Kombucha Companies Add Culture to New Mexico
By Carrie Murphy · Photos by Stacey M. Adams
Kombucha on tap.
Gone are the days when kombucha was a drink you had to make yourself, brewed in covered jars containing gooey “mushroom” cultures. In recent years, the fermented tea has emerged as a trendy, mainstream wellness product. Here in New Mexico, several local producers are taking the lead on bringing kombucha to the masses—not only as a health drink, but as a small-batch beverage meant to spur a local food movement.
Although it’s gained plenty of enthusiastic fans in the last few years (just take a look in the coolers at Sprouts or Whole Foods to see a host of national brands), it’s hardly a new beverage. Kombucha was first consumed in ancient China and was brewed in Russia and Eastern Europe for centuries. It is tea, sweetened with sugar, that is cultured with a “scoby” (short for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”), a living organism chock full of probiotics like lactobacillus and other beneficial yeasts, minerals, and acids. Brewed for about ten days, these good-for-your-gut bacteria and yeasts feed on the sugar to create an effervescent, tangy, acidic, and slightly sweet final product that is believed to promote healthy intestinal flora and a strong immune system.
Fans of the fizzy beverage say it boosts energy, prevents sickness, and can even help regulate blood sugar. Research, too, supports the benefits of drinking kombucha: A 2014 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food reported that it can help with several health functions, including detoxification, antioxidation, energy, and immunity.
For Katlyn Jennings, founder of Santa Fe’s The Kombucha Project, kombucha has truly been a balm. “Kombucha is an antioxidant-rich, probiotic food. It can really impact your sense of wellness and well-being,” Jennings says, adding, “It’s changed my life.” The benefits she experienced from the drink after a serious accident in 2014 encouraged her to found the company eighteen months ago.
New Mexico Ferments’ founder Ryan Brown and his wife and son sipping the fruits of their labor.
A former employee of the New Mexico Farmers’ Market Association, Jennings knew that New Mexico’s market was ripe for small-batch, local kombucha. She hit the ground running in 2016, educating consumers and retailers about kombucha as a healthy craft beverage. Her efforts proved fruitful—today, The Kombucha Project’s kombucha and jun (a kombucha-like beverage brewed from green tea and honey) are on tap at Violet Crown and Iconik in Santa Fe, and are also sold at La Montañita Co-op, Los Poblanos, and other local spots.
Jennings’ efforts have paved the way for other local purveyors, too. Ryan Brown founded New Mexico Ferments in early 2017, selling kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods at local markets in Albuquerque. Within his first month of business, New Mexico Ferments’ kombucha was on tap at Santa Fe Brewing Company. It’s now also sold at Deep Space Coffee and Duel Brewing in Albuquerque, as well as at Taos Mesa Brewing.
For Brown, a Corrales native, brewing and selling kombucha is a way to bring the benefits of fermented foods to the community. So far, New Mexico Ferments has allowed him to spend more time with his family, as well—his infant son Arlo is with him every week at the Rail Yards Market in Albuquerque. Brown sings the praises of ferments’ effects on the gut, a benefit he initially discovered after a serious bout with digestive upset while traveling in Central America. “It helps regulate your digestive system,” he says. “So much stems from the gut, so if you can get that healthy, everything follows suit.”
His customers rave about his products, too—Brown says Rail Yards Market customers report that his kombucha, which comes in flavors from prickly pear to turmeric, has helped them with everything from weight loss to relief from symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Ayla Bystrom-Williams is another local entrepreneur whose vision of kombucha is set to change the palates and the guts of New Mexicans. HoneyMoon Brewery, headquartered in Santa Fe, is on the cutting edge of the next wave of craft beverages in the US. Bystrom-Williams and her partner James Hill founded HoneyMoon in 2014, fueled by the vision of a smooth, great-tasting bottle of kombucha that just so happens to be alcoholic. Bystrom-Williams says the couple’s carefully-developed product retains many of the beneficial properties of kombucha, preserved right alongside the 3.5 percent alcohol content: “It’s unlike any type of drinking experience you’ve ever had. You feel a relaxed sensation in your digestive system prior to feeling a buzz.”
Left to right, clockwise: Hibiscus lavender and prickly pear kombucha; ingredients for brewing; barrel aging kombucha adds a unique flavor.
Although HoneyMoon’s “kombucha beer” isn’t yet available to the public, the fledgling company has already had considerable support, both locally and nationally. After applying for the New Mexico small business assistance program, Bystrom-Williams and Hill were partnered with Los Alamos National Labs. Scientists at the labs assisted them with research, chemistry, and microbiology, ultimately helping to create a truly-one-of-a-kind drink. In 2016, HoneyMoon won first place in Miller Lite’s national Tap the Future contest—complete with a $200,000 grand prize.
HoneyMoon is betting their part-healthy, part-boozy kombucha creation will resonate with the craft beer market, a group of adventurous consumers who care just as much about wellness as they do about a great-tasting brew. A commitment to sustainable and environmentally-friendly business practices is also key for the company—and New Mexico is an integral part of their vision. “We want to create a path for people in an area that is literally a desert in terms of opportunities,” says Bystrom-Williams. “That’s a huge driving force, to support the New Mexico ecosystem. For us, it’s go big or go home.”
Jennings and Brown, too, are committed to keeping their businesses local and community-oriented. Brown plans to open a food truck selling fermented foods, introducing central New Mexico to even more gut-friendly strains of good bacteria. Jennings’ jun blends already use honey and lavender from Albuquerque’s North Valley, and in the future, she’ll incorporate local herbs.
The future looks bright for New Mexico kombucha, especially as people come around to the delicious taste and varied health effects. “People have one idea of kombucha,” says Jennings, “as a health drink, as this gross-tasting thing. I want people to get excited about how kombucha makes their bodies feel, but I also want them to enjoy it. Kombucha has so much more nuance.”
Nuance, flavor, and plenty of health benefits? We’ll drink to that.