Tasting rooms have become a dime a dozen in San Diego, but beer is not on the menu of one that opened on Pacific Highway in May. Bootstrap Kombucha offers free tasters and fills growlers like most brewery tasting rooms, but its fermented beverage of choice is kombucha tea, the probiotic health drink designed to replenish the populations of helpful bacteria that lives in the human gut.
James Farnsworth and Susan McMillion are the couple behind Bootstrap. Their interest in kombucha began casually, and their decision to start brewing their own was initially driven by how they felt as they began to drink it regularly. "It was when we started to do it rather habitually that we started to see a difference," says Farnsworth. "In the afternoon I'd have more energy, I just felt better."
Once they bought a kombucha kit and brewed their own they realized the flavor of kombucha could vary from the often vinegary reputation of commercial kombucha. "We purchased a 20-liter wood-toasted oak barrel, and we were brewing it in oak," recalls Farnsworth. "It gave it just a wonderful subtlety of flavor and smoothness."
While they have not yet been able to secure permitting to brew in oak at Bootstrap, they've developed 15 mostly fruited recipes, served four at a time in free tasting samples at their small bar. Farnsworth and McMillion, a former chef, tried out several tea bases before settling on an organic blend of black tea, green tea, and yerba mate. They ferment it with organic cane sugar for about two weeks, then add fruit for a second fermentation.
Weighing in at under half a percent alcohol by volume, the brewed drink is not regulated as an alcoholic beverage. Popular flavors include blueberry, cherry ginger, apple hibiscus, and beet apple ginger. Each batch is pH tested during fermentation to stop it just before the vinegar flavor sets in. Instead, Bootstrap's highly carbonated kombucha offers a slight hint of sweetness from the fruits and residual sugars.
Bootstrap's distribution is about half direct retail from people coming into the shop for fresh growler fills, and half distribution to a growing number of local bars and coffee shops. Bootstrap's founders try not to push the beneficial side of drinking kombucha too hard, and make no pledges about potential impact on a person's health. If anything, McMillion sees it as a viable alternative to sodas and other sugary soft drinks for people not drinking beer or coffee. "Something else to drink at a bar when you don't want to drink beer beer beer beer," she says.
Bootstrap's small tasting room sits in a fairly industrial location, squeezed between train tracks and the Marine Corps recruit depot. While it doesn't see much foot traffic, Farnsworth says a healthy mix of kombucha fans have been tracking it down — and even a few first timers who are, at best, kombucha curious. "This is becoming more and more popular," he adds. "More people are coming in here and drinking, and learning."