The Maestro of Alcoholic Kombucha
I descend into a small, cement basement in Astoria, Queens, following a bald and rather intimidating Greek man wearing a black hoodie. This muscular figure leads me into three rooms that double as both a chemistry lab and personal gym (punching bag, kettleballs, the works). It's Jekyll meets Fight Club. This, I'm told, is the headquarters of Beyond Kombucha, a company that distributes an artisan brand of kombucha tea in the NYC area.
Spiro Theofilatos, the hooded Mediterranean, is the mastermind behind this operation. He brews each batch of kombucha himself, preferring the process to be entirely hands-on. He offers me a reddish drink in a small teacup. It's called Love Potion. Bubbly and tart, its fruity tones come and go in waves. After a few sips, my cheeks feel hot, and it's not just because this particular tea has an aphrodisiac quality. Beyond Kombucha has a unique edge: alcohol. It is the first kombucha brewery on the East Coast to receive an alcohol license. Spiro has developed the perfect beverage to market to the consciousness party scene -- a drink that "detoxifies" while getting you buzzed.
What attracted you to making kombucha? Was it the taste, or the effects?
Well, I was introduced to it in 2005, in Oregon. It hadn't really made its way to the East Coast yet. I loved the fact that it was sort of a beer, but without the alcohol. You could drink it in the afternoon, you could drive on it, and it wasn't really gonna get anybody drunk. Instead of getting drunk, you actually get energy, you get lifted by it. The B-Vitamin rush is fantastic. It also helps you deal with stress. Digestive enzymes -- you can eat burgers and have a glass of kombucha, and you digest it so much better. When all these probiotics get into your system, they break down food in your digestive track faster and more efficiently, making the nutrients, in any kind of food you eat, that much more available to you. That's fantastic news, and not a lot of people are hip to that.
How is the process of making kombucha environmentally friendly?
The biggest kick in the ass that is really impossible to avoid is the bottles. Our labels are printed on recycled paper, for all I know it's sustainably done there. This building is actually solar powered. All the electricity here is coming from the sun, even on a cloudy day. We have a solar array on the roof of this building, 450 panels. On a sunny day it does about 85,000 watts of electricity. It's the third biggest privately held solar array in New York City.
So, sustainably speaking, we're doing the best we can. Before this job I was the Director of Waste Collections for Tri-State Biodiesel, so I've always been on the environmentalist trip. I helped build TSB. Coming here it's just like, I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances. It's challenging. I'd like to have more of a keg program going, but for that to catch on it's really a question of creating the restaurant accounts, where kegs are appropriate. People just going into a restaurant and seeing kombucha on draft is hit and miss. The Queens Kickshaw up the block loves it. They go through tons of it. They went through fifteen gallons in twelve days. That's a lot. That's a very popular seller. It's now on tap at Cafe Bar which is right down the block here on 34th ave. They've got the Love Potion on tap.
I'd go to events with this thing, roll out the kegerator, and it's always well received. Kegs are the way, kegs and glass that can be washed at a place, but it's not expedient for the purposes of New York City based lifestyle. If you're in New York, people want to grab a bottle and take it home -- they want to grab five bottles and take them home, drink them over time. It's kind of tricky. It's just what we have to do. The best I can do is just encourage people to recycle. I could go so far as doing a deposit bottle type of situation, but really it doesn't do anything. If I were to go tell my distributor to put a five-cent surcharge on every bottle that is sold, their price goes up, the stores pay more for it, the end consumer pays more for it. Most people don't go back and get the five cent deposits. You wind up with people who go around with shopping carts and enormous bags collecting those out the garbage. It's just the reality of what we face in New York. New York is very strange like that. We should be much more conscious, but we're not. It's heartbreaking.
One way or another, glass bottles are going to be recycled. Even if they wind up in a place that assembles trash, they're set aside, they're recycled. I'm not required by law to put a five cent deposit, so I didn't bother with it.
There are conflicting opinions regarding kombucha's salutary effects. Mayo Clinic says that the health benefits attributed to kombucha tea include "stimulating the immune system, preventing cancer, and improving digestion and liver function." On the other hand, Brent A. Bauer of Mayo Clinic says that kombucha's health benefits have not been proven. What is your take on this?
Well, if you brew kombucha too long, it gets really acidic. Really vinegary. If you're home brewing and you let it go too long, it's almost impossible to drink. My objective wasn't to create a medicinal beverage, it was to create a palatable beverage. I want something that people can enjoying drinking, and it happens to have health benefits that I don't say anything about on the bottle. I have no desire to invest myself in that or have it out with the FDA. I don't have enough space on my labels, let's put it that way. I just wanted to create a delicious beverage, and it's a kombucha. It's an original culture kombucha, the real deal. Home brewed, by hand, the way grandmothers in Russia did it. Bottling that properly is a bit of a skill. Moreso the difficulty is in mass-producing it.
