WILMINGTON — Artie and Robin Hill are serious about their kombucha.
The husband-and-wife founders of Panacea Brewing Company had just opened a new satellite brewhouse in the Ogden area when Hurricane Florence approached Wilmington, so they kegged all of their scobies — plural of SCOBY, or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, which is used to brew the probiotic tea — and hightailed it to their native upstate New York to wait out the hurricane.
“That was our insurance policy. If you lose your culture, you lose your starter. If you lose your starter, you lose your business,” Robin Hill said. “Every kombucha we make is a direct correlation to the actual makeup of the culture, and every culture is unique … We treat our scobies like gold.”
Soon after returning they got their alcohol permit to begin brewing what they now call “high gravity kombucha” — or “elevated kombucha”; they’re not quite sure on the name only four weeks into selling their first 300-gallon batch. Artie Hill said large kombucha companies in California are calling it “hard” or “spiked” kombucha, but he doesn’t like the connotations of such words because they fail to portray a four-to-six week brewing process not far different than the production of craft beer.
The production of kombucha begins with the scoby, and the Hills harvest the rubber frisbee-like discs in jars next to their taproom (located at 102 Old Eastwood Rd). When fully grown they are brought a few miles northeast to the brewhouse where they are pitched into large stainless steel tanks, like yeast is pitched in for batches of beer.
“It’s basically a malt liquor,” Artie said. “It’s tea, cane sugar, and water … We make it the same way we make our regular kombucha, except we put way more sugar into it.”
Unlike beer production, the tanks are left “open-aired” — Panacea covers the tops with their trademark tie-dye fabric to protect the liquid from unwanted bugs or bacteria — and the sugars are broken down by natural yeast in the air to produce alcohol. The bacteria then eats the alcohol and makes probiotics during the open-aired fermentation process, which usually takes two weeks.
“This stuff is great — you can drink it and you don’t get a hangover because all of its probiotics,” Robin said.
Because the extra sugar can only bring the kombucha up to 3.5 percent alcohol per volume (ABV), Artie and assistant brewer Andrew Losee transfer it to closed conical tanks then pitch beer or champagne yeast to make it stronger. It sits for an additional month until fermentation is complete.
Losee, an assistant brewer at Waterman’s Brewing Company before hired on at Panacea last October, said the transition into kombucha production has been enlightening.
“At first I had no idea what all of this was. I had never even tried kombucha before; I didn’t know what a scoby was,” Losee said. “That was one of the things that led me into craft beer in the first place, because you can experiment and be different, and people will appreciate it.”
Plans to brew kombucha beer, expand distribution
In early March the Hills began selling their first three varieties of high gravity kombucha — one brewed with purple butterfly pea tea, another with red and yellow hibiscus tea, and coming soon, a 10-percent-ABV black green tea.
An experienced home brewer before he and his wife opened Panacea in late 2016, Artie is now experimenting with his first few batches of kombucha beer, brewed with a kettle system by mashing in sorghum grain. He said the quality of the product will be similar to sour Belgians and light Berliner Weisses, and he expects the beer to hit the market within three months.
Currently, the Hills sell kegs of their non-alcoholic kombucha to roughly 40 bars and taprooms in the Wilmington area, but with the recent addition of a single-use bottle tap machine they plan to begin distributing bottles of their non-alcoholic product to local grocery stores.
“Once we get this thing going we’ll be able to hit our wholesale market a lot harder,” Artie said.
For Robin, the transition into the world of craft alcoholic beverages fits well within their vision of creating a product that is difficult to classify.
“It kind of creates this weird feeling of space within the craft beer or beverage community, because people don’t quite know what to think about us,” she said. “Most breweries in town are carrying our kombucha. Now that we’re doing a little bit of alcohol, people are not quite sure where we fall. We’ll see where this takes us.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com