by Sally Colby
Michael Faye says he had been drinking kombucha for about five years when the government found that it was over .5 percent alcohol and pulled it off the shelves. “When it was no longer commercially available,” he said, “I started making it myself.”
Faye was working as a commercial photographer, and has a scientific, analytical and health background. He decided to figure out what he didn’t like about commercial kombucha. Through experimenting, he was able to resolve the issues and came up with a product that was much better. When he received positive reviews from friends who tried the beverage, Faye decided to get out of the photography business and start producing kombucha.
“Kombucha is a beverage that has been around for thousands of years,” said Faye. “People argue about the origin — whether it’s from Korea or Russia, but it’s from somewhere in east Asia.” Faye explains that kombucha is basically fermented tea — the tea is inoculated with specific kombucha yeast and bacteria and ferments into a low-alcohol, antioxidant, probiotic-rich drink. It has the complex flavors of a fermented beverage, but it’s low in alcohol.
Because the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) is involved with any beverages that measure over .5 percent alcohol, Faye had to meet those requirements. It took Faye more than three years to put the Los Angeles facility together. The company, Kombucha Dog, has now been in production for about a year and a half.
Faye says the term ‘mushroom’ that is sometimes associated with kombucha production is incorrect — the proper term is SCOBY. “SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast,” he explained. “It forms wherever the live bacteria and yeast meet oxygen. If a live kombucha is poured into a cup and covered with something like a coffee filter to keep fruit flies out, it should form a SCOBY within four or five days. If a SCOBY doesn’t form, it’s dead, and the probiotics are dead too. I wouldn’t consider that to be a real kombucha.”
The ingredient list for a good kombucha starts with high-grade, large-leaf organic tea. “It’s boiled, then when it’s cooled, we add raw, organic sugar,” said Faye. “The sweetened tea is inoculated with the yeast and bacteria, then allowed to ferment. The yeast and bacteria like the nitrogen in the tea and the minerals in the water. As it ferments, it makes probiotics, acetic acid and gluconic acid, which are fantastic antioxidants. The polyphenols in the tea remain in the kombucha.”
Faye says the ‘craft’ part of kombucha comes with the fermentation process. “We ferment twice,” he said. “Once aerobically and again anaerobically; and the anaerobic fermentation, just like with beer, is what produces the carbon dioxide so it’s naturally carbonated.”
Since Kombucha Dog is a relatively small company, flavors are limited for now. Faye cold-presses juice from ginger, mint or berries, then adds the cold-pressed juice to the second fermentation. With more resources, Faye would like to eventually expand to include other flavors. Production is currently at about 10,000 bottles a month, and Faye hopes to increase that number as popularity grows.
Although most people are still unfamiliar with kombucha, Faye says sales are increasing every year. “The first time people try kombucha, it’s likely a flavor they’ve never had before,” he said. “It has a complex, fermented flavor, and it takes some people aback, especially if they’re used to a lot of sugar. If you have a very sweet palate, it might not be the drink for you at first. But once you have it a few times, it becomes something to look forward to. It’s a healthy alternative to having a beer, and we think that people will eventually choose kombucha instead of beer.”
Although kombucha is available in health food stores, Faye says Kombucha Dog is different. “Ours is much drier than what’s in a health food store, and it has been fermented for much longer so there’s much less residual sugar. Ours isn’t as acetic acid dominant as most others are.”
One aspect of Kombucha Dog — the labeling — is highly unique. “I had giant portraits of my own dogs on the wall, and people always asked me to photograph their dogs,” he said. “One day, I had close friends come and I photographed all the dogs on the same day. A month later, when I was doing the prints, I had dog prints all over the studio. Just for fun, I placed one of the dog photos on a kombucha bottle. After a while, I realized that it would be a better idea to put photographs of dogs available for adoption on the bottles.”
The dogs on kombucha bottle labels are in foster care and available for adoption. The dogs are brought to Faye’s studio for photographs, and those photographs eventually become labels. Faye says that with digital printing, he doesn’t have to have a large quantity of one label made and can switch out as dogs are adopted. Once a dog on a label is adopted, that label is retired. If a dog is adopted while the label is still out, Faye considers it a good way to advertise dogs that need homes. In the short time Kombucha Dog has been available, the labels have helped about 50 dogs find permanent homes.
Right now, Faye is self-distributing Kombucha Dog in Orange County, CA. “We’re in some really good places,” he said. “Higher end restaurants do well with it. We also keg kombucha, and those sales have been good.” Faye says kombucha mixes well with beer, and can be used to make a kombucha shandy that’s about 40 percent kombucha. “It’s also good for cocktails,” he said. “For a Moscow Mule, instead of using ginger beer, use ginger kombucha.”
As for getting the word out about the unique beverage, Faye will focus on introducing ‘real’ kombucha. “The traditional kombucha recipe is fermenting one cup of sugar per gallon of tea, which yields about .8 to 1.2 percent alcohol,” he said. “Other kombucha companies dilute their product by 30 to 50 percent in order to conform to the .5 percent alcohol law. Most kombucha you can buy in the store is diluted or hasn’t been fermented for a long time. It tastes like a soda with a little bit of kombucha in it. We’re going into an untraveled road — we’re the first company that hasn’t conformed to the laws in a way that diminish the product. If we diluted it, we’d probably have more success, but we think in the long run, people will appreciate an authentic, well-made kombucha.”
by Sally Colby