September 15, 2019

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Fermenting the day away

Kombucha culture, with a DIY attitude, is hitting the city hard

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/4/2018 (505 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The culture of fermentation in Winnipeg is on the rise, thanks to the city’s craft-beer boom, sourdough starters and kimchi.

You can add kombucha to the list.

In short, kombucha is fermented tea. The process involves brewing tea with sugar, then adding a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to initiate the fermentation process. A SCOBY is a nasty-looking, multi-layered thing that floats around in the tea. Over the course of anywhere between a week to a month, the sealed mixture is left for the SCOBY to convert the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bacteria in the SCOBY effectively eats the alcohol, turning the bulk of it into natural acids while developing additional layers that can be peeled off and used in subsequent kombucha batches.

Kombucha’s origins are nearly as murky as the drink itself. Most reports put kombucha’s origins somewhere in Asia many centuries ago, although the drink appears to have made its way into the western world via Russia.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/4/2018 (505 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The culture of fermentation in Winnipeg is on the rise, thanks to the city’s craft-beer boom, sourdough starters and kimchi.

You can add kombucha to the list.

In short, kombucha is fermented tea. The process involves brewing tea with sugar, then adding a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to initiate the fermentation process. A SCOBY is a nasty-looking, multi-layered thing that floats around in the tea. Over the course of anywhere between a week to a month, the sealed mixture is left for the SCOBY to convert the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bacteria in the SCOBY effectively eats the alcohol, turning the bulk of it into natural acids while developing additional layers that can be peeled off and used in subsequent kombucha batches.

Kombucha’s origins are nearly as murky as the drink itself. Most reports put kombucha’s origins somewhere in Asia many centuries ago, although the drink appears to have made its way into the western world via Russia.

A SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) floats in a batch of Prism kombucha. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

A SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) floats in a batch of Prism kombucha. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kombucha has been touted as having wide-ranging health benefits — everything from curing herpes to reversing grey hair to improving libido. And while most of these purported health benefits are either straight-up myths or haven’t been proven scientifically, at its most basic level, kombucha’s probiotic nature seems to help with digestion/upset stomachs, and the tea used in the batch typically contains antioxidants.

Perhaps that’s why kombucha was long sequestered in health-food store shelves in North America. But the increasing popularity of probiotics, and the move away from processed food and drink (including high-sugar beverages such as soda) has seen kombucha’s stock rise, making it one of the fastest-growing beverage categories in North America.

A quick scan of big-box grocery store shelves today reveals numerous commercially produced kombuchas in a wide range of flavours and from all corners of the continent.

And in Winnipeg, there are a handful of small-scale commercial kombucha producers helping carve out a corner for the drink in smaller establishments across the city.

Prism Kombucha was one of the first local commercial kombucha producers to appear on retail shelves. The company was started less than a year ago by 26-year-old Daniel Pastuck, who brews his kombucha at FortWhyte Farms. "They’ve been amazing to work with," Pastuck says. "There’s a whole bunch of people here doing interesting food-based business, and it’s awesome to have a commercial kitchen that’s so accommodating."

Daniel Pastuck brews the drinks he sells through Prism Kombucha at FortWhyte Farms. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Daniel Pastuck brews the drinks he sells through Prism Kombucha at FortWhyte Farms. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Pastuck began brewing kombucha at home in 2010; after eventually graduating from business school and with years of working at local eateries under his belt, he decided to have a go at the kombucha business. Prism is predominantly a one-man operation, with Pastuck taking care of marketing, accounts and deliveries himself, an undertaking he sees becoming more difficult heading into the summer months. "I’ve been able to grow the business five times in the six months I’ve been up and running," he notes.

"It’s right on the brink right now in Winnipeg," he says of kombucha’s popularity. "I feel like we’re a couple years out from it becoming pretty mainstream."

Prism is available at a number of local eateries, which can then offer it as a soda alternative to non-drinkers. (It was the official non-alcoholic beverage at the Raw: Almond dinners on the river this year.) "I like to promote (Prism) as an alternative to soda or alcohol," Pastuck says. "It has half the amount of sugar as juice, doesn’t get you intoxicated and it’s refreshing."

Prism is also available at a handful of local coffee shops, some Food Fare locations and select Vita Health outlets via the chain’s kombucha growler bar system.

Prism Kombucha’s Chagga Chai is the business’s first flavour. A new flavour, better suited to the warmer months, should be out in May. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Prism Kombucha’s Chagga Chai is the business’s first flavour. A new flavour, better suited to the warmer months, should be out in May. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

While the eventual goal is to have a lineup of four flavours on the go at once, Pastuck produces just one flavour of kombucha at a time using locally sourced ingredients. He’s at the end of a run of his first flavour, the spicy and rich Chagga Chai. It’s a blend of chai spices, Assam organic Indian black tea and locally harvested chaga mushrooms. Pastuck sources his teas locally from Boreal Wildcraft; the chaga mushrooms, which are often used for medicinal purposes and have high levels of antioxidants, come from the Lynn Lake area.

Next up for Prism will be the Prairie Wildflower kombucha, with flavours better suited to warmer weather. The blend of elderflower, elderberries, rose, chamomile, sweetgrass as well as green and white teas should be available in May.


Along with the rise of commercially available kombucha has come a do-it-yourself movement that has seen an increasing number of people making their own kombucha, experimenting with all manners of styles and flavours.

Ryan Maione’s interest in fermentation, yeasts and various cultures stems from an interest in all things kitchen-related, which led to him reading about fermentation, and specifically kombucha, online. In addition to making his own kombucha, the 20-year-old pastry chef at S Squared Patisserie has begun experimenting with making his own sauerkraut as well as batches of kimchi. He plans on taking a horticultural farming program in Victoria and then combining the two fields, working on small-scale and urban farms.

Ryan Maione shows off the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) he uses to brew kombucha at home. (Supplied photo)

Ryan Maione shows off the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) he uses to brew kombucha at home. (Supplied photo)

An avid traveller, Maione first tried kombucha while he was away. He first started making his own kombucha four years ago. "At first it wasn’t really as available here as it is now, so I started looking up how to make it."

Maione has found there to be a learning curve and a fair bit of trial and error in perfecting his kombucha brewing process — some of which can be risky because carbon dioxide is involved. "It’s really important your bottles are fermentation-grade," Maione notes.

"I bought some bottles from Ikea originally that are nice-looking, but they’re not fermentation-grade, and I’ve had a couple explode on me. It’s like a glass bomb."

Making his own kombucha has allowed Maoine to experiment with a wide range of flavours. "I started out simple, with black tea, but it’s easy to get funky with the fruits. The last one I did was a vanilla rooibos tea, and I used orange to flavour it. It tasted a lot like a Creamsicle," he says.

While Maione often trades bottles of his kombucha with friends who make it, he’s always open to sharing with those who are less familiar with the drink — a reflection of the community culture cultivated by kombucha homebrewers. "When my friends come over, I’ll offer them some kombucha to drink, and then a bottle to take home. I don’t think of the kombucha as mine — it’s more of a sharing thing. Getting the bottle back is all I care about."

A 57,000-square-foot bottling plant in Oxnard, Calif., can produce 160,000 bottles of its popular fermented kombucha tea and other beverages in a day. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

A 57,000-square-foot bottling plant in Oxnard, Calif., can produce 160,000 bottles of its popular fermented kombucha tea and other beverages in a day. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

ben.macphee-sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

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