WASHINGTON (AP) — In a back room of Washington's Union Kitchen, Andreas Schneider and his co-workers fill 12-ounce glass bottles with a citrus-colored beverage.
A few weeks ago, the drink in the bottle was merely sweetened tea in a large plastic barrel. That was before it spent time under a floating, gooey, rubbery patty in the shape of a thick pancake.
That patty is called a SCOBY, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The bacteria in the colony are living, similar to bacteria found in yogurts, and the yeast is similar to what brewers and distillers use to ferment their beers or their ingredients.
Over the course of several days, the SCOBY transforms the tea into a low-sugar, carbonated, probiotic-packed beverage, known as kombucha.
Schneider began experimenting with kombucha in 2011 when he started business school at George Washington University. He'd been interested in making kombucha for years, he says, but he never found the spare time.
"To really do it properly, you need to be around all the time and really monitor it, otherwise it gets sour fast and turns weird. Kombucha likes attention," he says.
Schneider brought his home-brewed batches to class, and in no time, classmates Daniel Lieberman and John Lee took an interest in the drink.
"They came to school to start their own business and so we started putting our heads together, seeing if this might be a good idea — and it was."
It was a good idea for more reasons than the refreshing taste of Schneider's kombucha. For starters, no other company was making it in the Washington area. And even though people have been drinking kombucha for thousands of years, consumer awareness of the beverage was low in the nation's capital, Schneider says.
"We're trying to make kombucha approachable. It's been around for a while; it has kind of a funky reputation because it's fermented," Schneider says. "You see people being less interested in soda . people want healthier soft drinks; they're trying to cut sugar out of their diets . and kombucha really is a perfect replacement for soda."
That year, the three business students founded Capital Kombucha and worked out of a commercial kitchen space in Petworth, turning out four flavors.
Since its launch, Capital Kombucha has expanded its space to Union Kitchen, in Northeast, where it makes 10 flavors that are sold at more than 100 stores from northern Virginia to Philadelphia, including several Whole Foods locations.
As with brewing beer, making kombucha boils down to science — starting with the SCOBY.
"It's a living drink, and (the bacteria) are living organisms. What you're doing when you make a batch is, you're feeding (the bacteria), and they grow and they replicate," Schneider says.
The SCOBY grows to match the size of the vessel in which it lives. In fact, Schneider jokingly refers to his SCOBY as "a co-founder in the business."
"If you start at home, your one colony, you'll notice, will get thicker. It will get wider as you put it in a new jar, and very soon you'll have distinct layers in the patty for each batch you've brewed — kind of like rings on a tree," he says.
As the SCOBY grows, it can be separated and used in different batches of kombucha.
Even though kombucha is a low-sugar beverage, it doesn't start out that way. Kombucha brewers begin with a sweetened tea because the sugar feeds the fermentation process.
The sugar is converted in two steps, Schneider says. First, the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. Then, the bacteria convert the alcohol into acids and probiotics — organisms that help promote gut and digestive health.
"You drink kombucha because it doesn't have sugar; it has very little sugar, so you need to figure out exactly how much to put in the first tea to make sure that it's all digested by the bacteria so there's not any residual sugar left," Schneider says. "If you put too much sugar into your starting tea, the symbiotic fermentation gets out of whack."
Too much sugar causes the yeast to produce too much alcohol for the bacteria to process, meaning the brewer can wind up with a kombucha that is 1, 2 or 3 percent alcohol, Schneider says.
Schneider says some kombucha brands are licensed as breweries so they can sell their drinks as a low-alcohol beverage. He, on the other hand, makes and markets his main kombucha as a non-alcoholic beverage, and thus is very mindful of the sugar levels.
Once the sweet tea is introduced to the SCOBY, the kombucha is left to ferment anywhere from one week to four, depending on how strong the brewer wants the beverage.
Schneider says tasting and testing the pH of the kombucha is the best way know when it's reached its optional peak. He says a pH of 3.3 is typical for home brewers. Those who like kombucha sour may take it to 2.7 or 2.8. He keeps his perfect pH level a company secret.
Capital Kombucha flavors its kombucha with fresh spices, herbs and fruits, sourced from D.C. Central Kitchen's wholesale produce business, to make kombucha flavors such as Lemongrass Basil, Cucumber Melon, Mango Chili and Strawberry.
"Every company does it differently. Some will add juice and then ferment the juice again. Our approach to flavoring is all about the freshness of the ingredients."
Kombucha is continuing to establish a presence in the beverage industry. It's been popular in many West Coast cities for years, and it's starting to gain traction on the East Coast.
In the last year, a trade group for kombucha brewers was established.
"That's kind of a hint that this is becoming more mainstream," Schneider says.
He attributes the growing popularity to the beverage's health benefits. It's often a drink sought after yoga class or a tough workout, or gulped down for a rejuvenating boost of energy.
"It fits in line with the idea of getting away from the very sterile food culture to something that's living," Schneider says.
"We fully expect much more kombucha in the next few years — locally, nationally — there's no reason why this won't become a very mainstream drink. When you walk into a grocery store you see 30 beers; it would be great to see 30 kombuchas that all tasted differently and were all for a different part of your life and your taste."
Information from: WTOP-FM, http://www.wtop.com