If you time it right, you wind up with a really delicious effervescent beverage that has the health benefits. It's known to have a lot of B vitamins, it's known to be very B vitamin rich. It's known to be rich in amino acids, oxalic acid, gluconic acid, glucoronic acid, butyric acid, hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid actually is the building block of collagen, so that's why you have claims of it being good for your hair, skin, and and nails. Glucoronic acid is being researched as a cancer preventative. There's entire towns in Russia that don't have a history with cancer because they have a cultural staple of drinking what they call grib. Gribok actually means mushroom in Russian.
What do you think of Lindsey Lohan and other celebrities turning to kombucha as an alternative to drugs and alcohol? Do you think that it has the potential to help people that are trying to fight addiction?
Sure. Yeah. Well it all depends. Home-brewed kombucha can be pretty great, because if you know how to bottle it properly, and you know how to get it nice and fizzy, there's a little bit of alcohol in there. It's enough to just cut the edge off your day. Around lunch time, my days are pretty crazy, because I start early, I'm working like mad, and I've got ten billion things to do. I'm like everyone else in New York. I'm no different. I have a kombucha, and it's a release, even if it's a Yerba Mate kombucha, which has a tendency to charge you up. There's something in it that just cuts things down. I don't know what it is, I can't claim that it's going to be the same for everyone. But for me, and for the people I know who have expressed the same, they love the effect. It's like smoking a cigarette but better. It doesn't really increase your blood pressure, it just makes you feel a little more stable for a second.
As far as fighting alcoholism, that's heavy. That's a big, big conversation. I don't think it's quite powerful enough to get anybody unhooked from alcohol, but it is a detoxifying agent. It does have a tendency to cleanse the system. If you want to quit alcohol, go to Costa Rica or Gabon, Africa and have some Iboga.
How do you think the experience of drinking kombucha differs from the experience of drinking other alcohol. Is there a different atmosphere, or a different recreational effect?
It's the funniest thing. We went to The Queens Kickshaw for a photo shoot, and I was sitting there, and they were filling glasses of it, and throwing them away. I'm like, stop throwing them away, those are delicious! So I started drinking at 10:30 in the morning, not even thinking about the fact that there's a heck of a lot of alcohol in this, and I was pretty drunk after two glasses. And then I said please feed me some grilled cheese, and they took care of me.
It's funny. It's virtually, I would say, impossible to get a hangover from this stuff. You can drink a ton of it. The sourness is bracing. It's really good with certain foods. It's fantastic with meats of all things, but it's not always thought of to pair like that. The B vitamins in it kind of counter the effects of the alcohol. It's fascinating, but it's truth. You can get a buzz, but you will not get a hangover. It's kind of like built in mercy.
GT Dave says that kombucha is extremely sensitive to the energy of its maker, and therefore personally oversees the brewing of every batch. What do you think of this idea of kombucha being a sentient being that is sensitive to human energies? Does it affect the way you see the future of your business?
Well, sort of. It's really kind of interesting that you say that. I used to have a partner who was in charge of the brewing. Because of different visions for the company, we went our separate ways. The kombucha responded differently to her than it does to me. The form, the actual physical form that they created, was different. Hers would be these stratified layers that were wispy and kind of messy. I ferment two days longer, but mine are very clean white, almost always. That's interesting in and of itself.
It's hard to say, because you're dealing with microorganisms. You're dealing with bacteria and yeast, which are single celled organisms. Mind you, every single one of those jars back there is like a universe. There's billions of these things in each of those jars. Billions. It's like you're playing God, basically. The job of the brewmaster is to maintain a healthy environment, to make sure that there's enough food, which is honey, or sugar. Make sure that the right balance of minerals from the teas that are being used. You know, just to create a hospitable environment for these cultures to thrive, that's really it. I go so far as to play Tibetan bells and rain in there, which is nice, it creates a nice environment, but the things don't have ears. It's just an atmosphere. They don't have ears.
We're talking here about Reality Sandwich magazine and Evolver. You guys have an awareness of the fact that everything has an aura. Each of those jars, that's a lot of living organism in there, and it has a glow, it has a frequency. They really like a constant temperature. There's a lot of things about this thing that like stability. If you're careful enough with your intention and you can maintain it, then you can produce a wonderful product. But I don't necessarily think they're that sensitive. They're pretty resilient. They can endure a lot of different conditions. They just kind of generally like sugar and tea.
