Exploring Kombucha with Local Brewer Ben Zanfagna
Ben Zanfagna, owner of Boocha Kombucha, is tall and broad-shouldered with loose brown curls that fall just over his ears. If his hair were one inch longer, he’d be a ringer for musician Jack Johnson. His voice is low and melodic, but with an assertive, formal cadence that picks up steam when he waxes didactic on kombucha and healthful living.
Zanfagna brews authentic small-batch kombucha (pronounced kom-BOO-cha), a lightly effervescent, fermented elixir. In its purest form, kombucha smells of sour apples and unripe peaches and tastes like cider vinegar’s weaker cousin, only it isn’t fermented with apples or peaches. It contains tea (green or black, from the authentic tea plant species Camellia sinensis), cane sugar, and a white-ish gelatinous blobby thing called SCOBY, or “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.”
The first sip is nothing if not memorable. For some, it’s truly hair-raising. The SCOBY is made up of lactobacillus bacteria and yeast. Think of it as a two-headed monster. The nutrients in the tea nudge the SCOBY, waking it up and feeding it. The yeast in the SCOBY then consumes the cane sugar, leaving behind carbon dioxide and alcohol. The bacteria in the SCOBY gobble the alcohol and convert it to tart acetic acid, creating a beverage with a pH of around 2.8 to 3.2, meaning it’s as sour as a grapefruit or a dill pickle. The remaining carbon dioxide is what gives the beverage its signature effervescence.
The health claims of kombucha are many and varied. It seems somewhat counterintuitive, but the acetic acid in kombucha can act like a natural antacid, neutralizing stomach acids. Kombucha also reintroduces healthful bacteria in the body purportedly great for gut health and in some circles, it’s considered a panacea for everything from poor eyesight to wrinkles and arthritis, even cancer.
But you don’t have to convince Zanfagna of kombucha’s healing properties. He’s drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid.
In 2001, Zanfagna took a high stick to the chin in his rookie year of Varsity hockey at Hamilton College in upstate New York. “I never even fell down,” he said. He finished practice and even skated the following afternoon. But within twenty-four hours, he began to feel strange and weak on his left side so he eventually visited the college infirmary. The next thing he remembers is lying in a hospital bed in an intensive care unit in Utica, New York. Zanfagna suffered a rare arterial dissection, a tiny blood clot that blocked an artery in the base of his brain, cutting off oxygen and causing a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side. Because he was only nineteen and in great shape, Zanfagna recovered more quickly than anyone expected and only missed one semester of school. But his body healed faster than his psyche.
“The tests I had to undergo [at the hospital] to eliminate illnesses, like spinal taps and other terrible procedures, made me wary of Western medicine,” says Zanfagna.
With his hockey career over, Ben turned to music, singing to keep his spirits up and playing mandolin to rehabilitate his finger dexterity. He also began drinking kombucha and fiddling around with home brews. “It was a fun, hippie thing to do,” he says, “and it just felt really good.”
Zanfagna spent most of his twenties exploring Greece, Bermuda, Costa Rica and Denmark as a philosophy student, ship captain, ad salesman, bartender and professional musician.
His wanderlust led him back to kombucha.
At a street market in Israel in 2009, Zanfagna met an elderly man, a master kombucha brewer. “I felt an immediate calm when I tried his kombucha,” he says. “My intuition said drink this and learn how to make it.” He bought everything the man was selling, returned home and got serious.
The home-brewing process appears deceptively simple. There are really only four ingredients: brewed tea, sugar, plain fermented kombucha (a starter either from an existing home brew or an authentic commercial brand) and a SCOBY. You combine the first three ingredients, pour the mixture into a glass bottle, drop the SCOBY on top and leave it alone to ferment for an average of two weeks.
“It’s not just here are the ingredients, throw them together,” warns Kathy Rand, owner of The Natural Grocer in Newburyport, Massachusetts and retailer of Boocha Kombucha, “it’s here are the ingredients, make sure the water’s at a certain temperature, brew the tea for a certain amount of time, add the SCOBY and the sugar in certain proportion.” If the tea is too cold when you add the SCOBY, it could grow mold during fermentation. Add too much sugar, and you get unacceptably high levels of alcohol (over 0.5%).
Zanfagna brewed dozens of batches for family and friends, attended seminars, and sought out collaborators and mentors. Through much trial and error, Zanfagna perfected his method and in 2011 he started bottling Boocha Kombucha. He fuses art and science to create a proprietary brew all his own. He pays attention to the ratio of green tea to black, and tea to sugar. He tests alcohol levels with a lab-standard hydrometer and checks pH with a meter. He takes into account environmental factors like heat and humidity and the volume and surface area of his fermenting vessels, all of which affect length of fermentation. But he also takes the time to sample his batches every day, not only measuring, but also tasting, smelling and looking for changes that indicate fermentation is complete. “He has the wonderful combination of being a highly skilled brewer and a sensitive and intuitive person,” says Rand. “His kombucha is clear and smooth without any residual sugar.”
From Zanfagna’s perspective, he just wants to do right by kombucha and give everyone else a chance to experience the way it makes him feel. He suggests novices start slowly, adding a little juice to make it more palatable, combining it with a morning smoothie, or even adding it to an evening cocktail until they learn to appreciate the taste. The point is to get people on board.
“I believe in preventative medicine, putting the right things in and letting the body do its thing,” says Zanfagna. “We have the blue prints, we just need the building blocks.”
Boocha Kombucha is sold at the Natural Grocer in Newburyport, The Farm at Eastman’s Corner in Kensington, NH and at Blue Moon Evolution in Exeter, where they offer six-ounce pours.