Beers: Triple Goddess Ginger, Triple Goddess Raspberry, Bourbon Peach, and Kombucha Pale Ale Brewery: Unity Vibration Styles: American Wild Ale (?)
Ever been wandering around your local Whole Foods and stumbled upon a selection of teas that appear to have been loogied in? That stuff is called kombucha, and apparently it's the jam. Lauded for its probiotic and antioxidant properties, this funky version of tea has been popular with the health-food crowd since the 90s and is now making its way into the world of beer. But we'll get to that.
First, kombucha: what the hell is it? An ancient beverage that likely originated in Northeast China and later migrated into Russia, kombucha is a special variety of tea that is fermented with a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," or SCOBY -- basically a pancake of clumped-together microorganisms. This bacteria pancake is added to a batch of sweetened tea and allowed to ferment for up to a month. The SCOBY eats the sugars in the tea, giving it carbonation and a vinegary tartness while supposedly making it the world's most healthful beverage.
Are you sensing some skepticism? As with most stuff you pick up at Whole Foods, kombucha is said to provide myriad health benefits -- regular drinkers allege that the funky tea stimulates the immune system, boosts metabolism, raises energy levels, improves digestion and liver function. The stuff can even prevent cancer, they say. And, as with most stuff you pick up at Whole Foods, there's zero evidence to back up any of those claims.
One important compound, however, has been proven to be found in kombucha: alcohol. SCOBYs are made up of many kinds of yeast and bacteria, one of which is commonly Saccharomyces cerevicisiae -- also known as brewers' yeast. This is the same fermenting culture you'll find in almost every bottle of beer you buy, and it works in kombucha the same way it does in brew, gobbling up residual sugars and turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Usually, another bacteria in the SCOBY ferments these alcohols into acetic acid, which is where the vinegary flavor derives, but a small percentage of booze (usually around 0.5 percent ABV) remains. But if the ratios are adjusted in favor of the yeast, you can end up with a much higher alcohol percentage.
Which brings us to Unity Vibration. Owners Rachel and Terek Kanaan have been producing kombucha out of Ypsilanti, Mich. for years, but their foray into "beer" began in 2011. The quotation marks are necessary because Unity Vibration's products can't really be called beer, since they contain no malt. But the four varieties currently in production -- Triple Goddess Ginger, Triple Goddess Raspberry, Kombucha Pale Ale and Bourbon Peach -- are bittered with hops and mimic many flavors of popular American wild ales, so. At any rate, I tried them all, and if there's any truth to the health benefit claims, I am at the moment so full of antioxidants I'm basically a superhero.
Triple Goddess Raspberry Kombucha Beer The "triple goddess" varieties were the two first beers Unity Vibration put into production, and both marry 30-day brewed Kombucha, organic dried hops and organic foodstuffs, and are open-air fermented in oak barrels. The raspberry, obviously, is made with raspberry, which makes the beverage bright pink and bubbly, like a sparkling rosé. The aroma blends a soft vinegar funk with a dash of earthy hops and lemon peel, but hardly any raspberry. The flavor, however, is much sweeter, offering up smooth raspberry jam and more earthiness to balance the bacterial bite.
Triple Goddess Ginger Kombucha Beer As with kombucha tea, each bottle of Unity Vibrations' beer is a living product, with active yeast that continue to bounce around, munch on the tea's sugars and produce carbon dioxide. Carbonation levels vary, and there's definitely the danger of spillovers -- as happened with the ginger version of this beer. Upon popping off the cap, a good third of the bottle spilled out in a fizzy, funky, ginger-tinged eruption. Once in a glass, however, the beer was delightful. The color and clarity of just-squeezed lemonade, it led, in contrast to the other varieties, with ginger, fresh-cut and fresh-squeezed and pickled. Grapefruit and soil aromatics can be picked up before flavors of lemon juice and spicy ginger finish things off. This was my favorite of the bunch -- a glass of liquid pickled ginger. Drink it with sushi.
Kombucha Pale Ale The most beer-like of the kombucha beers, this variety is a bourbon barrel-aged kombucha that's double-hopped then blended with juniper berries and grapefruit. Colored just like the ginger -- a hazy, wheaty hue with no head -- KPA showcases a very different aroma packed with grapefruit pith and menthol. Sweet juniper berries and oak-aging show up in the flavor, while more herbal juniper notes, vinegar, licorice and mint rise up after the swallow.
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Bourbon Peach Like the KPA, this variety is bourbon barrel-aged, but gets a flavor boost from an addition of fresh, whole, organic peaches. The flavors and brewing process would make you salivate, but Bourbon Peach actually smells the worst of all four -- funky, musty vinegar, like Easter egg dye. The flavor is better, thankfully, with tart lemon and sweet peach blending with sourdough and salt before a backdrop of vinegar.
Really, the biggest flavor you get out of all of Unity Vibration's products is vinegar, and they'll do if you need a sour fix. But it's white vinegar -- funky, sharp, biting. I'm more of a balsamic man, myself. They're still worth a try, though, and they're all gluten-free, vegan, organic, bottle-conditioned and raw. I hear people are into that these days.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.