“You want to touch a scoby, right?”
It’s not a question I’m asked often, but on this particular morning, I’ll be touching many scobys, or symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast. The plantlike organisms are strong and slippery cellulose matrices that are the foundation for any kombucha, the drink that is wildly popular in certain circles. (Kombu is kelp in Japanese, and cha is tea.) The drink is believed to have originated thousands of years ago, with earliest recorded references pointing to China as its birthplace.
The scobys I get to handle today belong to Health-Ade Kombucha, the Los Angeles–based company that, five years after launching, employs more than 130 people at its Torrance brewery. According to company projections, Health-Ade will sell about 2 million cases of kombucha by the end of the calendar year. It’s been a fast and raucous ride, but co-founder Daina Trout has the energy to withstand such speed.
“I personally go through a case of growlers a week. I’m pretty much all kombucha,” Trout tells me with a giggle.
Trout is half scientist, half kombucha cheerleader — upbeat, pink-haired and donning high heels on our brewery tour. She has a board meeting right after our talk, and says she’ll prepare by listening to Katy Perry’s “Eye of the Tiger,” her (no-longer-secret) pump-up song. She anticipates talking to about 15 people in suits, she says. The topic? Building a second brewery that will likely cost upward of $32 million.
After first selling homemade kombucha at the Brentwood farmers market (alongside co-founders Justin Trout, her husband, and best friend Vanessa Dew), then at grocery stores like Whole Foods, Health-Ade is now on the shelves of approximately 3,600 conventional markets nationwide, and it's beginning to have a presence in the restaurant and bar world. Despite that growth, Trout says the process of making kombucha in the brand's brewery is the same as when she first started doing it in glass cookie jars in her apartment closet, just on a grander scale.
Trout is proud to be creating jobs and adding to the local economy, but she’s also happy to be a part of what may be today’s health food revolution, a trend she doesn’t see changing anytime soon. In fact, she loves leading tours like this one, because it gives her the opportunity to demystify kombucha, which she foresees growing in popularity as more and more shoppers lean away from highly processed, less nutritional choices.
“I never try to sell [kombucha] as a medicine or a supplement. It’s a food, and it has beneficial properties that are good for our health, just like all fermented foods. There is science to show that when you start incorporating fermented foods [into your diet], you start to feel better.”
It’s also a pretty incredible process, Trout explains, leading me from room to room in the brewery and breaking down the process like the nutrition major she was. All kombucha, she says, should start with pristine water. At her Torrance facility, a “Brita on steroids” rids city water of things like chlorine and fluoride, which would hinder bacteria growth necessary to kombucha making. Minerals are then pumped back in, making a sort of engineered mountain water. The water then is brewed with a mix of green and black tea — Health-Ade’s preferred tea cocktail — before being cooled, sweetened with sugar (which will diminish during the upcoming fermentation stage) and separated into 2.5-gallon glass jars. Staffers then add two scobys, which float at the top of each jar like floppy frisbees. Next, a lid made of T-shirt material is placed on the jar and kept taut with a rubber band.
From the jarring area, Trout and I head into a sticky room lovingly called the “scoby hotel.” Kept at 80 degrees by a NASA-quality temperature control system, this space is home to approximately 250,000 jars of tea stacked ceiling-high. Their residency here is anything but restful, though, as this is the most active part of the process.
“It’s pretty much sweet tea that comes in here, then the scobys see that there’s sugar below, and that food activates them,” Trout explains. “All the yeast, bacteria and enzymes come down, eat the sugar, and in exchange make ethanol — alcohol — and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide leaves out the top; the bacteria’s favorite food is actually ethanol, so the yeast eat the sugar and the bacteria eat the ethanol.”
Trout estimates that there are probably 750,000 “bugs” in Health-Ade kombucha. That kind of variety leads to a depth of flavor similar to good wine and beer. After about a week or two in this warmth (home brewers likely need to let their tea ferment longer, due to lower atmospheric temperatures), the sugar content in the kombucha lessens and acid numbers rise. New “baby” scobys are born — Trout grins like a new mother, pointing out a couple of teeny-tiny scobys in nearby jars to me. These babies are fresh-looking and creamy white, while the “parents” are brownish in color, gently stained by the tea they bathe in.
“If all these people weren’t here,” Trout says, pointing to staffers moving large carts of tea jars around, “you could listen and hear bubbles. This stuff is awesome and super active. It’s alive.”
Glass jars are integral to Health-Ade’s brewing process. Because of the acids that are produced in this stage, any other container material — and the vessel’s contents — would be compromised, leeching plastic or corroding metal.
Once this first stage of fermentation is complete, the scobys are removed from the jars and given time to rest before being used again. The tea, now full of complex acids, is flat, not bubbly, at this point. It gets mixed with cold-pressed juice next — ginger and lemon juice, for example, would be added to make the company’s top-selling flavor, Ginger Lemon — before moving through a system of tanks and pipes to the bottling room. Once bottled, labeled, capped, sealed and boxed, the kombucha is ready for stage two of fermentation.
“These look ready to buy, but not just yet,” Trout tells me as we watch workers hustle bottles into cases and cases onto dollies. “Now the bottles go into another room for a short period of time so that they get carbonated. It’s the same process, basically. The sugar gets eaten by the yeast, the exchange makes ethanol and carbon dioxide, but this time, there’s no way for the CO2 to escape — there’s no T-shirt material.”
The wait time in this room varies — ginger lemon sits for about six days, beet for two. The time depends on the amount of sugar in the tea. The more sugar in the kombucha, the speedier it carbonates via the yeast eating sugar and creating gas.
If kombucha turns you off at first, Trout says to keep coming back to it.
“I do think you can acquire a taste for it, yes,” Trout tells me toward the end of my visit. “Generally, people who are really into sweet drinks have an aversion in the beginning. But then, after the second or third time, it’s not as bad as they first remembered it. It’s got those vinegars that we’re not used to drinking anymore. Our ancestors were, though.”
Making kombucha at home is another way to understand and appreciate the beverage. Just get your first scobys from a reputable source; Trout can personally vouch for Kombucha Kamp, where she bought hers years ago. The nearly 400,000 scobys in the Torrance factory are the offspring of her original ones.
As Health-Ade grows to meet demand, Trout marvels at how far the company has come and where it is headed. (She says the next brewery will for sure be in the L.A. area, which she wants to continue to support by hiring locals.) When I ask her if she views kombucha as just another health trend, she scoffs politely.
“To me, coconut water, cold-pressed juice, unsweetened granola, kombucha — it’s all here to stay. What’s going to start going off the shelves is stuff like cereals and sodas packed with sugar; they’ll get replaced with superior options. Because why would something that makes you feel good and tastes great go away?”
That's if you agree that kombucha tastes great, of course.