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There's a new brewery in town, but this one is a little different. It doesn't brew beer. Instead it brews kombucha, a 2,000-year-old drink made from fermented, sweetened tea.
Andreas Schneider opened the District's very first kombucha brewery, Capital Kombucha, with two of his buddies from business school at George Washington University. They just graduated this summer.
An acquired taste for some
Operating out of Union Kitchen, Washington's first "food incubator," Schneider and his partners use special "tents" to ferment their product. The "tents" are actually miniature greenhouses, warmed to 80 or 90 degrees, and covered with blue, zip-up rain tarps, to help block out the light.
Inside each tent are rows of white plastic barrels, each containing sweetened tea with an added kombucha culture, or "mother," as it's called. As the mother culture digests the sugar in the tea, a "baby" culture is produced, also known by the acronym, "SCOBY" (Symbiotic Colony/Collection/Community of Bacterie and Yeast).
As fermentation continues, the SCOBY grows. Eventually the liquid is tapped, retaining some of it for subsequent batch of kombucha.
Now, for a long time in the United States, kombucha was primarily a home-brewed thing. But over the past decade or so, it's gone more mainstream, so now you can find it in all sorts of flavors. Up until now, Capital Kombucha has sold four: Basil Lemongrass, Mango Chili, Ginger and Mint Lime.
Kombucha is known for its effervescent quality, its probiotic properties, and, as Andreas Schneider knows all too well, its sometimes funky taste.
"I grew up in upstate New York on a small organic farm," he explains. "It was on the farm that I first learned about kombucha; my dad introduced me to it. During the summers he'll spend, like, hours on the tractor making hay. It gets hot and he gets thirsty. And one summer he transitioned to kombucha. So I came home from college and he's like, 'You have to try this stuff!'"
But Schneider says his initial reaction wasn't exactly "thumbs up."
"This stuff tastes awful," he remembers thinking. "This is really horrible and I don't like it!" And that's the thing, Schneider says. Like wine, beer and yogurt, kombucha is, of course, fermented. So it can sometimes have this sharp, sour taste and smell.
But after Schneider tried this curious concoction, he began meeting people who'd gulp it down to recover from a tough workout, or to detox the morning after throwing a few sheets to the wind.
"And so I was like, 'This is a very interesting product,'" Schneider says. "If my dad's in to it, if these friends who go out all the time are in to it, there's something here that's obviously speaking to people. And if the only thing holding it back is that the taste is a little weird, maybe I can figure out how to make it taste better."
Making kombucha a local product
In 2011, Schneider teamed up with GW classmates John Lee and Dan Lieberman, and they began experimenting with different flavor varieties, fermentation times and carbonation levels.
"The MBA skills we're probably using the most are adaptability and problem solving," Schneider explains. "But it's definitely not just number crunching, which is what I think we like about it. We've had to interview chemists and biologists to learn how this fermentation stuff works. And through a lot of practice, a lot of research, a lot of trial and error, we think we're getting good at it."
They also seem to be getting more popular. You can now buy Capital Kombucha at nearly 60 stores around the region, and just this week the guys added five new flavors to their repertoire: Coconut Water, Cucumber Melon, Cherry Blossom, Peach, and Strawberry. Capital Kombucha sources all its ingredients through D.C. Central Kitchen, which runs a produce-wholesaling business.
"We want to keep our money in the community and love working with them and love their relationships they've built with local growers," Schneider says.
Speaking of "local," Andreas Schneider prides Capital Kombucha for being one of the first kombucha breweries on the east coast.
"The two largest kombucha producers in the country right now are both based out of L.A.," he says. "And the people who drink it tend to be younger, active, in to healthy food, in to experimenting kind of unique tastes, exploring food.
"And it got me thinking, if something can catch on with all these people, let's see if these folks live in D.C. And they do! I mean, we're one of the youngest cities in the country. We're one of the healthiest cities in the country. And so we kind of thought, there's no reason why there can't be a local brewery here, and there really should be."
Schneider says he and his partners hope to eventually distribute Capital Kombucha across the country. They're also widening their product line, starting with mint-lime kombucha sorbet, made in partnership with local gelateria Dolcezza.
"This is part of our plan to make sure people have kombucha at and after every meal of their day," Schneider says.
Because after all, you can drink kombucha straight, mix it in cocktails, blend it in a smoothie, or a protein shake after the gym. When we jokingly suggest that kombucha probably wouldn't work poured over cereal, Andreas Schneider arches an eyebrow and smiles.
"Never say never!" he says.
[Music: "Tea for Two" by Cha Cha from Cha Cha Cha]
Photos: Capital Kombucha