For the past few years, craft breweries and distilleries have been converting abandoned warehouses by the dozen into thriving local businesses. While “craft” beer and cocktails are in danger of becoming the next “artisanal” fad, some local brewers are looking to past traditions for new ways to craft beverages that promote health and preserve local ingredients.
Stephen Joseph Mekoski, owner and brewmaster at MoonBooch Kombucha, began making his own kombucha as a chef in California. The fermented tea dates back to around 220 B.C. and was first made in Asia before it traveled to Russia and then Europe.
Mekoski drank kombucha before service to focus his energy. He liked the tea and began experimenting with homebrewing. As his passion for the tea grew, he looked into building a commercial kombucha business on the East Coast that focused on small batch fermentation and local ingredients.
“I have research that brings the tea back to Japan where people used to brew tea out of kelp,” Mekoski said. “It’s said that someone left a cup of sweet tea out and that some wild yeast got in the tea. After several days, he tasted it and got this great balance of sweet and acidic.”
Instead of relying on wild yeast, Mekoski turned to Hex Ferments from Baltimore to get his high-quality starters or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). The SCOBY naturally ferments the tea over time. After the fermentation process, Mekoski adds local juices and ingredients to flavor the brew.
“The key is understanding how fermentation and brewing work,” Mekoski explained. “It’s applying all different types of ingredients, such as sugars and teas — everything you can think of. It’s trying to figure out what flavor profile you are really going for.”
Similarly Scott Meyer, owner of Congaree & Penn Farms, found inspiration from the past when crafting his first drinking shrubs.
“We’d been looking into cider or jelly for our mayhaws,” Meyer said. “For us, the goal [was] to preserve the fruit year-round.”
With an abundance of local mayhaw fruit from his farm, he wanted an alternative to the sugar-filled jellies he found in stores. With a little research, he decided to try out the drinking shrub, which dates back to 17th century England. The practice quickly transferred to the American colonies where the vinegar-based syrup became an incredibly popular way to preserve fruit.
“The colonial shrub is very American,” Meyer said. “Depending on your definition of Southern, it’s a Southern drink, but it was in the southeast with traces up the East Coast.
After a lot of trial and error and relying on help from his sister-in-law who’s a chef, Meyer found the perfect process for making the popular Congaree & Penn shrubs. He starts by sourcing high-quality local ingredients from his farm or others nearby. Next, he freezes and then cold-presses the fruit, letting it refrigerate before adding in the perfect balance of organic cane sugar and apple cider vinegar. The result is a syrup that is perfect for cocktails, sodas or simply water that has become one of the farm’s most popular items.
Across the U.S., both shrubs and kombucha have enjoyed a resurgence, becoming popular beverages served in bars, restaurants and health food stores. While still tiny in comparison to other beverages, both drinks have had some large-scale operations start to appear in supermarkets and stores. However, these local businesses aren’t looking to expand too quickly. Instead they are focused on producing high-quality, small-batch, brews dedicated to their historic craft.
If you’re interested in knowing more about these ancient brews, you can learn more about local shrubs and kombucha and find out where to taste them for yourself at congareeandpenn.com and facebook.com/moonbooch.