Monday, January 30, 2023

Red Mushroom Brewing Co. brings a different craft brew to Norfolk: Kombucha

A new brewery is open for business in Norfolk, but instead of brewing beer, Red Mushroom Brewing Company is making kombucha.

The fruity, fizzy, fermented drink has been around for centuries, but has surged in popularity in recent years.

“Kombucha is a fermented tea with natural carbonation and probiotic properties,” brewery co-owner Nikki Hopkins said. “It’s a little sweet and tart with an almost vinegary edge. It is definitely an acquired taste — kind of like beer.”

Kombucha first made a name for itself in Norfolk with the help of Leslie Crews, who ran a small bottling company called Kombuchick. The business operated for several years until Crews stopped production to pursue her dreams of attending medical school, Hopkins said.

“Leslie offered the business to me when she went back to school, and I kind of fell into the job,” she said. “My mother used to brew it in ’90s before it was a thing. I didn’t like it then, but I’ve grown a taste for it. Until now, that was my only experience with kombucha. ”

That’s why she sought a partnership with Belinda Rafferty, an English instructor at Old Dominion University with a knack for kombucha brewing.

“I’ve been making kombucha since 2013, when my daughter and I were experiencing stomach issues. She came across it when we got into clean eating,” Rafferty said. “We were spending a lot of money buying cases of it, so we started homebrewing and experimenting with different ingredients and flavors.”

Together, Rafferty and Hopkins created new goals, new brews, and a new brand for the company.

“We chose the name Red Mushroom because of the reddish tint that develops during fermentation, and because people will often call the SCOBY a mushroom,” Rafferty said.

SCOBY — an acronym that stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast — is the key ingredient for kombucha production.

“The SCOBY is actually a living thing with probiotic properties,” Hopkins said. “It’s pretty cool, but it’s like a small child. You have to feed it [sugar] and keep it warm. During the snowstorm I had to go make sure it was OK.”

The combination of a SCOBY, sugar, water, and fermented black and green tea will create kombucha, but the process isn’t simple, according to Rafferty, who also homebrews beer.

“It’s a science. We regularly test our batches and keep good records to make sure the pH is in a safe range,” she said. “If we let the pH get too low, it will taste more like vinegar. If it gets too high, the kombucha tastes sweeter, but is also less safe to drink.”

Another primary concern is maintaining the correct alcohol level in each batch, Hopkins said, noting that that several of the brewery’s recipes went through extensive testing to reach sales standards.

“Virginia recently implemented very strict rules about the sale of kombucha, and tests it with the same criteria and stringency as wine and beer,” she said. “We are required to keep the alcohol content at 0.5 percent, so we had to send our batches to get them tested. It was a long process and took twelve tries to get the tests right. We were so ready to sell we considered just getting an ABC license and making hard kombucha.”

The brewery currently has four kombucha flavors for sale — hibiscus, margarita, ginger, and a naked version — and Rafferty and Hopkins are working to establish relationships with local distributors.

“We’re both new at this, but so far the business has been pretty popular,” she said. “People are excited.

Also coming soon from Red Mushroom: seasonal specials like chai and pumpkin spice, kombucha kegs, flavored vinegars, salad dressings, and SCOBY jerky.

Red Mushroom kombucha may be purchased by reservation from the duo’s Fawn Street brewery space, or on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Five Points Farm Market, 2500 Church St.

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