Digging in: local brewers continue the kombucha craze

Making kombucha is not as hard as you think — just ask local brewmasters.

Bryan Deane Bertsch opens a barrel in his kombucha factory on Saturday, July 13 in St. Paul. 

Jasmin Kemp

Bryan Deane Bertsch opens a barrel in his kombucha factory on Saturday, July 13 in St. Paul. 

Liv Martin

Bryan Deane Bertsch began his business in a much different market than today. Back in 2009, the product of his hobby was meant only to be shared with friends and family. But the operation eventually grew to become Deane’s Kombucha, calling itself the oldest craft commercial kombucha producer in Minnesota.  

Since Bertsch started, the kombucha industry has taken off rapidly. Walk into virtually any store now, and one can find a variety of kombucha brands.

Kombucha is relatively simple to produce and once a “SCOBY” — the magic culture of bacteria and yeast used to ferment the beverage — is acquired, the possibilities are endless. 

Bertsch has been using the same mail-ordered starter SCOBY since his first-ever batch of kombucha.

“It was a two-and-a-half gallon batch to start, and that’s now thirty 30-gallon oak barrels and plus thousands of local brewers that are using that same culture from my classes. There’s a serious lineage,” he said.

Deane’s Kombucha uniquely uses oak barrels for fermenting twelve to twenty different flavors at a time using whole, organic fruits and herbs. The bottles, labeled with Deane’s signature blue butterfly logo, are made in Shakopee. As it turns out, a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly is a good metaphor for kombucha.

“It starts out as a caterpillar and it literally creates a womb where it turns to mush. Then out of that comes this light, beautiful butterfly,” Bertsch said. “You’ve got the SCOBY, which is nasty looking, but then at the end of the day, you’ve got this crisp, healthy, vibrant, beautiful drink.”

Not only is there a demand for the fizzy, tangy drink in larger stores, but the ease of making it has inspired many at-home brewers.

Northern Brewer, a home brewing and winemaking supplier, recently held a class on making kombucha. Staff member Cat Ballou, equipped with a slideshow, stood behind a counter and spoke to a group of new students.

Though it may seem daunting at first, the process “doesn’t requires any babying,” Ballou said. “It is easier than making boxed mac and cheese.”

Friends Grace Curtiss, an incoming junior at the University of Minnesota, and Neha Upadhyaya, a recent University grad, were students at the free kombucha making class on Saturday.

“I really like kombucha and I really don’t like paying six dollars per bottle,” Curtiss said. She had already purchased a kombucha starter kit from Northern Brewer and came to class to clarify the process before she tackled it on her own.

Upadhyaya first discovered kombucha in middle school and was drawn to the acidity of the beverage.

“I really liked going grocery shopping with my parents. We went to Whole Foods and I used to be allowed to buy one funky thing every time we went,” she said. “Sometimes it would be dragon fruit. Sometimes it would be kombucha.”

Bertsch wholeheartedly encourages home brewing; after all, Deane’s grew from his own curiosity. Now his kombucha is available at locations all around the metro area, at a few in Wisconsin and even in the Timberwolves and Lynx player clubhouse.

“I think the whole food scene is leaning towards local, local, local,” Bertsch said. “And, especially with fermented foods, it makes sense.”

This is the fifth article in “Digging In,” a series about the stories behind beloved Twin Cities restaurants.