Cheers Check-in: Barefoot Bucha

Posted on July 28, 2014 by

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As a craft beer lover with an addiction to cheeseburgers, a mysterious drink known as kombucha and often found at farmer’s markets and natural foods stores seemed more suited for someone more health conscious than myself. Plus, I figured there was no way this earthy cocktail could taste good.

It turns out that my skepticism is among several misconceptions that Ethan and Kate Zuckerman deal with on a daily basis. The couple behind Barefoot Bucha recently invited Cville Niche out to their home and brewery off Route 151 in Nelson County to shed some light on their business and the kombucha industry.

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The Zuckermans at their home and brewery in Nelson.

Kombucha, while new to me, has actually been around for about 2,000 years. The fermented tea originated in Eurasia and was seen as a healthy, healing brew for a variety of ailments, Ethan pointed out.

Despite its ancient roots, the local kombucha movement didn’t start until about four years ago, but has been spreading since.

“We were the first brewery in the state… and now there’s five,” Ethan said. “It’s just an interesting, growing industry.”

Ethan and Kate launched Barefoot Bucha out of the trunk of their car in 2010. “[It was kind of] the perfect storm,” Ethan said, noting all of the kombucha that was on the shelves at retail stores had been pulled off as part of an ‘alcohol scare’ that same year. It appears the federal government thought the popular brands of the nonalcoholic drink contained too much alcohol.

As leading kombucha producers worked to recover from the recall, Ethan and Kate had about 60 to 80 clients a week showing up at their makeshift kombucha service behind Mas Tapas. The drink was distributed in reusable bottles with customers bringing back empty bottles and exchanging them for full ones. The Zuckermans would then clean, sanitize and refill the empty bottles.

barefootbuch4_lw“We did that for about a year,” Ethan said. “We really wanted to stand behind this no waste concept.” After all, Barefoot Bucha’s slogan is big flavor. small footprint.

In the last four years, Barefoot’s reusable concept is only stronger. Customers now bring in their own bottles or purchase bottles and have them filled at any of the company’s fountains at retail stores and restaurants throughout Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

There are now about 12,000 reusable Barefoot Bucha bottles in circulation, according to the Zuckermans.

How it’s made

Just like many fermented drinks, kombucha goes through its own unique brewing process.

The Zuckermans started brewing the multi-flavored fermented tea in 2-gallon glass vessels. Although they only had about a dozen of these containers, “it worked out very well,” Ethan said.

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The first stage of the brewing process consists of boiling water, mixing in sugar, steeping the tea and then adding the SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) culture. The concoction is then covered up and sits for one to two weeks.

barefootbuch8_lw“Essentially what we’ll do is we’ll make a really sweet tea,” Ethan said.

This stage of the process is similar to how someone would make vinegar or bread, Kate noted.

The relative short fermentation time is necessary to “de-emphasize the yeast” for the nonalcoholic drink, she said.

After fermentation, the second stage consists of bottling or kegging the kombucha.

After the kombucha is bottled or kegged, it sits at room temperature for another one to two weeks.

The entire brewing process takes two to four weeks, Ethan said.

After the kombucha is brewed, then bottled or kegged, it is placed in the brewery’s walk-in refrigerator and is ready for consumption or sale.

Just like with Barefoot Bucha’s bottles, the kegs also are recycled with retailers and restaurants sending them back to the brewery, where they are sanitized and sent back out with fresh kombucha.

In four years, Barefoot Bucha has gone from a dozen 2-gallon vessels to two 250-gallon fermentation tanks. The company also received its organic certification in February.

Tap Taste Tests

barefootbuch5_lwThe Zuckermans have a handful of flavors of kombucha on tap at their barn-sized brewery, which gives skeptics like myself a chance to taste this sweet, probiotic-packed traditional-bubbly-beverage substitute.

The Ginger kombucha is Barefoot Bucha’s flagship and a fairly tasty drink at that. However, it was the blueberry rich, hop-infused Bluegrass Bucha that won over my taste buds and quelled any fear I had of this “drinkable and healthful alternative” to the chemical-rich Diet Cokes I sometimes crave.

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There are other flavors available as well, such as Cherry Root and Elderflower Sunrise just to name a few.

To give kombucha a try, visit practically any Whole Foods Market in central or northern Virginia. To check out Barefoot Bucha’s product, visit Whole Foods Market, Rebecca’s Natural Food, or Integral Yoga Natural Foods in Charlottesville, as well as at The Whiskey Jar, Carpe Donut, or Bellair Farm CSA.

Words by Darren Sweeney, Photography by Linnea White

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