, each tailored to create a unique taste, and a special set of magic charms. Heart, made with antioxidant-rich organic white tea, contains hibiscus and cardamom, plants that are known to help reduce blood pressure, treat digestive disorders, and battle kidney stones. Calm is made with a low caffeine tea called Kukicha, and contains herbs to help fight insomnia, relax the body, and encourage vivid dreams. Bill treated me to a bottle of Calm for my husband, Scott, who is a notoriously restless sleeper. I also bought a bottle of Strength, a Yerba Mate based tea, enhanced with dandelion root, gotu kola, spirulina, mint, and goji.
In addition to trying to brew kombucha that is tastier than usual, Bill wants to provide healthy alternatives to the myriad of uppers and downers that people can become so dependant on. “We use alcohol to slow us down, and caffeine to speed us up. I want to give people an alternative that can actually help them feel better,” Bill explained. He’s certainly succeeded in his mission with my husband. Scott has never been crazy about kombucha, but after drinking Wunder-Pilz regularly he claims to have seen a real difference in his energy levels and digestion. He simply feels better. For a guy who used to pop OTC painkillers like M&M’s and chug coffee to stay awake, kombucha has quickly become an important part of his new, healthier routine.
When I asked Bill how big a role the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers Markets played in Wunder-Pilz business, he shared an elated story of connecting with customers one by one, educating people on the benefits of his brew, and being able to sustain a low-waste operation by selling on tap. Besides saving himself from the trials of a bottling line, Bill takes a lot of pride in encouraging re-use and recycling. Every Wunder-Pilz container comes with a two dollar rebate on its next refill, which not only encourages return business, but also saves the glass from being trashed.
Wunder-Pilz is available on tap at three SFC Farm Markets in Austin. It’s also on sale at In.gredients, Cheer Up Charlies, Vuka Co-Op, Daily Juice, and H.O.P.E. Market. If you are going alcohol-free, or if you just want to try something a little different, grab a pint of kombucha next time you are hanging out at Cheer Up Charlies or In.gredients. You can call me a geek, but I think it’s kind of cool to be able to enjoy something fizzy and delicious without the alcohol while your friends chug beer. By the way, Kombucha is almost always gluten-free.
Wunder-Pilz will be celebrating their third birthday this coming February, and will be doing so in their brand bew facility, a brewery all their own. Bill asked me to let you all know that Wunder-Pilz is planning a party to commemorate the event. Keep an eye on their Twitter and Facebook feeds to find out more about the shindig.
The Sustainable Food Center has some exciting news of its own. They are currently raising funds to build their very own physical location. For the past forty years this amazing organization has existed without a home base. They’ve taught, administered, and organizied communities out of shared spaces, for all of this time. With just over twenty percent of their four point five million dollar goal to go, the SFC is just a heartbeat away from taking a huge step toward its future. The new center will be a home to offices and classrooms with a professional teaching kitchen, and a massive community garden.
If you are unfamiliar with what the SFC does, hold on to your britches. It’s pretty cool. The Sustainable Food Center not only organizes natural farmers’ markets all over the city, they help manage community gardens, provide free culinary education to low-income families and individuals, and educate kids about nutrition. In short, they connect people from every part of Austin with the tools to grow, share and prepare healthy, local produce. The SFC is tackling many of our nation’s biggest food issues head-on. Given their own space, with room to grow, they will quickly become a force to be reckoned with. Stop by the SFC home page to learn more about them, and consider showing them some love in the form of a donation toward their cause.