Words by Christine Dionese | Photos by Lisa Barker
When BTT's west coast editor and self-proclaimed microbiology nerd Christine Dionese discovered a local Rochesterian had recently launched a small-batch kombucha business, she had to meet her. So on a recent visit, Christine sat down with local wild-fermenter Jesse Horning, founder of Boocha Babe Kombucha, to chat about the science, social allure and bubbles behind what Jesse calls her “galactic booch.”
BTT: Why kombucha? Is it the science of food and fermentation, the health aspects, the taste - or all of the above?
BB: Why not kombucha? Admittedly, it was the challenge and unknown that first peaked my interest. The science behind fermentation is fascinating. Particularly, as further investigation has revealed, kombucha is certainly no cure-all as it’s been touted. It does however have noticeable positive effects that scientists are still figuring out- which is so cool.
We live in this age where we partly invented everything and then realize we mostly know very little about ourselves and the world. We just mapped the human genome, for crying out loud.
Kombucha is this ancient drink that’s only now being studied. There’s been an uptick of interest and research into our gut health and how we operate on a microbiological level that’s revealing more about us as humans. I came for the challenge and stayed for the science. I’ve started experimenting with cascara (the coffee cherry) and jun (jun is produced when the culture consumes honey instead of sugar).
BTT: Jun is so delicious, very cool! Have you noticed Rochesterians gravitating toward Boocha Babe more out of curiosity for something new, or because they may have heard that kombucha is a healthy beverage?
BB: Definitely because kombucha is a healthy beverage, whether they have heard of it or not. We’re asking how to fuel our own bodies and what our impact on our environment as individuals will be. The interest in kombucha as passing curiosity or for health purposes seems largely to be from people that are open-minded and conscientious about life. The interest crosses over multiple generations. There are always people who hop on the proverbial bandwagon, but in this case, that is awesome. We’re a generation choosing kombucha vs. Coca-Cola.
BTT: For those who might not be familiar with SCOBY, can you give a quick rundown?
BB: First, if you’ve never seen how kombucha is made and have a low tolerance for the weird and gross, do not Google search images of a SCOBY. Consider the crazy-cool microbiology occurring to make kombucha and it will help you get past the strange-looking cellulose layer. SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria & Yeast. Various bacteria and yeast work congruously to consume and convert the sugars present in the tea into what we call kombucha. No two SCOBY are alike, since they are highly dependent on their environment for their composition.
Benjamin Wolfe in the Microbiology department of Tufts University has amassed the largest known collection of SCOBYs and is currently studying their make up and posting findings online. SCOBYs are probably my favorite part of kombucha. The yeast strains border on ethereal and the SCOBY could pass for the surface of the moon. I call it “galactic booch.” (A friend of mine who attends the U of R for genetics and I think it’d be rad to try combining the SCOBY with luciferase to see if we can make a bioluminescent SCOBY.)
BTT: How do you select varying fruit and herbs to include? Is it your goal to focus on locally sourced ingredients? What are the challenges?
BB: It will be amazing if Boocha Babe gets big enough to afford the testing and supplies it would take to make kombucha using only local ingredients, but it is not a reality right now. For example, with testing being what it is for kombucha, by the time I could make a recipe and have it tested using local blueberries, they would be out of season. The rules for brewing kombucha are for food safety, but they can be a total party killer. Consistency in brewing is vital and sourcing locally would be great, but it is not feasible at the moment. If people have ideas I am all ears!
BTT: How does your small batch approach differ from larger, more commercial brands? Does it help control for variations in taste and alcohol content?
BB: Ahhhh, the “small batch.” Nothing beats it. Hard to say how a lot of commercial brands get the job done fermenting tea. There is a lot of trade-secrecy in kombucha. Reportedly, G.T. Dave’s and Health Ade, two of the largest brewers in the country, still use the same two-gallon glass jars Boocha Babe uses. Other companies use food-grade stainless steel and one even uses BPA-free plastic drums.
The larger a batch gets, the harder it is to control. The fermentation of kombucha is what is known as a “wild fermentation” - this makes it impossible to get the same results every time since it is subject to environmental conditions. The only benefit I see in larger fermenters is saving some time. The quality inevitably drops and every jump in size affects the fermentation, usually negatively. I have experimented some in pushing to larger quantities but the quality always suffers and that is not a sacrifice I am willing to make.
BTT: Speaking of alcohol, how has it been navigating the almost-no-alcohol or within-legal limits amounts?
BB: Navigating the alcohol laws has been summarily asinine. The FDA and TTB are applying existing alcohol laws to kombucha. Since kombucha undergoes the wild fermentation process, it is never going to be exactly the same. This can create fluctuations in output levels such as residual sugars, yeast and bacteria, but the problematic one is alcohol. The levels are so low that by the time a person could drink enough to feel a buzz or have their BAC rise, they'd have more to worry about in terms of how their body is trying to process that amount of liquid and probiotics. You have to drink a LOT of kombucha for that to happen and it's not realistic.
Testing is expensive, especially for startups. I've spoken with a few scientists and other small kombucha business owners all over the world. Everyone is on the same page that there need to be new regulations for kombucha specifically. Brewers are often unwilling to share information regarding rules and regulations because they have to work so hard to get it and are loathe to give it up. This has created an 'Us vs. Them' mentality between brewers instead of the community that exists in the craft beer industry. I would love to see other commercial kombucha brewers but sadly the regulations make it difficult for that to happen.
BTT: What is your favorite way to drink kombucha or use with other foods?
Kombucha goes famously with gin or chartreuse. (Is gin a food?) It is best with ice cream. This one time I had Eat Me’s lavender goat cheese ice cream with raspberry apple kombucha and frozen local black raspberries, and I have never forgotten that first bite. To get the health benefits, it is best to drink kombucha by itself on a relatively empty stomach, but for pure enjoyment it pairs well with fatty foods or a salad - something that can hold its own with the vinegar and effervescence.
BTT: So where can we score some BB Kombucha?
BB: Boocha Babe is currently available at Fuego Coffee, Marty’s Meats and and Maker’s Gallery & Studio. Several other local places have inquired, but Boocha Babe Kombucha is pretty young and getting the love faster than I ever anticipated. Kombucha is not a triple-your-batch or go-home-and-whip-up-more deal. It is a multi-step, calculated process.
BTT: Any upcoming collabs we should know about?
BB: Not yet. I would love to work with a local brewer to produce everyone’s favorite: a raspberry green tea with crispin apple and ginger. The alcohol levels have come back slightly too high so it cannot be bottled and sold. It would be bomb to work with Eat Me Ice Cream or Hedonist sometime to make kombucha floats for an event. Kombucha floats are probably the best thing since sliced bread. (Which isn’t even that good … So, maybe since burritos?)