Forget craft beer, there's a delicious new drink brewing
By Emilie Holmes + photography by Isabelle Wilkinson
It is a sunny bank holiday Friday and we’re in the heart of Hackney Wick - once an industrial hub, this now desirable neighbour to the Olympic Park seems to be in a state of endless development, with scaffolding, cement trucks and hoarding-lined streets providing the perfect canvas for the area’s iconic street art. Less than a minute from the station is Queen’s Yard - home to local beer barons Crate Brewery, their in-house pizzeria, The Yard Theatre and a handful of other creative businesses housed in the surrounding buildings. On the left, tucked inside a warehouse known as Mick’s Garage, surrounded by empty Crate kegs, are fellow tea people Jarr Kombucha and their own microbrewery.
As we arrive the team are gearing up to prepare their biggest order yet - techno is blaring from speakers in the corner of the bottling room and the guys are busy donning gloves and hairnets, lugging in pallets of empty bottles and lining up empty boxes, ready to be filled and shipped. But we’re here to meet Adam, Jarr’s co-founder and one of the brains behind the brewery, who bounds in a little later. All smiles, Adam races us over to a huge stainless steel tank in the corner of the warehouse, from which he proudly dispenses us each an ice cold pint of Kombucha. A combination of the sour fizz, the plastic pint glass and being surrounded by beer kegs as we sip made this feel like an unorthodox way to start the day, but a few neighbours from the yard followed us over there to get their morning fix, so it’s obviously the thing to do...
For those who haven’t heard of it, Kombucha is a living, nutrient rich soft drink made from raw, fermented tea. Made using a combination of water, sugar, tea and the all important SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), Kombucha has risen to recent fame in the UK, along with the likes of kefir, kimchi and saurkraut, thanks to its naturally occurring, gut-friendly bacteria. It seems that this fizzy, sweet-sour soft drink has masterfully straddled multiple food and drink trends all at once - an obsession with gut-health, a new wave of tea and a rise in the popularity of alcohol-free drinks. I might be imagining it, but you can’t help but feel that Adam’s positive energy and California-born calm is, at least in part, thanks to a healthy dose of his own brew.
A few years ago Adam was living with his parents, splitting his time between volunteering as a music therapist and working on reception at a law firm. He had seen the extraordinary popularity of Kombucha in the US while at university in San Diego, so in 2015, when friend and co-founder Jesse persuaded him to jump on a plane to London and start a microbrewery, he didn't hesitate. Armed with a home-brewers level of kombucha knowledge and a handful of friends in the world of craft beer, Adam set out with the ambitious task of mastering a consistent, scalable brew. ‘There are a lot of similarities between making Kombucha and brewing craft beer - apart from anything else we’ve been able to adapt a lot of the equipment’ he explains. But like any innovator, Adam confesses to a considerable amount of making it up as he went along: ‘We knew how to make Kombucha in a home-brewing environment, but needed to scale that up in order to turn it into a commercially viable product. There was barely anyone doing it on a commercial scale, and certainly no-one who was willing to share their secrets, so we had to work it all out ourselves.’ In the early days, as they worked to get their processes in place, Adam and his team were brewing for on-site consumption only, serving Kombucha and booch-based cocktails on tap at weekends at their Jarr Barr, Europe’s only Kombucha tap room. But a thirst for the product grew and it wasn’t long before they began bottling it up and selling it to cafes and restaurants (ours included), as well as into big name retailers such as Harrods, Wholefoods and more.
Despite the buzz surrounding this fermented tea drink, the UK Kombucha market is still very much in its infancy compared to the US, where you can now find a plethora of brands in corner shops and retailers across the country, as well as on tap in many cafes and bars. But Adam is positive: ‘People are becoming more and more conscious of what they put in their bodies and Kombucha offers a healthier alternative to other sugary soft drinks, as well as a great, energising option in place of alcohol when you don’t feel like drinking’.
We have seen a growing interest in Kombucha among our own customers at the Tea Bar, but there is something particularly infectious about the way Jarr are doing things. Aside from the beautiful, bold design of their bottles, there is also a genuine craft in the making of their product. It might be getting press thanks to its health benefits, but just like his craft beer brewing friends, for Adam the focus is on creating a genuinely delicious product. They use high quality, organic ingredients, including a combined brew of Sencha green tea and Four Seasons oolong, and have taken time to develop methods to ensure the best tasting brew. In order to do that, Adam explains that it has been key to keep as close as possible to traditional home-brewing. Opening a door out the back reveals a room filled with enormous metal tanks wrapped in cloths, each of which they had made bespoke, to ensure a consistent fermentation. Hidden behind them, rows of mini-me, home-brew style jars with their iconic, floating SCOBYs line the back wall - ‘every brew starts life in one of these smaller jars’. Meanwhile one of the team is busy checking in on the tanks, managing a process of ‘continuous brewing’ - a method that allows them to maintain a consistent profile of acids, bacteria, yeasts and sugar. ‘We try to keep certain things consistent, like sugar content and acidity, but it is also a raw product and the beauty of it is that it is alive and will therefore always be changing’.
There is a shared office upstairs, overlooking the brewery, where the team go to plan sales and marketing efforts, but it is clear that the heart of the business is in the brewery. This is a team of makers; producers in the truest sense of the word. It is that hands-on approach, a natural dose of obsession and the comradery that surrounds the process that makes it feel so special. ‘We don’t take ourselves too seriously - at the end of day it has to be fun. Creating and being part of a community is really important to us’. Behind the relaxed approach and enviable energy (again, it must be the booch) Adam is well aware of the opportunity. ‘We’d love to see Kombucha in cafes, bars and restaurants across the UK, but it’s still early days.’
Jarr Kombucha is currently stocked in Whole Foods Market, Harrods, Selfridges and of course, at our own Tea Bar, Good & Proper Tea on Leather Lane.