Emma Thackray invites us for a mooch around her booch brewery
Emma Thackray loves bugs. Visitors to her garage in the rolling hills of Virginia, USA, several years ago might have found her surrounded by jars of bubbling liquid, chatting away to the ‘billions of microscopic creatures’ growing inside.
There is a growing appetite for alternative softs, as many people are either giving up or at least cutting down on alcohol
Fast forward to 2019 and she is the proud co-owner of a kombucha brewery in a converted storage tunnel near Dunham Massey that is so white and echoey I’m a bit worried there might be a ‘taffy pulling room’ down some secret corridor. I pull on a pair of wellies for a tour and a chat about bacteria, booze and Dolly Parton.
After testing the water at places like Treacle Market, Emma opened Booch & Brew brewery back in April with her business partner, ‘serial entrepreneur’ Kenny Goodman. It’s a proper friends and family enterprise. Emma’s husband Julian Jarvis is head brewer (and engineering wizard) and Kenny’s wife Kate, who owns Reserve Wines, uses her ‘highly trained wine tasting nose’ to provide feedback on flavour. At the brewery, I meet Julian and brewery assistant Aimi, a friend of Emma’s. Their kids go to the same school and they used to get together for a spot of post-school-run fermenting, as you do.
Emma explains, “We were really lucky. Because of where it is, we got a grant from the EU - just in time. That made a huge difference. It was just a shell and we had all these structures built inside. Temperature’s really important in kombucha production and these are insulated, which helps to maintain it.”
Emma got the booch-bug back in Richmond, Virginia, when she was working for Dolly Parton’s book-gifting charity - which sends books to kids before their fifth birthday to encourage reading in the home. She tells me that in the States, kombucha taprooms open to the public all the time. You can even go to your local supermarket with a growler (a type of pail for carrying draught beer) and get it filled up.
“We used to go to this farmer’s market on the James river every Saturday morning,” Emma recalls. “It would be boiling hot and everyone would turn up with their cool boxes and get all their cheeses and fermented stuff and fresh fruit and veg. It was a nice place to start messing around with things.”
After hearing Sandor Katz on the radio talking about the microbial aspects of fermentation, Emma started experimenting with kimchi and sauerkraut. Her obsession grew - like bacteria - from there. When she started brewing kombucha, she really got serious.
But what the hell is kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented soft drink that originated in China. There’s a myth that the Chinese emperor’s personal doctor - a Korean named Dr Kombu - created it as an elixir to improve the emperor’s health. The process begins with a big pot of loose leaf tea, to which is added organic cane sugar.
When it’s cool, in goes the ‘scoby’ which might sound like a member of the Kersal massive but is actually a 'symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts’. It is kept at slightly warmer than room temperature for a couple of weeks to allow the bacteria to grow.
The yeast eats the sugar, turns it into alcohol, then the bacteria eats the alcohol and turns it into organic acid which gives it that apple cider vinegar tang. But wait, this stuff has bacteria growing inside it? Surely that’s a bad thing?
Anthony Bourdain said it best: "Lots of food writing is concerned with health and purity. That’s dangerous, friend. Food is about decay and dirt. Mouldy cheese, fermented wines. Bacteria. The original ketchup was garum - rotted fish."
Emma agrees: “We have been trained to think of bacteria as something that you don’t want on your food, but the way kombucha and fermented foods are made is how food’s been preserved safely for thousands of years. Fermentation is a safe way to preserve stuff because it creates an environment where the bad bacteria can’t survive because it’s too acidic”.
Think of Kombucha as part of a fabulous fermented family which includes beer, bread, miso and kimchi. There are arguments that it has numerous health benefits too.
The fermentation process using yeast means that kombucha is full of vitamins. Emma explains that when the bacteria get to work in the yeast and metabolise the sugar they create organic acids like acetic, gluconic and glucouronic acid. These acids - and the tea itself - are antioxidants so they help your immune system and protect cells against oxidative stress.
They are naturally antimicrobial which inhibits pathogenic bacteria. Studies have found that the acids found in kombucha support the growth of bifidobacteria - this is a beneficial bacteria found in the gut.
But don’t be put off by the worthiness of kombucha. It really is delicious. Emma tells me she gets really excited when sceptics have a sip and are pleasantly surprised at the flavour.
Booch & Brew use cold-pressed juices to flavour their booch before force-carbonating it in a kind of massive soda stream. Their three core flavours are mango, ginger & lemon and strawberry & mint but they have just launched a yuzu lemonade, and a coffee kombucha collaboration with Takk is on the cards.
They are also working on a low-alcohol kombucha cider with their neighbours at Dunham cider, using pure apple juice instead of tea.
We're looking forward to trying their forthcoming relaunch of a spruce kombucha in collaboration with Pollen - their first stockist. It’s exciting to see small producers sharing ideas, collaborating and building an admirable community ethos.
There is a growing appetite for alternative softs, as many people are either giving up or at least cutting down on alcohol. I tried some of Booch & Brew’s kombucha and thought it tasted a bit like white wine or cider.
Emma says, “We spent ages working on the branding and bottle so if you’re not boozing, you don’t feel like you’re missing out. Also, because of the yeast, cultures and bacteria it’s got a mouthfeel and a complexity to it - like a beer. We can put it in keg as well, Port Street Beer House has had it on keg.”
“On the flip side it does go really well with booze. You can make a really good gin fizz with gin, ginger booch, sugar syrup and lemon. Or maybe a booch negroni.”
Their new yuzu version is sure to go down a treat with a slug of gin.
The enthusiasm from Emma and the team is infectious. Whether replacing the hooch with booch or using it as a mixer, I'm a kombucha convert.