Jeff Empric readies the bottling line.

by Tamara Scully

Kombucha, in certain circles, is the go-to drink for providing health benefits. For thousands of years, kombucha, a fermented tea, has been revered for its healing properties, called “the tea of immortality.” With today’s focus on probiotics and functional foods, kombucha has once again joined the mainstream, found in major grocery stores – not just health food or specialty stores. A minority of kombucha brands fall instead into the category of alcoholic beverage.

Kombucha typically contains relatively small amounts of alcohol, a by-product of fermentation, and brands with less than 0.5 percent are not considered alcoholic beverages. The alcohol content can be slightly more than that, however, and these brands must be sold under the same regulations as any other alcoholic beverage. (Some brewers are also making blends of kombucha and beer – a different product altogether.)

The alcohol in kombucha is merely a product of the fermentation of bacteria and yeast, known as the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which is the key to the healthy properties of kombucha. Every batch starts with a “mother” SCOBY, and a new SCOBY is created as the core ingredients of sugar and tea are metabolized.

Starting Fresh

“Kombucha has a couple pretty basic steps. It begins with brewing the batch of sweet tea, then transfers to the fermentation tanks,” Heather Lucas, co-founder of Bootleg Bucha, in Buffalo, NY, explained. “After the product reaches our desired acidity, brix and taste profile, it is transferred into flavoring vessels. In these tanks, fruit juices and/or herbs are added and the product is chilled and carbonated.”

Lucas, along with co-founders Jeff Empric and Todd Salansky, were home kombucha brewers who decided to form a business. But getting the needed approvals from the state was not simple.

The founders of Bootleg Bucha, which began in 2015 in a shared commercial kitchen, were instrumental in working with New York State regulators to finalize the production requirements for kombucha, as well as to remove the product from regulation as an alcoholic beverage.

One primary concern was pasteurization. Kombucha is a raw, living product. Pasteurizing or filtering it would eliminate the health benefits of the fermented tea.

“It took a lot of back and forth with the state, involvement from our international trade association and collaboration with other brewers to create the standards that are now in place for New York State production,” Lucas stated. “This paved the way for more businesses to grow a road map for safe production of kombucha.”

Bootleg Bucha begins with a brewed organic loose leaf tea, added organic cane sugar and the SCOBY. Fermentation is allowed to occur in open stainless steel tanks, where the yeast feed on the sugar and form carbon dioxide and ethanol. The ethanol feeds the bacteria. Fermentation can take between 12 and 21 days, and is temperature dependent, lasting until the acidity level increases and the sugars are converted.

Batches of Bootleg Bucha range in size from 400 gallons to 2,000 gallons. When smaller tanks are utilized, they are blended together to form one larger batch, with a uniform taste profile. The final carbonated and flavored product is chilled and bottled, or put into kegs for “on tap” sales.

Jeff Empric and Heather Lucas, two of the founders of Bootleg Bucha.
Photos by Tamara Scully

Ingredient Focused

Bootleg Bucha is now certified organic. They began with a local ingredient focus, but are having a more difficult time getting the quantity of New York grown, certified organic fruits. They are hoping to find more growers to keep the product as locally-grown as possible.

“We started with a strong emphasis on local and used local apples, tart cherries, pears, peaches and Concord grapes,” Lucas said. With limited supplies of certified organic produce, “we still enjoy sourcing local juices and produce when available for some of our smaller in-house flavors. Our customers love to know where the product originated.”

The tea, however, is not locally grown. It is a blend of three certified organic teas, all sourced from Asia. A blend of teas, rather than just one type, adds flavor and body, Lucas explained. But there is one tea that has a local component: the hemp tea, which is their standard tea blend with some added New York State hemp.

Kombucha Bar

Bootleg Bucha isn’t just a bottled product. It is also available on tap, including in retail stores with filling stations, as well as in their tasting room.

“Kombucha on tap tastes amazing, and while it’s been popular on the West Coast for a while now, it’s relatively new around here,” Lucas said. “Most of our retailers that have filling stations offer three different bottle sizes as opposed to carrying just the 12 ounce bottles, and it’s a great way to let customers get a sample and try the flavor before buying it.”

The company also has a tasting room, which has “been vital to our success locally,” she added. “Kombucha was a brand new product to a lot of Buffalo residents. The tap room allowed us to meet our customers, answer any questions they had about kombucha and provide free samples of all of our flavors.”

They have an array of in-house flavors, and many are not available at any other outlet. The tasting room also serves as a classroom, where customers are walked through the process of making kombucha while learning about its history.

New History

Bootleg Bucha continues to be a trendsetter. They are the third company in the United States to offer a fully raw and unpasteurized product, and now one that has all of the naturally occurring alcohol extracted.

“With over one million dollars invested in our new Spinning Cone Column, all product leaving our facility will have the alcohol gently extracted to make drinking Bootleg Bucha safe for all people and all ages,” Lucas stated. “This was a very important investment for us as we look to bring the product to a much wider audience of healthy consumers in 2019, and for many years to come!”

For those who do want to enjoy their kombucha while getting a buzz, Bootleg Bucha has developed cocktail recipes using their different flavors. Adding kombucha to popular cocktails may be a healthier way to drink responsibly.

Bootleg Bucha is currently distributed in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They hope to expand in 2019 to all of the Northeast, and perhaps beyond. The website has a retail locator tool, but they don’t sell online due to shipping costs, as the product must be kept refrigerated.

They do, however, ship another product – an apple cider vinegar tonic, available online. This tonic is infused with turmeric and horseradish root, ginger, onion, oranges, garlic and honey. It’s meant as a daily immunity booster and is taken one shot per day.

Lucas noted Bootleg Bucha is also one of the lowest sugar kombucha brands on the market.

“Our target market is the people interested in their health, who are the ones who read nutritional labels and want to make healthier choices. We loved the idea of bringing this healthy, fresh beverage to our community, and it has just taken off from there,” he said.

Learn more about Bootleg Bucha at .