Though kombucha has been around for more than 2,000 years, interest in the fermented tea drink has spiked considerably in the U.S. in the last decade or two. From hobbyists trying their hand at home brewing to major corporations capitalizing on the trend, kombucha is widely seen as a healthy alternative to beer and soda.
In general, the hype is warranted. But as Tim Roed and Rachelle Schmidt, longtime friends and kombucha enthusiasts, quickly discovered when they decided to launch their own Iowa City-based kombucha business in 2015, not all kombucha is brewed alike.
“[With the brands you’ll find] at the store, they stop the fermentation process, dilute it or strain out probiotics and add dry probiotics at the end, and use syrups and all this funky stuff to keep it below .5 percent [ABV] so it’s regulated by the FDA,” Schmidt explained. “It really bummed us out, like, what have we been drinking all these years?”
With their own operation, Wild Culture Kombucha, Schmidt and Roed decided to get their brewery license and commit to a full-strength, unfiltered brewing process. This straightforward approach means their kombucha naturally averages around 1 percent ABV.
All Wild Culture Kombucha contains a blend of four organic teas — green, black, oolong and pu-erh — fermented with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Some flavors also include fruit or vegetable juice, sourced from local farms whenever possible and juiced in-house, with no artificial flavoring. The effervescence in the kombucha is a natural byproduct of the fermentation and, unlike virtually all beers, no extra carbonation is added; it is also naturally caffeinated. Schmidt and Roed claim there are more than 25 strains of live probiotics in every batch.
“I think the quality, and what we’re putting into it, makes it more than just a health beverage,” Schmidt said. “It’s something you can really enjoy, and know that you’re getting a lot out of it. We have people who aren’t health nuts but are beer geeks and they’re like, ‘This is really good.’ It’s got a funky fermentation — it’s just fun. Our flavors are super unique.”
Roed said the seasonal apple cinnamon maple kombucha and year-round honey lavender chamomile are some of their most popular flavors — “They’re really approachable, easy-drinking kombuchas,” he said — but he and Schmidt tend to favor whatever experimental successes he’s made lately.
“I think the craft beer culture of always doing new flavors is really good, where you give your big fans something new to try every time they come in,” said Roed, Wild Culture’s brewer.
“Tim has a really nice palate,” added Schmidt, who handles sales and distribution. “Cranberry jalapeño? I probably wouldn’t have ever done that. But it was awesome.”
Wild Culture Kombucha was originally sold at the Iowa City Farmers Market and on-tap at some local bars and restaurants. But in October 2018, Roed and Schmidt made their dream of opening a brick-and-mortar taproom a reality. Their space on North Linn Street, next door to Hamburg Inn No. 2, captures the laidback, coffeehouse-meets-brewery vibe of beloved kombucha taprooms in bigger cities.
“We get people that are from L.A. or Brooklyn who come in here and say, ‘This is so cool,’” Schmidt said. “I think we hit kind of a niche that hasn’t been hit in Iowa City.”
Besides a few wines sourced from out of state, Wild Culture Kombucha’s menu is full of local offerings, including Iowa beers on tap, Wake Up Iowa City coffee, Millstream sodas, Laura’s Toasted Soybeans (served as an alternative to beer nuts), Heartland Burritos and La Reyna chips and salsa.
If visitors want a slightly stronger kombucha drink, they may order a kombucha shandy, combining local beer with complementary Wild Culture brews. These rotate all the time, and include the Jurassic Juice (Pseudo Sue IPA from Toppling Goliath mixed with pineapple kiwi coconut kombucha), Golden Tonic (Peace Tree Brewing Co.’s Blonde Fatale with traditional kombucha) and Violet Cow (Big Grove’s Zadar! nitro stout with beet orange lime).
There are no legitimate studies backing up the range health benefits attributed to kombucha — from treating AIDS to filling your gut with probiotics — but Roed and Schmidt say they feel the difference kombucha has made in their diet.
“It gives me kind of an energy boost and makes me more clear-headed,” Schmidt said. “It just resets everything in my system, it feels like. It’s the first thing I drink in the morning.”
“I crave it, the acidity and the refreshing quality of it,” Roed said.
Whether kombucha is consumed casually or religiously, it’s become more than just a substitute for beer or cocktails. With limitless flavor combinations, a satisfyingly crisp mouthfeel and a growing legion of connoisseurs, kombucha has a craft culture all its own.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 262.