THUNDER BAY -- If you’re a soda addict looking to cut back on all that sugar, (or avoid aspartame) Bryce Epp might have just the thing for you.
Epp started Kumbaya Kombucha two years ago after a friend introduced him to the fermented tea in 2015. “I became instantly hooked, because of the carbonation. I just loved that naturally carbonated fizz,” he says.
He got a starter culture (also called SCOBY, an acronym for Symbiotice Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) and started brewing at home. Fascinated, he even traveled to Vancouver to visit small breweries there. The decision to turn his new passion into a business came from an entirely different source, however. In 2016 PepsiCo acquired kombucha brewer KeVita, signifying the funky beverage’s entry into mainstream culture.
“Once the awareness is out, I thought there would be room for a small guy with a good product to compete,” he says. “That’s the hard part; people didn’t know what kombucha is.”
Kombucha is a drink made by fermenting sweetened tea and is tart and sweet, slightly alcoholic and carbonated. Fermentation converts the sugar into various acids and enzymes and the end product contains B-vitamins and vitamin C.
Epp starts the process by boiling 130 gallons of water in a special electric kettle, then he makes a giant vat of tea with it. Sugar and the starter culture is added, and fermentation takes about a month. After that, he transfers some to another vat for a second fermentation, adding fresh fruit to infuse. The used fruit Epp recycles into another product; he makes fruit roll-ups by blending the fruit with sugar and some of the scoby (which looks like a pancake-shaped gelatinous blob) and dehydrates it.
“I really like that there’s no waste; zero waste is a philosophy of mine,” he says.
In his new facility on May street, Epp produces about 1,000 gallons of the drink every month, and sells it there and at the Thunder Bay Country Market, where he has a stall on the main floor. He hopes to scale up production so that he can start providing kegs of kombucha to restaurants and bars in town.
Fascinated by all things fermented, Epp experiments with various fermented products, from kimchi (sold at both the store and at the market) to black garlic, and is looking into various ways he can use scobies - he has heard about leather made from the starter culture, as well as skin care products.
Kumbaya Kombucha also sells scobies for those who want to dabble. $5 will get you a small hunk which you can add to a gallon of sweetened tea. Epp does free workshops showing people how to home-brew; you can google it and find the information, but he wants to make sure people know how to do it the right way, because as with anything fermented, things can go wrong.
“If people get so interested that they’ll brew, they become real proselytizers and they tell all their friends and family. The more people I can get out there brewing and loving it, the better,” he says. Kombucha is fairly low maintenance, making it easy to start - and to stop. “Once you cut off the food supply (the oxygen and the sugars) it goes dormant. I’ve had scobies dormant in jars for years.”