Kombucha is slowly catching on around the country as one of the hip new trends in health food, and Buffalo was at the forefront of the movement thanks to Bootleg Bucha, a kombucha brewer on the city’s West Side.
The husband-and-wife team who founded and run the company, Heather Lucas and Jeff Empric, were early adopters of the fermented tea—and when they launched three years ago, were one of very few brewers in the whole Northeast.
With the help of partner Todd Salansky, the whole thing started in Heather and Jeff’s kitchen.
“We had heard that it was good for your gut and for acid reflux,” Heather said. “My husband has acid reflux and was looking for ways to stop taking Prilosec every day.”
So they started brewing it in gallon glass jars before eventually expanding to a steel vat. They didn’t initially intend to sell what they made, and would give it away to friends and family when they ran out of refrigerator space.
It proved so popular that in less than a year they had started the company and were selling their wares out of their original location in the Horsefeathers building. Two years ago, they moved to their current digs on Niagara Street.
Kombucha itself is a flavored, carbonated beverage made from brewed, fermented tea and other flavorings. The varieties are as endless as the imagination of the brewers, and everyone has their own favorite.
“I like the ginger because it’s spicy,” said Heather, who started drinking kombucha in part to curb her Diet Pepsi habit. “But blueberry lavender is our best seller.”
They have six different flavors available year-round, plus several other rotating and seasonal flavors. The fermentation process does create a small amount of alcohol in the finished product. By law, it can only contain 0.5 percent or less of alcohol so it’s not a regulated beverage.
The drink, which originated in ancient China, is thought to be 2000 years old. It has been greatly touted for its medicinal properties including probiotics and vitamins.
Bootleg Bucha is now available in about 160 locations in New York and Pennsylvania. It’s also available on tap at 12 locations around Buffalo, including Lexington Co-op.
Brewing Bootleg Bucha
Vats on vats on vats. The production warehouse at Bootleg Bucha is mostly taken up by the large stainless-steel vats that hold the kombucha as it brews, ferments and carbonates. The entire process takes three to four weeks depending on fermentation time—and involves three different storage tanks.
Tea time. The first step in the process is preparing the tea that forms the base of the kombucha. Bootleg brews black tea first by measuring out the loose-leaf tea then binding it up in a makeshift tea bag. The garbage-bag sized tea bag is then put into a vat of boiling water, just like brewing tea at home.
SCOBY Doobie Doo. Next the SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is added to the tea along with sugar. The SCOBY and the sugar feed the fermentation process that happens over the next two to three weeks. They test the kombucha periodically for sugar count and pH so they know when to stop the fermentation.
Flavor of the week. Before the kombucha is bottled, it has one more stop in another vat, this one in the cooler, where it is flavored and carbonated. This process takes two to three days.
Spin it out. The newest addition to the warehouse is a spinning cone dealcoholizer that removes alcoholic content from the finished product. Because of the fermentation process, alcohol naturally develops, but it can only legally be sold at 0.5 percent alcohol or less. Each batch is given a final test before leaving the warehouse.
Capping bottles. The bottling and labeling is all done in the production facility as well. They have a large machine that can fill, label and seal each bottle—and typically entire days of production are devoted to bottling a single batch.