They call this North Park tasting room the “world’s first hard kombucha bar.” Not hard to believe given high alcohol kombucha didn’t really exist prior to spring 2016. That’s when Chula Vista-based Boochcraft took kombucha, the fermented tea made popular as a probiotic supplement, and ramped it up to a 7-percent alcohol adult beverage.
3052 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
Boochcraft’s runaway success has effectively established a new market segment, but with demand so high for its four bottled flavors of ‘booch’, the company’s had to focus its resources on boosting production. Early plans to build a tasting room and add new flavors have been put off while it builds a massive new production facility.
In the meantime, a new business, JuneShine, has taken up the hard kombucha banner. It opened this summer in the Craft by Brewery Igniter complex (3052 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park), the trio of turnkey brewhouses that also includes Eppig Brewing and Pariah Brewing Company. Spending time at the bar of JuneShine, I encountered customers of both breweries who’d wandered curiously into kombucha territory during an afternoon of beer tasting.
However, most customers had expressly set out that day with kombucha in mind. The mixed-fermentation beverage starts out as sugared tea, which a colony of bacteria and yeast convert to alcohol. Most commercial kombuchas sit below one-percent alcohol, but even at JuneShine’s six-percent, it’s loaded with probiotics, the beneficial bacteria integral to gut health. A few pours of this stuff may be the closest you ever come to literally drinking to your health.
For naysayers, the biggest knock on kombucha is its often acrid, vinegary taste. Boochcraft has managed to sidestep such critiques by virtue of a multi-tier brewing process and a deft combination of complementary fruit and botanical additions, resulting in drinks that closer resemble lightly soured ales than the product of a health food store.
JuneShine’s head brewer previously worked at Boochcraft, so brings an understanding of these processes. However, the first thing I noticed upon entering JuneShine — aside from the impeccable fern and bamboo décor — is that its menu board offers nine distinctive flavors of hard kombucha, ranging from honey ginger lemon to cucumber mojito.
Unlike beer, which has centuries of tradition and ratified style definitions informing customers’ expectations, there seem to be a million exciting directions this young beverage craft can go, and the rotating flavors here offer plenty of reason to keep coming back as this craft evolves.
Even flagship flavor combinations may improve. I first tried blood orange and mint over the summer, and found the clash of citrus and mint off-putting. But when I revisited it as part of a tasting flight, this subsequent batch proved more refined and actually palatable. The mint helps soften kombucha’s vinegary nature, while the orange’s citric acid masks any lingering sharpness as its own.
The flight as a whole proved uneven, but my favorite by far was the acai kombucha. Both in color and flavor, the antioxidants-rich berries on their own lent red wine characteristics to the drink, that acidity more closely resembling wine’s pleasing tartness.
Some dedicated beer fans may never come around to appreciate the bite of kombucha the same way they do hops, but if so the inverse is likely true. Acetic acid, which is responsible for vinegar’s distinctive flavor, is healthy in the right amounts, so combining it with probiotics and antioxidants in a tasty beverage explains the crowd of young adults I found gathered in Juneshine on a sunny afternoon. Most of them didn’t come to North Park for beer. They came for something healthy, fun, and new.
And among the kool-aid colors shining within Juneshine’s rounded glassware, they found it.