Fermentation is the alchemy of the drinks world. In beer-making the addition of yeast to a few simple ingredients results in the conversion of natural sugars into alcohol and the production of carbon dioxide fizz, while in food more often it is bacteria that drives the process, as in the production of yoghurt, vinegar and that vegetable accompaniment du jour, kimchi.
Kombucha, a fermented non-alcoholic tea drink devised in northern China more than 2,000 years ago, goes one step further. It’s double fermented, employing the fermentation power of both yeast and bacteria in what is known as a SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria. This acts a bit like the starter culture in sourdough bread, forming a layer across the top of the tea infusion to bring unique properties to the liquid below. With a bit of care and practice, it’s something you can make at home, and that’s where Peter Barrett, the man behind Belfast’s Craft Tea Brew Co, started out.
An agricultural biologist with a PhD from Queen’s in agronomy, Peter began delving into the magical world of kombucha fermentation about seven years ago by making a few experimental brews in his garage. “It was curiosity as much as anything,” he says. “I was looking for a healthy, low sugar alternative drink and thought I’d have a go at it myself.”
It was literally a case of being bitten by the bugs. Peter developed a passion for using microbes and yeast to make kombucha and eventually, drawing on experience gained in the agri-food industry, he decided to start commercial production of his drinks.
His first kombucha for sale appeared at the Twilight Market at St George’s in December 2018 and for a year afterwards Peter continued to work on the products in his garage. The following year, however, production moved to commercial premises and now it’s produced in a microbrewery near Drumbo, outside Belfast.
The crucial element in all of his drinks is tea. “It’s vital for flavour and different varieties will result in a different kombucha,” says Peter. “We source a lot of specialist teas but occasionally leaves that are stinkers as a cup of tea can turn out to make great kombucha. It’s hard to guess sometimes just what will happen when you bring fermentation to the process.”
“Our kombucha is a naturally fermented energy drink that is low in sugar, non-alcoholic and has no artificial sweeteners or flavourings,” Peter adds. “It is a live, unpasteurised product full of vitamins and digestive enzymes that are good for your gut.”
His original recipe forms the basis of a range of six canned drinks marketed under the brand name The Bucha’s Dog. Among them is The Hoptimist, which has real grapefruit, peaches and hops added at the start of the process so the sugars in the fruit play their own part in the fermentation process. Another, dubbed Assamson & Goliath, is based on black tea, and both it and the green tea-based Lightning McGreen use leaves sourced from Thompson’s, the makers of Punjana.
And now a second range has been added. Called the Craft Tea Cat, it’s a collection of sparkling teas that includes such offerings as Hello Dar’ling, made using single estate first flush Darjeeling tea, and Living on the Hedge, a floral tea infusion with nettles, bramble and elderflower.
“When you’re scaling up from home brewing to commercial production, consistency is a massive thing,” says Peter. “With kombucha, achieving that is not totally possible — just like wines can change from season to season so each batch of kombucha may not be exactly like the last.”
Even though production has expanded, it’s a still very much a small-batch, hands-on operation, and the drinks are sold mostly in Northern Ireland with some outlets in the Republic, although the online side of the business has been growing steadily. “You’ll find our drinks in yoga studios, crossfit gyms, specialist food outlets, farm shops, and some cafes and convenience stores,” says Peter. “We also supply Ox restaurant and the Merchant Hotel — demand from the hospitality sector was an unexpected area of sales growth for us until the industry was hit by the Covid pandemic.”
If you’re looking for the drinks in Belfast stores, try Sawers in Fountain Street, or Arcadia and Framar Health on the Lisburn Road or Nature’s Way at Ballyhackamore. Indie Füde on the Ormeau Road actually have Peter’s kombucha on tap.
And if you’re inspired to try your hand at making it yourself, you can buy a liquid SCOBY starter from the website (https://thecraftteabrew.co), complete with instructions. All you need to do is add the tea and sugar and watch the magic happen.