By Erin McMurrough
Typically, this time of year we shift from holiday indulgence to health awareness. With the lingering pandemic, mysteriously shrinking pants and a need for resilience and mental health, that shift is even stronger. What better way to drink in a brighter 2021 than to sip on a fermented, slightly effervescent tea brewed with a live bacterial culture known as kombucha?
The good news? Kombucha, which dates back to 220 BC, is low in calories, high in antioxidants, high in vitamin B-12 and highly acidic, which aids in digestion. The better news? Local producers keep it fresh with a variety of tempting flavors.
While kombucha is not a magical elixir, it might be the next best thing.
Bootleg Bucha owners Jeff Empric and Heather Lucas sought out kombucha to treat Empric’s acid reflux. When the couple couldn’t find a local producer, they saw an opportunity to create a local kombucha that would woo consumers with its flavor as much as its health benefits. With little precedent set in New York, Lucas recalls Empric making multiple trips to Albany to explain and educate the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets about the health benefits and safety of kombucha.
In November 2015 Bootleg Bucha opened in the basement of the Horsefeathers Building in Buffalo and eight months later moved to its current location on Niagara Street. Lucas recalls the early days of introducing kombucha to guests, and notes the beverage’s shift to mainstream status.
“People who you would never think drink kombucha, drink kombucha,” she says.
Bootleg Bucha became certified organic in 2018 and is New York’s largest kombucha brewery. When asked if the couple still imbibes kombucha, Lucas laughs, “We drink it every day.” Fan favorite: Blueberry Lavender, $3.50 retail for 12 ounces. (Wegmans, Tops)
1250 Niagara St., Buffalo
a gateway into
Kat Eddy, owner of Katboocha, was bit by the ‘bucha bug after tasting her mother-in-law’s home brew. Kat started following kombucha producers on Instagram—brands from California, Washington and Australia were exploding and she hoped that someone locally would start brewing kombucha—until she realized she was that someone.
Katboocha opened in January 2018 with a focus on wholesale, operating out of what Eddy calls “a literal hole in the wall” behind Rohrbach Brewery in Rochester. In 2021, Katboocha is moving across the road to 106 Railroad Street and the new space includes a taproom. Eddy’s community-focused business sources local ingredients when possible and the seasonal Strawberry Cacao booch spotlights strawberries from Mendon Acres Farm in Honeoye, NY.
Eddy is quick to point out that she is not a dietician but has anecdotal feelings that drinking kombucha can help some people, but not everyone in the same way. She believes, “Kombucha is a gateway into healthier eating and living.”
Fan favorite: Grapefruit Lavender, $6 retail for 16 ounces. (Village Bakery, Balsam Bagels)
106 Railroad St., Rochester
Fairport native Tim Garman, owner of Timbucha, spends much of the workweek traveling between operating rooms as a medical device specialist, and the stress of his career attracted him to the social aspect of owning a bar; 10 years ago he started Fairport Brewing, which opened a taproom in a converted auto garage in 2013.
At a marketing meeting in 2016, a friend offered Garman a bottle of kombucha, which sat untouched in his refrigerator for three days. But once he tasted it, he knew had to pursue it.
Garman launched Timbucha at Fairport Brewing in 2016 and used his position behind the bar to educate consumers and test out new flavors on tap, affectionately referring to his patrons his “guinea pigs.” One flavor that received the green light was Purple Haze, a kombucha flavored with Concord grape juice sourced from Arbor Hill Winery in Naples, NY.
In 2017, Timbucha spun off from Fairport Brewing to focus solely on kombucha production. Garman likes being in the business of helping health-conscious people.
“Many of my original customers were using kombucha as a hangover cure and then I started attracting people who wanted to drink kombucha as a supplement to a healthy lifestyle,” he says, chuckling.
Fan favorite: Cranberry Pear, $3.50 retail for a 12-ounce can (Tops)
Finger Lakes Kombucha Co.
Brad Luisi-Ellis, co-owner of Finger Lakes Kombucha Co., discovered kombucha while studying at Cornell when a classmate fermented his brew in the cupboard. Many years later, Luisi-Ellis’s wife and co-owner, Anna, bought a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) and the couple started brewing small batches of kombucha, selling different flavors at the Geneva Farmers Market in 2017. The duo reinvested the profits back into the business, with an eye on opening a taproom in Brad’s hometown of Seneca Falls.
Fall Street Brewing and Finger Lakes Kombucha Co. opened in October 2019 and serves coffee, light snacks, beer, wine and kombucha.
“We’re not super-duper healthy but kombucha does help us stay on track,” Luisi-Ellis says. “When we forget to drink it, we start to feel bloated.”
Luisi-Ellis believes that local producers of kombucha could flourish because kombucha is best enjoyed fresh and live, and consuming the drink closer to production will deliver a higher-quality product. Finger Lakes Kombucha Co.’s kombucha is produced and sold exclusively at Fall Street Brewing but the owners plan to expand into wholesale with bottled kombucha in 2021.
Fan favorites: Jasmine and Ginger Berry, $3 for 10 ounces, $4 for 16 ounces.$12 for 64-ounce growler
Finger Lakes Kombucha Co.
106 Fall St., Seneca Falls
Ithaca Kombucha Company
While attending graduate school at Ithaca College, Ithaca Kombucha Company owner Joey Durgin was working part-time at August Moon Spa when a massage therapist introduced him to kombucha. Durgin’s friend knew of his interest in health and fitness, and Durgin pursued this path by owning and operating two Infinity Athletics gyms in Ithaca.
Durgin believes in the health benefits of kombucha and established Ithaca Kombucha Company in 2014 with a focus on shelf-stable products, including JD’s Hot Sauce and Smidge’s BBQ Sauce, both made with kombucha vinegar. Durgin also became a kombucha brewing consultant 2016.
“I am now working on a canned, shelf-stable kombucha to be released in 2021,” Durgin says. “There are many challenges to a product that has to be refrigerated, so we are working on the best recipe for a canned kombucha that will hold its quality without refrigeration.” For those looking to brew at home, Ithaca Kombucha Company offers a kombucha kit that includes all the ingredients needed to brew kombucha as well as detailed instructions. Durgin encourages homebrewers to explore online kombucha videos for flavor or blend inspiration.
Kombucha-kick sauces: JD’s Hot Sauce, Smidge’s BBQ Sauce, $5 retail per sauce (GreenStar)
Ithaca Kombucha Company
Erin McMurrough dreams in sparkling wine.