A dream came true the day they figured out how to make high-alcohol kombucha.
Since mass-market booch first burst onto Whole Foods shelves in the mid-2010s, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get drunk while boosting my immune health. I started with alchemy, making kombucha shandies or mixing with gin. Eventually I got myself a SCOBY and started pushing it to the limits of fermentation. In either situation, what I ended up with tasted more like Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar than a craft beverage revolution.
But the brewing industry has flourished where I failed, creating a cottage industry apart from beer, wine, and cocktails. Hard kombucha has been hailed as the next big thing in craft beverages, following the recent seltzer boom. Now, there are now at least 11 breweries (Arizona’s Wild Tonic; California’s Boochcraft, Flying Embers, JuneShine, Jiant, and Nova Easy; Illinois’ Luna Bay Booch; New York’s Kombrewcha; Massachusetts’ Tura; Michigan’s Unity Vibration; and Oregon’s Kyla) devoted to disrupting your drinking habits with fermented tea.
Hard kombucha is made just like the regular stuff. A sugar-saturated tea (usually green) is fermented with a disgusting glob of yeast and bacteria, creating alcohol. The source of sugar can vary from cane sugar to fruit to juice, and the strain of yeast is also subject to the brewer’s discretion. In some instances, there may be more than one round of fermentation or a stint of bottle conditioning. In any case, the fermentation process is akin to making wild sour beer, meaning the majority of canned booch is not pasteurized and has living microorganisms inside. Normal grocery store kombucha is legally required to be less than 0.5% ABV, whereas most hard kombucha is commonly around 4.5%, with some producers going up to as high as 10%.
The health benefits of drinking kombucha aren’t empirically proven, and some are little more than scientific gobbledygook. But there is a definitive advantage to using kombucha as your go-to booze source. While light is the biggest trend in the craft beverage industry, booch has far less sugar and fewer carbs than other alcohol. Most varieties are organic, vegan, and contain no gluten, preservatives, sulfides, or artificial flavoring. Even if the probiotic and detoxifying properties are overstated, if hard kombucha can be made as delicious as, say, White Claw, it could be the go-to elixir for health-minded drinkers like myself.
Though there is a mostly standard procedure to how boozy booch is made, there is an unpredictable range to what that procedure produces. That’s why I decided to get my hands on as many bottles of boozy booch that I could find—over a dozen flavors from five of the largest national producers. The experience was a scattershot of flavors, textures, and aromas.
Almost every booch brand on the market deals in a similar run of flavors: lemon, hibiscus, passion fruit, and grapefruit. Ginger is also ubiquitous, with some brands tasting like a sour ginger beer. Unlike canned cocktails, kombucha is intensely carbonated. It’s the drink’s most seltzer-like feature. Harsher herbs like ginger, thyme, and chili match the sharpness of the carbonation well, but it can also come as a sudden peak in the middle of the sip. Then, there’s the lip-cinching tartness. In the normal ultra-low-ABV format, herb and fruit flavors are enough to balance off the pH. But with the higher gravity in hard kombucha, they’re powerless. Lemon is flushed into the vinegar. Hibiscus is wilted in acid.
The most basic element of boozy booch, the increased sugar load, is where many of these competitors set themselves apart from the pack. Flying Embers, for example, is more or less the Surge of the booch world—hyper-carbonated, saccharine, in-your-face. Jiant slithers down your throat like blush tea. While Luna Bay verges towards mead.
Hard kombucha is intended to be drunk like beer—straight out of the can, a few cans a night. Several varieties borrow freely from beer. Producers often use Lactobacillus, the key yeast in sour beers, as ther fermentation agent. Wild Tonic and JuneShine both have hopped versions, tossing in tropical fruit to emulate New England IPAs. Fun, but ultimately a strange facsimile.
Kombucha can also lend itself to cocktails—Flying Embers has a pamphlet of suggested recipes for high-strength cocktails—so it’s not surprising to see companies take their hints on flavoring from the world of mixed drinks, but they have their own rulebook when it comes to the recipe. Nova has an ingenious piña colada clone made with coconut water. JuneShine cans a Painkiller knockoff that laces the original recipe with nutmeg and charcoal (you have to flip the can to activate it).
When it’s all said and done, hard kombucha is most enjoyable when it stands on its own merits. There is an astonishing array of flavors available in the category, a factor that inflames my sense of adventure as a craft beer drinker. Ingredients that are seldom seen in beer—matcha, acai, rhodiola, yuzu, goji—are commonplace. Jiant’s signature brew, The Original, delicately swirls jasmine and elderflower. Boochcraft tosses watermelon and chili powder for a spicy agua fresca seasonal. Luna Bay takes an enormous gamble by infusing one flagship with palo santo wood, and though it doesn’t quite pay off, you’re at least treated to experience you’d expect nowhere else.
The flavors are sensational, but they’re built upon an acquired taste. What’s made seltzer and low-calorie beer so popular is the infinite sessionability. You can polish off a dozen Trulys while you float downriver, but a four-pack of Unity Vibration is an active, pensive drinking experience. It’ll put a quiver in your gut before you see the bottom of the first bottle. This is what could keep hard kombucha stuck in hard seltzer's wake.
Alcoholic kombucha feels like a wish I made on a monkey’s paw. Enticing and brash, but ultimately beguiling. It’s a drink more defined by what it lacks than what has: no carbs, no sugar, no animal products. Not a cocktail, not a beer, not a seltzer. And not as simple as getting a good buzz while regulating your gut microbiota.