Fermenting a Fresh Craze

Melanie Wade on brewing Atlanta’s first and only kombucha

written by Heather KW Brown | photos courtesy of Alan Brooks Photography; Golda Press

0U2A4543Forget the hooch. It’s all about the “booch” now.

I say that, in part, because my early attempts to name the beverage were botched beyond recognition, calling into question whether I had sneezed or simply misspoken. Let’s go ahead and get the awkwardness out of the way…the correct pronunciation for kombucha is “comb-boo-cha.”

As Atlanta’s only commercial kombucha brewer bottled in Roswell, Melanie Wade understands that sharing her craft requires a fair amount of education, even for those of us that already love the healthy concoction. Curious to learn the proper pronunciation, a smidgen of science and the story behind the brand, I sat down with Wade to talk tea.

Yes, kombucha is tea, but with a twist. While many brewers use black or green tea for kombucha, Wade uses oolong, which she said is a nice middle ground.

“The great thing about kombucha is that you can do a lot with it,” Wade said of creating her go-to flavors. “You can add herbs, spices and flavorings. 0U2A4516HDR

[Many] commercial brewers make a fruit juice and then add a certain percentage to the tea. I don’t like to do that because I like the kombucha to be low in sugar. I infuse the fruit and herbs.”

“[Some] people that have tried commercial kombucha say they aren’t a fan, but they try mine, and like it a lot better,” she added. “I attribute that to the oak age, which adds a lot of mellowness and a woodsy flavor. That and the familiar flavors we’re used to in the South.”

As fun as creating complex flavors sounds, the science side of kombucha does not. Enter the SCOBY, a word I didn’t understand until Wade explained it to be an acronym for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. No SCOBY — also known as “The Mother” — no kombucha.

“SCOBY started in Manchuria, China and has been passed down from generations of family, friends and communities for more than 2,000 years,” Wade said. “It can last a really long time, but you have to feed it – it eats the sugar and the caffeine and the tannins in the tea. That’s how it stays alive and produces the probiotics that are naturally occurring in the acids.”

Wade must have noticed the look on my face as I internally debated the merits of digesting something that old. She quickly added, “It looks odd, but it’s actually very good for you. I like to relate it to a jellyfish pancake because it forms on top of whatever you’re brewing it in. Most of the time, that circumference is round and since [SCOBY] has a simple root system, it hangs beneath.”

Science experiments and I don’t occupy the same space for long, so I opted out of the lesson in lieu of a good story.

10481172_638569169572964_7698456433437781337_nAS GOOD AS GOLD
I could also say, “as good as Golda.” The namesake lining local shelves is Wade’s 94-year-old maternal grandmother who taught her how to brew kombucha and, more importantly, continues to confirm its “Elixir of Life” nickname.

“[Grandma Golda] has been making it for more than 20 years,” Wade said, smiling. “She’s a little, widowed mountain lady who lives in southwest Virginia, still mows her own yard and plants tomatoes.”

“When I was a kid, she always had these weird vats of tea. Grandma brings mason jars [of kombucha] to people in her community. That’s what she’s known for.”

Grandma Golda, as Wade describes her, is a “spry, holistic health nut,” who discovered how healthy her tea was during a routine doctor visit.

“She had low platelets in her blood count for a long time and right about that time she started drinking the tea every day,” Wade said. “After a few months, her count had [improved] and her blood work looked great. Grandma told the doctor, ‘I know what I’m doing. I have a secret tea.’”

Not such a secret anymore, the benefits of kombucha are widely accepted and continue to garner attention from healthy shoppers of all ages.

Packed with probiotics, it’s similar to the live and active cultures found in yogurt, kimchi or kefir.

As Wade explained, “It’s actually a little bit more than what you would get in yogurt. Kombucha has thousands and millions of probiotics and unlike pills [that have live cultures but are actually dormant because they are encapsulated], these are all living.”

It has a high content of probiotics, [making it] great for digestion as well as immune system support. It alkalizes your body so it’s a full body elixir,” she added.

Grandma Golda was onto something, and Wade made it her personal mission to share.

Four years ago, as a grassroots home-brewer, Wade took Golda’s basic “secret tea” recipe and added her own twist, staying true to Southern culture by using local herbs and fruits. Her flagship flavor is peach ginger for which she uses all local peaches from Pearson Farms and fresh ginger.

Other delicious flavors include strawberry mint and a lavender lemonade. In the fall, brews include apple ginger spice, vanilla chai and cranberry orange.

The 27-year-old visionary has come a long way since the fall of 2012 when she graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in journalism, a concentration in public relations, certification in event management and a minor in art.

“I was good at [my job] and I loved it, but it wasn’t my passion,” she said. “I really wanted to be an entrepreneur. Every night, I was going to my commercial kitchen working on recipes, bottling and getting product on the shelves. On the weekends, I was doing all sorts of festivals. I was selling out, but I couldn’t keep up. [By spring,] I could see it really taking off, so I decided to leave my career to give it a shot.”

Although Whole Foods contacted Wade only two months into production, she chose to continue brewing in
microbatches. She currently produces about 60 gallons a week and delivers products herself to local purveyors.

In June, she celebrated her first year as a commercial brewer in the market, complete with a commercial kitchen and a kombucha tea growler station — the first of its kind — installed inside The Mercantile in Decatur. Ever the go-getter, Wade is now looking to build Atlanta’s first kombuchery with a little tasting room, a place to fill growlers and room to enjoy a pint onsite.

IMG_2221To help reach this goal, she has launched a Kickstarter campaign running through Aug. 2 (to donate, visit bit.ly/expand_golda). What does Grandma Golda think about that?

“She supports me 100 percent. I call her almost every day with updates on the business and I always remind her to drink the tea,” Wade said. “I want her to live a long time. I want her to see the results of this … that I made it.”

We’ll be keeping an eye on Wade and her booming booch, too.
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