Kentucky Kombucha ramps up to meet growing popularity

Paul Haney and wife Ali made Kentucky Kombucha a full-time business in early 2016. Photo courtesy of Ali Haney.

Paul Haney and wife Ali made Kentucky Kombucha a full-time business in early 2016. | Courtesy of Ali Haney

Paul Haney has been brewing kombucha for years, but he never imagined it would become a business.

Three years ago, while operating an organic farm with his wife Ali in Springfield, Ky., Haney realized by accident that of the hundreds kombucheries in the U.S., there was no one commercially producing the fermented beverage in the bluegrass.

“This is a state where anything that can be brewed is brewed,” he says.

Haney had been producing kombucha in small batches primarily for personal use — he discovered no one locally was making it when he ran out and went looking for some to purchase — for some time, but he and Ali decided to work on a definitive recipe. Ali came up with a lemongrass-infused brew Paul says was “better than anything I’d ever tasted off the shelf.”

So, they decided to start pushing the product more by featuring it at regional farmers markets, including the weekly Douglass Loop market in the Highlands. It was in 2013 when they first unveiled it at Douglas Loop with two flavors, and it went over so well, they began working on new recipes and bringing more and more product. By 2015, Kentucky Kombucha was part of the regular production of the organic farm.

And in 2016, they decided to scrap the commercial farming to make way for a full-fledged kombuchery. It’s a full-time gig now. And the timing couldn’t be better, with Kentucky following the trend toward more healthful living, from organic food to craft everything.

Kombucha, which traditionally has been brewed using black tea, falls squarely into this because of its legendary health benefits that include, according to the Kentucky Kombucha label, probiotics, antioxidants, organic acids and enzymes. Proponents of the beverage say its effects include detoxification of the body, which helps keep the liver healthy and prevent cancer; promoting joint health and helping to prevent and treat arthritis; digestive health; and boosting immune system and general health.

There are detractors who say there is no proof kombucha can do all, or any, of these things. But one thing they can’t deny is that kombucha is a unique and refreshing beverage. While it is fermented, it does not contain alcohol (well, not much) — instead, it produces a lightly sour drink that is actually more tart than sour on the palate. It can be chilled or poured over ice.

Kumbucha during fermentation. Photo courtesy of Taste Lab.

Kumbucha during fermentation | Courtesy of Taste Lab

Some are put off by the fact that kombucha literally is alive when it is consumed. It starts with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast called SCOBY, known as a “mother,” which resembles a floating mushroom. This can be reused to make multiple batches, and it will grow with each batch. (A SCOBY is apparently an unpleasant creature and can’t be unseen once seen.)

Modern kombucheries infuse the product with various flavors — Kentucky Kombucha offers Black & Green Tea, Lemongrass, Ginger, Jasmine and the newly introduced Black and Red Tea. The products are available in more than 60 retail outlets, restaurants and bars around Kentucky, with the largest presence being right here in Louisville, from Blue Dog Bakery and North End Café to Lucky’s Market and Seviche.

I purchased a bottle of Black & Green Tea and a bottle of Ginger recently at The Reynolds Grocery Company in Clifton. The former was what I expected, a refreshing, tart drink with plenty of body. However, since my first taste of Kentucky Kombucha was of the Lemongrass, I had other plans for the Ginger. I was offered the kombucha by Pat Hagan, who says he plans to use it in cocktails at Craft House.

My reaction was, “This would make a great margarita.”

I used the Ginger to make a whiskey cocktail: equal parts Bulleit Rye and Kentucky Kombucha, with a couple splashes of orange juice, and after a few shakes, I was feeling fine.

Kentucky Kombucha began as part of an organic farm. It is now in more than 60 retail outlets, bars and restaurants across Kentucky. Photo by Kevin Gibson.

Kentucky Kombucha began as part of an organic farm. It is now in more than 60 retail outlets, bars and restaurants across Kentucky. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

In that spirit, the next step for Kentucky Kombucha, now that it’s a full-time kombuchery, will be to promote it to craft spirits bars as a healthful and tasty mixer. Haney says a bartender at North End once made a cocktail for him that included Ginger Kombucha with one shot of Tanqueray gin and one shot of St. Germaine Liqueur.

“Oh my god,” Haney says, “I’m afraid I could go from just enjoying one to blacking out in no time.”

But, he notes, “Any drink that has a sour component to it, it’s safe to say kombucha would pair well with it. I guess if your mind is in the right place, you could probably mix it with anything.”

Whether it’s used as a mixer or just an everyday soft drink, Haney is not only happy to have been the first kombuchery in Kentucky — there are now others — but happy to see the beverage coming into its own in the state. And the Haneys are working on new flavor possibilities, including a seasonal blueberry version that is coming soon. In addtion, the business has plans to expand its operations in the near future.

“We kind of serendipitously came into it, but we came by it honestly,” he says of the product. “We recognized the health benefits a long time ago.”