Hiding in plain sight: Good vibe at Gold Vibe Kombuchery
As part of my Hiding in Plain Sight series showcasing Nevada County’s fermentation masters I discovered Gold Vibe Kombuchery. I’m not a kombucha drinker and didn’t know they existed until Dale at Thirsty Barrel offered me a sample of Gold Vibe.
Wow, I thought. That’s good. What is it?
Kombucha is a very modern beverage with a very ancient history. To learn more about it I went to visit brothers Sean and Patrick Millar, owners of Gold Vibe Kombuchery, located in a warehouse in Loma Rica up by the airport. Sean is the brewer. Patrick handles business and sales.
Kombucha is fermented sweetened tea, usually black or green tea. It is classified as a functional beverage meaning that it is a non-alcoholic drink that contains other nutrients with associated health benefits.
Unlike wine or beer which ferment with yeasts that create ethanol (alcohol), kombucha is fermented with yeasts that partner with bacteria that consume the emerging ethanol. To be classified as non-alcoholic a beverage must contain less than one half of one percent alcohol.
Kombucha originated in China around 220 B.C. but didn’t arrive in Europe until the early 20th century where it gained popularity for its beneficial, curative properties.
It didn’t hit America until the 1990s, recognized for probiotic health benefits similar to those of yogurt. It gained increased recognition, sadly, with the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s, when it was popularized as an immune stimulant.
In those early days kombucha was almost entirely a home-made product with the culture (think of a sourdough mother culture) being passed directly from one person to another. To make kombucha, above all else, you have to nurture the culture.
Sean received his culture from a friend 10 years ago. He started home brewing and still uses the same culture to this day.
By the early 2000s commercially produced kombucha was increasingly available mostly through health food stores but also some bigger companies like Whole Foods. It was regarded primarily as a health product.
Here’s the quirky thing that changed everything, catapulting kombucha beyond the health food circle towards the mainstream. Remember, kombucha is a raw, living product complete with active yeast in the bottle. It is not sterile filtered so it must be refrigerated to keep the yeast quiet. If it warms up the yeast wake up and get back to work eating remaining sugars creating CO2 as a byproduct.
Typically kombucha has a little spritz to it so nobody thought much about it. That is until a food inspector in Maine started noticing leaking bottles on a shelf back in 2009.
It turned out nobody was actually checking the alcohol levels and some brands had as much as 2.5% alcohol, a buzz-worthy amount considerably more than the 0.5% allowed. In 2010 Whole Foods pulled kombucha from its shelves.
It wasn’t a good PR-time for kombucha. I can imagine people being horrified to discover they had been drinking alcohol. Take Lindsay Lohan for example. In 2010 Lohan’s alcohol-monitoring bracelet went off due to her consumption of kombucha.
It was a seismic moment. The Federal alcohol guys got involved, regulations were established and a cross road created; the traditional non-alcohol (soft) style and the new hard kombucha style.
Sean Millar started by brewing the traditional non-alcoholic style. Practice makes perfect and he got pretty good at it. In 2018 he and Patrick filed the papers to open NC Kombuchery. Operating on a shoestring, everything was hands on.
They sold their first batch in May of 2019. Key to their success, besides tons of hard work, Sean’s expertise as a brewer, and the quality of their mother culture, is their use of whole fruits, herbs, and spices as flavoring ingredients.
Rather than using juice or extracts, they cut up fresh apples and grind cinnamon sticks to produce their seasonal Apple Crisp. Their Trifecta Kombucha includes fresh blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.
“It makes a huge difference in the taste of the final product,” Sean explained. “It’s what makes ours the best.”
It’s been a rocky road. The good news was they were well received. The flip side was they were immediately bound by growing pains, struggling to make as much as they needed. They went from renting one unit in their facility to renting three to house all the tanks and equipment.
In October 2019 they released Gold Vibe, their first hard kombucha. Having both versions widened the market past health food stores into liquor aisles, restaurants and bars.
As chief salesman, Patrick realized he could not keep up. He connected with a distributor to cover the local area and has two more covering the greater Bay Area.
And then COVID hit.
“It was tough,” Patrick said. “We had months with zero sales. That’s scary.”
In spite of the turbulence of the last year, they’re riding a surging wave, hanging ten on the tip of a trend. Good kombucha is crisp and refreshing, a little spritzy, low in calories, low in alcohol, or none, and regarded as healthy. That checks all the boxes trending in alcohol right now, and theirs is delicious.
With that in mind Sean and Patrick are moving down the street to a facility with more work space and room for a real taproom open to the public. They plan to be open by the first of the year.
In the meantime I’m giving Gold Vibe a regular slot in my fridge.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-802-7172
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