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Kombucha, a probiotic fermented tea, has a distinctively tart taste. It contains a negligible amount of alcohol, and can be enjoyed alone or in cocktails and mocktails. The beverage isn’t new, but it’s only beginning to gain traction in the Classic City thanks to Erika Galloway and Jason Dean, co-founders of Figment.
“Budweiser is not like a pastry stout, and there’s that much variety in kombucha, too. Some are really crazy vinegary, some are super-carbonated, some are light, some are heavily flavored,” Dean said.
Figment kombucha is available by the glass or in growlers, which are a glass jug-style vessel. Unlike beer in growlers, live-cultured kombucha will continue to naturally carbonate inside the container, allowing it to stay crisp and drinkable longer.
after the beer brewery Dean originally planned to start.
“It costs a lot less to get into kombucha. There’s a lot less barrier in entry into market. There’s a lot of potential there, so I thought it’d be better to go that direction than spend $2 million on a brewery that may or may not make it,” he said. “I just liked the fact that [Figment] is a name that’s kind of strange and doesn’t mean a whole lot to anyone specifically, and it’s kind of an ethereal word that anyone could bring their own meaning to.”
>> from figment of imagination to reality
Kombucha is fermented by a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — also known as a SCOBY. SCOBYs tend to look like flat discs or mushrooms that take hold at the top of a container as the bacteria and yeast huddle together and create a physical form. The SCOBY, along with additional “starter liquid” that contains the bacteria and yeast, is added to water, sugar and tea to get the process going. When Galloway first became interested in kombucha, she read online that it was possible to purchase a container of GT’s plain kombucha, and as long as it had a small piece of SCOBY in the bottom, it could be cultivated into a larger colony.
Galloway and Dean have produced starter liquid so strong that they no longer add the physical SCOBY to their brews.
It takes anywhere from 10 to 30 days to finish a batch of kombucha, depending on the amount being produced. After a period of primary fermentation, where the unflavored tea reaches the appropriate sourness and yeast turns the sugar to alcohol, the SCOBY and starter are removed, and what’s left is flavored and undergoes a secondary fermentation process. During secondary fermentation, kombucha naturally carbonates itself as the bacteria digest the alcohol. Figment’s owners also chose to add additional carbonation at the end to ensure product consistency. All in all, brewing kombucha isn’t much different from brewing beer.
“It’s still the same principle and it’s based off of that because both [Dean] and I were into beer,” she said. “All the equipment that you use is the same as if you were brewing beer. We have to use a hot water pot, which is the hot liquor tank for boiling water. We steep, which is the same thing as using your mash tun with your grains. Then we add the additional sugar once you take the tea out and we cool it down, so you’re still chilling it like you would with beer, and then we go into fermentation.”
Figment’s owners prefer to use a blend of black and green teas for their kombucha. Galloway said white tea also works well, but the main thing is to ensure the tea is caffeinated: “Your bacteria need the caffeine for an energy source.”
>> farm-fresh focus
Dean said Figment’s focus is on taking advantage of the seasons and fresh, local ingredients as often as possible.
“It’s going to be a little more time-intensive and expensive to use seasonal, local ingredients, but I think it’s better for the economy. It’s better for the farmers,” Dean said. “It’s going to taste better; it’s going to be more interesting. There’s a story behind it.”
Farmers markets play an integral role in Figment’s business model. Not only are they a way to source raw materials, but the exposure there has been unparalleled.
He wants to look at kombucha brewing more from a restaurant focus.
“I’m very influenced by kind of culinary things,” Dean said. “I like to think of brewing, even beer brewing, as it cooking. You’re thinking of ingredients and how those ingredients go together and not necessarily like, what’s going to sell or what are kind of popular flavors that everybody else is doing. I want to think of different things you don’t see on the shelf.”
The two found out the hard way that there are some flavors harder to capture than others. Ambrosia — coconut, pineapple and cherry — didn’t turn out so well, and neither did root beer.
“We thought we’d make a full-on natural one using the roots and trying to duplicate the flavor of root beer, but it just tasted like roots,” Dean said.
Galloway agreed, saying it was one of those things you might taste and ask if there are supposed to be health benefits from.
allergies and treating vaginal and urinary tract infections.
However, NIH cautions, “benefits have not been conclusively demonstrated, and not all probiotics have the same effects.”
“There’s a lot of argument as to what exactly is probiotic and what these things are really doing inside your body and how they really work,” Dean said. “It’s just now, surprisingly, starting to be studied. This thing that has been done for thousands of years is still not fully scientifically understood, like, what does happen to kombucha in the actual gut and what’s specifically going on here? Right now we’re just still kind of going on anecdotal evidence that people feel better.”
The NIH piece goes on to say that “strong scientific evidence” to support probiotic use for most health conditions is lacking, and the US Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved any probiotics for preventing or treating health problems.