Last Updated on January 19, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
Probably the best kombucha in the world…
I don’t need to be converted to kombucha, I already enjoy drinking it. Until now, mine has from the local Farmers’ Market where I splurge on a weekly bottle of ‘Pure Kombucha’ and find that it really helps improve my digestion. The kind I am used to drinking is brewed exclusively from a particularly strong Puerh tea from China and then flavoured with ingredients which have their own powerful health-products. I love it – but I do recognise that there are differences in the bottles I take home. Sometimes it’s a little fizzier, sometimes the flavourings are stronger. And, a 500ml bottle can easily last me a week. So, I was intrigued to be invited to the Real Kombucha brewery to sample their range, designed to pair with food or to use in cocktails and learn a little more about how it is made.
It still has the health benefits of the version I buy from the market, with a live fermentation resulting in ‘positive bacteria’ and minimal sugar levels. But, Real Kombucha has the aim of creating a more refined product – one that will work as a sophisticated adult drink with a complex flavour profile.
In the heart of the Chilterns, the Real Kombucha brewery has all the trappings of an artisan business. Despite the bucolic setting and rustic charm, this organisation clearly means business though. Their market? Some of the top restaurants in the country including The Fat Duck, Hakkasan and Clove Club. Oh, if you want to buy for yourself then it’s also available through WholeFoods and from their own online shop. And, you’ll find it in some of London’s best pubs, bars and casual dining rooms too, like The Sir John Balcombe in Marylebone and Ember Yard in Soho
There are currently three different Real Kombucha products. Unlike my regular kombucha, the Real Kombucha range has no added flavour – so the variation in flavour comes predominately from the type of tea used. David Begg, one of the founders of Real Kombucha explained that he’d first tried making the brew using Silver Needle (which just happens to be my own favourite tea) and was astonished at the result. Despite the fact that there are over 250 types of tea, they all come from one plant, Camellia Sinensis. There are two main variants within the genus, one which is predominantly grown in China, the other in India, from Assam. The mass production of tea in India was largely at the instigation of the British who found that the price they were paying to the Chinese was exorbitant. So, around 1750, they started trying to cultivate tea in India. The marked difference in taste between different teas is partly down to terroir – soil and climate and partly down to cultivation, harvesting and processing methods. When tea leaves are picked and allowed to oxidise, they turn black. White tea is made by drying the harvest very quickly so that oxidation doesn’t happen, while green tea has oxidation stopped by ‘cooking’ the leaves – steaming them in Japan or cooking them in China.
Real Kombucha uses three distinct teas to make their range – and as we discovered, each Kombucha takes on the distinctive notes of the original tea.
Our first tasting was of Dry Dragon brewed from Long Jing Dragonwell green tea from the Zhejiang Province of China. This tea is dried and oxidation stopped by wiping the leaves around a hot wok. I rather liked the base tea which had a lovely citrussy nutty note.
The Dry Dragon Kombucha was paired with artichoke – lemony and fresh it would, as David suggested, make a good alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc. Or actually to any light, dry sparkling wine.
Next, Royal Flush, which is made from first flush Darjeeling – the first two tips of tea are picked as they start to emerge, then carefully dried to bring out a delicate fruity flavour. Real Kombucha use tea picked from day 8 to day 21 so that it’s balanced – neither too green or too black. With more body than Dry Dragon, this paired beautifully with local pork and garlic salami from nearby Chiltern Charcuterie.
Finally, Smoke House, based on a tea which I initially thought was a weak brewed Lapsang Souchong. Not the case, as I learnt, it’s from a tea sourced in Yunnan, in the mountains of southern China. Here, the tea is grown into trees rather than left as bushes. And, the smokey notes I detected in the tea come from the drying method, on open wood fires. Smoke House Kombucha is a golden yellow, rich and robust drink that looks much like cider. It paired beautifully with the local nettlebed cheese we were offered and I suspect that, as suggested, it would also work with red meats.
Each one of the kombuchas also has its own place on a mixologist’s shelf. It’s obvious for example that using kombucha rather than sparkling wine in a Kir or Bellini makes a very-low-alcohol cocktail – and this range of drinks has its own flavour notes that will complement wines and spirits while not adding to the alcohol level or that calorie count! Yes, kombucha is a naturally low-calorie drink – under 50 calories for a bottle.
Now, I have been investigating how kombucha is made for a while, with the intention of trying it at home. On paper, it’s remarkably simple. You allow brewed tea to ferment with a SCOBY (a weird yeast concoction that is also sometimes called a ‘mother’ – SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast), you chill the mixture to stop fermentation and then you bottle it. Homebrewers will generally allow the second fermentation in bottle, sometimes adding a little extra sugar to feed the mixture. When the mixture is fizzy, it has to be stored in the fridge to prevent any further fermentation. Commercial kombucha producers may choose, as Real Kombucha does, to top up the fizz by carbonating the drink before bottling.
It’s a way to minimise that variation in flavour that I’ve found in the product I buy from the Farmers’ Market and of course, for the world of paired food and drink lists, a standard flavour profile is essential. The end result is a very low alcohol (less than 0.5% abv) drink with a complex flavour profile that makes an excellent stand-alone drink for sipping or pairing with food. What The Real Kombucha company does is produce a very fine drink indeed that keeps all of the artisan qualities yet has the potential to deliver consistent quality. I am planning on drinking more Kombucha and I strongly suspect it will come from The Real Kombucha company.
Real Kombucha stockists include their own online shop and Wholefoods, together with specialist delis and farm shops across the UK. They are in over 50 Michelin starred restaurants in the UK and many other quality bars, restaurants and pubs. They have three kombuchas in their range: Real Kombucha Dry Dragon, Real Kombucha Royal Flush and Real Kombucha Smoke House. The company is less than four years old and they are currently working on new kombuchas to introduce to market.