There’s a recent buzz around a macrobiotic tea called Kombucha, which is a gluten free, yeast-based elixir touted for its detoxifying properties. It also turns out to contain a small amount of alcohol from its natural fermentation process.
That was a problem for the federal government which last summer pulled all Kombucha-based beverages from the shelves for lab testing and then re-classified them as a regulated alcoholic beverage.
It could have been a problem for the Kanaans, the husband and wife owners of the Ypsilanti startup Unity Vibration Living Kombucha Tea, and who brew their popular beverages right out of their home. After a year of operation, the two were suddenly shut out of local farmers markets, health food stores and other places that sold their herbal-based product.
“It was a huge industry shake up nationally,” says Tarek Kanaan.
They had to choose. Change their brewing process to artificially strip the alcohol from the tea or embrace the re-classification.
“We had to decide what to do. People tried to sell us the de-alcoholization machines,” says Rachel Kanaan. “We were like no way. We’re never going to do that.”
It turns out the same fermentation process for Kombucha tea, if tweaked a little, can also make a zesty Lambic-style beer.
Nine months later, Unity Vibration is now a licensed microbrewery that produces both Kombucha teas, which contain 1.5 percent alcohol, and a more potent cousin — their Kombucha beer has 8-9 percent alcohol.
“As far as we know we’re the only pure Kombucha beer in the country,” says Rachel.
In a short time, their brews have caught on. It was a hit at the Michigan Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti and is now slated for shelves at about 50 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, Plum Market and other restaurants and stores served by Imperial Beverages, a distributor which also handles Michigan beers by Jolly Pumpkin, Shorts and Atwater.
They’re also talking with a master distributor to go national.
“Kombucha was born in California and it would sell so well there,” says Tarek.
Though popular in Russia and China for decades if not centuries, Kombucha tea has only recently caught on in the United States outside of California. Naturally-carbonated and unpasteurized, it’s fermented from a cane sugar that when fed yeast and other bacteria produces a mushroom-like bloom called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast).
The SCOBY converts the sugar and into enzymes, acids and pro-biotics said to provide health benefits. It also produces a little alcohol.
According to BevNet.com, a beverage industry newsletter, even after last summer’s reclassification, category sales of Kombucha grew by 28 percent in 2010. It’s projected to make another leap forward this year.
“Kombucha is going to be like yogurt in the 70s. No one knew what it was, now there are a million brands,” says Tarek. “It’s going to be a household name.”
The Kanaans are making gains as well. Last month they received “Organic” certification by the USDA. They rolled out new labels designed by Flow Design in Northville. And they now offer smaller, individual 12 oz. bottle servings at $3.89 to go with the larger 750 ml bottles for $6.99.
Unity Vibration beers and teas have five year-round flavors plus four seasonals.
A U-M graduate in engineering with a master’s in social work, Tarek Kanaan says he is a natural process planner and has been home brewing beer since he was a teenager.
He and Rachel, who is also massage therapist and dance instructor, have been learning the business through trial and error.
“We’re not business people. I was an engineer before. We’re both musicians, both artists,” Tarek says.
“This is totally new to us. We were stubbornly saying, ‘we believe in sharing.’ We want to bring Kombucha to the dinner table. But retailers were saying the price was too high and there weren’t single servings,” Rachel says.
Their goal next year is to produce 1,000 cases a month. That means finding a larger space than a side room and converted pantry in their 2,400 square foot home.
“We want our house back. Our carpets are trashed and our kids are like, 'out of the way, coming through',” Rachel said.
They’d like to move the drum set and instruments for their indie rock band out of the living room as well.
So the Kanaans are on the lookout for a larger facility to handle more volume and a tasting room to showcase their Kombucha.
“To unveil experimental flavors and sell other local Michigan foods and things that pair well with Kombucha,” says Tarek.
The beer is fruity. Tarek says he adds 13 and a half pounds of Michigan fruit to each seasonal batch. Kombucha was a hit at the Ypsilanti beer fest this summer.
“People loved it,” says Rachel. “We had a long line a whole time.”
“Several people said it was the highlight of the whole festival,” says Tarek.