Keeping it real - Real Kombucha

by Nick Harman - Monday January 20, 2020 1:01 pm

Being off the booze needn’t mean being out of luck when eating. Real Kombucha is a drink designed to work with food. We headed out to the brewery.

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In a rather chilly barn in the Chiltern Hill, a new kind of brew is being made.

Boss David Begg calls his drink Real Kombucha to distinguish it from the many sugary drinks that try to masquerade as Kombucha. Little better than soft drinks for kids, they are a million miles away from the sophisticated grown-up beverage David makes.

‘Kombucha probably originated thousands of miles away in Manchuria many, many  years ago,’ David tells me as I gaze at rows and rows of large stainless steel fermenting vessels ranged in what was once a farm barn.

They look like wine fermenting vessels and that’s because they are; David’s Real Kombucha borrows a lot from wine making.

Kombucha is actually made in a roughly similar way to artisan vinegars, which is to say from a culture of bacteria and yeast known as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) which form a zoogleal mat known as a "mother"

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Tea is brewed with sugar then cooled, the leaves discarded and the SCOBY added along with some previously fermented kombucha. The liquid is then left to ferment for a calculated time and when ready filtered and bottled.

The SCOBY, is removed to make the next batch maturing and developing as it does so. It’s a process familiar to artisan sourdough bakers who, like David, call these starters ‘mothers’.

These ‘Old Mothers’ are so important to each of the brews that David gives them names and any attempt I make to peek at the section of the shed where they are constantly and scientifically analysed is blocked.

Making kombucha may sound relatively simple, but many a home-brewer has come to grief, creating a drink that has actually made them ill.

David shakes his head sorrowfully when he relates this, it’s ironic though because he  began his whole business by making kombucha at home.

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Back in 2016 David, who previously founded the high-end furniture brand Tom Dixon, as well as the education tech company Magic Town, didn’t really want to drink alcohol anymore.

But he equally didn’t want to just drink water with his meals as that was just too boring. He wanted a serious, sophisticated drink that did what wine did - complement and enhance food - but without the after-effects.One day a friend served him kombucha with a fine meal and he was, he says, ‘hooked’.

A holiday in India and a taste of their superb fine teas, saw him come home with some packets of Silver Needle tea and he had a go at making kombucha in a spare room with, he says, surprising success.

Encouraged, he put a small team together made up of nutrition innovator, Adrian Hodgson and tea expert, Will Battle and they experimented with 150 different teas until coming up with Real Kombucha.

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A very different drink to what had gone before.Today he makes three styles of Kombucha: Smoke House, Royal Flush and Dry Dragon and they come in single bottles of 275ml.

We sat down in a rather chilly shed on site to try an equally chilled glass of each kombucha along with a small food pairing.Our first, Dry Dragon, is brewed with pan-fried Dragonwell green tea from Zhejiang Province in China.

Instead of being steeped in hot water (‘never boiling when you make fine tea’, David tells me sternly) the leaves are first wiped around a piping hot wok to stop the natural oxidation process early.

The fermenting process then develops delicate citrus notes of grapefruit and sweet lemons, with a clear vegetal, green tea back note and a long, full- bodied finish.

It has a slight acidity on the tongue which, as is well known, enhances the flavours of food. We tried it with an artichoke, a vegetable that always likes to be paired with lemon or a vinaigrette, and it brought out the smooth nuttiness well.

The second brew, Royal Flush, is made from First Flush Darjeeling, known in India as the Queen of Teas. Here there were rich notes of rhubarb and gooseberry and a delicate floral acidity with a relatively short finish that matched well with the fats of local charcuterie..

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Beautifully effervescent, it had both the look and the mouthfeel of a fine champagne so making it perfect when you don’t want alcohol, but also don’t want to stand out in a celebrating group.

Perfect too for smart restaurants when your partner fancies a glass of champagne to kick off a fine dining experience but you don’t

Smoke House, the last one I tried, is brewed from a smoky black tea from the district of Yunnan in the high mountains of southern China. It’s often grown by smaller, permaculture plantations where the growers climb the ancient, fully-grown trees to pick the finest leaves.

On the nose it immediately made me think of a craft cider, one of the ‘pet nat’ ones,  it's the taste of apples and caramel with a smoky top note.

A great drink to have with a hard cheese like Comte.It’s easy to see now why Real Kombochu is getting big. A non-alcoholic drink that actually entertains the palate and the senses and pairs with food in a miraculous manner.

As I packed to leave, from outside there came a frightening roar like a massive jet engine on takeoff. ‘Oh that’s just my neighbour,’explained David, ‘he often tests his gas burners for hot air balloons out in the yard’.

They certainly keep it real in the Chiltern.

Find out more about Real Kombucha and order at www.realkombucha.co.uk

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