I just love doing it -- it's fun, it's great. I guess that's the energy that I go into it with, is knowing that I'm doing this, I'm giving this to people, putting this in the market for people to take into their bodies. That's huge. Not brewing with that awareness is a disservice, I believe, to the product, and to the people purchasing it. I think that the consciousness I'm putting out for that is really what's translating into a quality product.
Kombucha clearly has a niche within health conscious consumers. Do you see it becoming more mainstream or popular, akin to getting a beer from a bar?
I don't think it's ever going to get to that point. Mainly because there's not enough alcohol in it across the board. Most kombuchas are low alcohol. Low, if any. GT Dave's has filtered out the yeast which causes alcohol. Kombucha Brooklyn does the same thing. He filters his. They filter it through really serious filtration, and they wind up with a flat product. I didn't want that. I want the bubbles. So I went and got the federal state licensing, and now I can legally produce beer. Most of my kombuchas are one, one and a half percent alcohol by volume. That's just a by-product of the bottling. That's where the alcohol happens, and it's great. I want that. I don't want to not have that. I love the fact that if I leave a bottle of kombucha, the way I bottle it, the way I produce it, for six months, it's better. There's no shelf-life, it's amazing. I've got stuff that I've opened from April of last year, nearly a year old, that is stellar.
It gets better with age?
Yes. It dries. It just dries up. Once you cut the oxygen off, it doesn't get any more sour. It's impossible. Once there's no oxygen, acetic acid formation is over. Then the anaerobic fermentation goes into effect. That's when the yeast will come over, they'll chew up the rest of the sugar, whatever's left in the bottle, and turn that directly into alcohol. No more vinegar. So you wind up with a dry, iced tea, carbonated. Naturally carbonated, with a minimal amount of alcohol. Do you know how awesome that is for lunch? You sit down at a restaurant, and get a bottle of Beyond, and your sandwich, and there's just enough alcohol to cut the edge off your day. Just enough. Can't get you drunk. You'd have to drink six of them to get a single beer buzz. But, it's possible.
There are so many great things about it. I don't see it being an alternative to beer on the mass market culture, because you have too many Budweiser people out there, Coors and whatnot. I do see, and I wouldn't mind, something like Mava Roka, and eventually when I do Love Potion, the high-powered one. It's going to take a long time; it might have to age for a year. I have plans to make the Love Potion into a high alcohol, a ten percent alcohol by volume, basically a kombucha mead. These are going to be micro-crafted, limited production products. They're going to be in these flip top bottles. They'll be nine dollars a bottle in the store. People will get this incredible bottle that you can reuse at will. It's a gorgeous bottle.
Do you think that kombucha is meant to be alcoholic? Do you think that it shouldn't be sold without the alcohol?
I don't believe in shouldn'ts.
But do you think that's not how kombucha is supposed to be?
Yes. In America, the federal limit to alcohol content that construes something as an alcohol beverage is point five percent by volume. Half a percent. In Canada, it's two percent. Everywhere else in the world, it's two percent. Anything over two percent, the government will tax you. Here in America, going back to prohibition, anything over half a percent. Now the funny thing is, if you leave orange juice out of the fridge for six hours, it's going to have more than half a percent of alcohol. It's just what happens. You don't taste it. It doesn't go bad. It just ferments. And the fermentation causes alcohol. It's just how it is. But they don't think in those terms. They see a beverage, and the finished product is like this, and they can tax it, so that's how they're operating. You can't possibly get drunk on it, but they can get money from you, so they do.
Is there anything else that you haven't touched upon that you think is really significant about kombucha?
I'd like to get people more into the reality that it's really about the tea. The reason kombucha is so healthy is because you have these microorganisms digesting sugar and the minerals in tea, putting those things together, transforming the molecular structure of these things into really helpful compounds. Those helpful compounds, the origin of those is the tea plant, camellia sinensis being the tea plant, whether it be oolong tea, white tea, black tea, green tea, any variety therein. Because oolong tea in and of itself, there's 175 different varieties. It's so vast, and such a healthy thing. People just don't get it. It's kind of heart breaking. Polyphenols, mineral content, flavor, experience. Tea culture goes back in China some 5 to 6000 years. That pre-dates wine. The fermentation of tea in the kombucha goes back about two and a half thousand years. It would be terrific if people would just wake up to the fact that tea is awesome.
Do you think that everyone that's into tea is into kombucha, or is that even smaller?
There's a lot of connection there. But one thing is not dependent on the other. There's a growing interest in tea. It's interesting because it's not the same kick-you-in-the-head buzz that you get from coffee. It's a bit more laborious because timing tea to get it to steep properly is tricky. I do that with gallons at a time. It's a trick.