Buchin’

by Meha Desai
Antoinette Bruno
April 2014

Biography

Restaurant

Mead was Eli Cayer's gateway drug to a life addicted to fermentation, which takes many forms at his Urban Farm Fermentory (UFF) in Portland, Maine. But it's kombucha that's the unexpected champion of the mini empire Cayer is slowly, surely building. Ever since he found his way to the funky tea, he's never looked back.

Baby Jimmy Oak Barrel Aged Hard Cider, Chaga Mint, Wild Blueberry, Oak Barrel Aged Kombucha

Baby Jimmy Oak Barrel Aged Hard Cider, Chaga Mint, Wild Blueberry, Oak Barrel Aged Kombucha

Wild Berry Kombucha

Wild Berry Kombucha

Chaga Mint Kombucha

Chaga Mint Kombucha

Inonotus Obliquus, also known as chaga mushroom, used in making the Chaga Mint Kombucha

Inonotus Obliquus, also known as chaga mushroom, used in making the Chaga Mint Kombucha

Urban Farm Fermentory - Portland, ME

Urban Farm Fermentory - Portland, ME

Brewer Eli Cayer of Urban Farm Fermentory - Portland, ME

Brewer Eli Cayer of Urban Farm Fermentory - Portland, ME

Getting Started
From ancient Chinese kitchens to the production facilities of Maine artisans, kombucha has been a part of our food psyche for a hefty portion of human history. Loyalists have sworn by its power to bestow immortality, cure cancer, boost immune systems, and fortify samurais (we think it tastes delicious). Even Lindsay Lohan was seen gripping a bottle on her way out of rehab. For Cayer, "buch" (pronounced booch) is the true money-maker for his business.

Cayer's process appears straight forward: make a tea base, add a starter culture, and let fermentation magic happen. During this time, microbe production speeds up as bacteria feast on sugars, multiply fearlessly, and eventually produce a surface layer that looks like a rubbery pancake—the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (or scoby if you want to impress the fermenting insiders). If all goes well, the end product, beneath the scoby, is a fermented tea with a sweet, sour, tart taste and a touch of effervescence.

"It's really easy to make, and it's really easy to mess up. If you're not on it, it turns really fast," says Cayer. At UFF, it took Cayer and his team close to six months to get things running smoothly. Even though it took only a couple of weeks to produce the first batch, the refining needed time and close attention. His first starter came from a Japanese woman, 20-minutes away. She had a culture from her grandmother and was growing them for a company in California. Once he had that, it took a few more months to try different combinations of tea blends and sugar quantities to get the foundation in place.

Crucial for Kombucha
"Buches" are also sensitive. It's important to keep the pH levels low and closely monitor temperatures (a little obsession never hurt anyone). It's also essential to remember that it's an open fermentation, vulnerable to outside elements. "It should not be surrounded by things that produce other micro organisms, such as bread and cheese. Containing it as much as possible allows it to have a level of consistency that you're just not going to get otherwise," says Cayer.

Cayer now offers a vast selection of kombucha. Depending on the season, options might include wild blueberry, ghost pepper, hibiscus tea, ginger, and Thai basil. Customers can even make their own concoctions—just pick up a growler and blend away. Spoiled for choice, UFF serves 12 varieties on tap in its tasting room. Most often, the flavors are added after fermentation and pre-bottling. "The day before we bottle, everything is blended together, pumped in to the bottling system and then packaged," says Cayer. These secondary ingredients are Cayer's largest food cost, contributing to the $4.50 to $5 bottle price. "The most expensive one we do is the ginger kombucha. We have to buy a lot of fresh ginger and then juice it, and that takes a while! It's super labor intensive."

Hooch in the Buch
Once in the bottle, a secondary fermentation takes place, further carbonating the concoction and increasing the alcohol content slightly (regular kombucha has 0.5 percent alcohol, but UFF kombucha comes in at 1.5 ABV). It also changes the product a little bit—the longer the secondary fermentation, the more wine-like it becomes. And according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, kombuchas that contain 0.5 or more percent alcohol by volume, are considered alcoholic beverages and are subject to all the necessary regulations and licenses—an important detail for anyone thinking about brewing a batch! "We already had a wine license because of our mead, but now, we use [it] for kombucha, as well. But we have to submit individual formulas for all we produce. Every flavor combination needs to be submitted separately. We already have 20-odd approved ones and [have] just submitted 15 more."

Even with all the attention it requires, fermenting does pay off. "It's the breadwinner for our business right now—even a little bit more than cider," says Cayer. "It's way cheaper to make and faster to produce. So the turnover is kind of crazy with it."

If it was good enough for the samurais, Cayer, and Lindsay, it's good enough for the masses.

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