As Black Friday winds to a close, have you chatted with any retail workers that were on the clock today? Checked out their Twitter feeds? Read a few stories on “Not Always Right“? Have you followed the news, as they talk about Black Friday shootings and crowds? I don’t know very many shoppers that consider Black Friday to be “fun.” Yes, it has good deals, but fighting the crowds to grab that cheap game console can frazzle even the mellowest shopper. But the employees in the stores have it worse. It’s not optional for them. Frantic, harried shoppers tend not to be overly polite to the clerks in the stores, and the employees tend to go home tired and stressed.
As a retailer, this doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun to me, either. But you know what? Today was an awesome Black Friday, and I had fun with it. I am tired, but simultaneously energized.
“Today was an awesome Black Friday, and I had fun with it. I am tired, but simultaneously energized.”
As regular readers of my blog know, my wife and I own a bookstore and tea bar in Red Lodge, Montana. Red Lodge is a small town. Pretty much every store in town was closed yesterday for Thanksgiving. I think the Radio Shack was the first store open this morning for Black Friday, and I doubt they opened much before 7:00 a.m. We didn’t open until 9:00, and things were quiet enough that we could get some Christmas decorating done in between customers. In Red Lodge, the real Black Friday shopping day starts at about 11:00.
We keep things fairly mellow. No 75% off sales. Just a book signing in the afternoon, and a “Black Tea Friday” special discount on all black tea. Still, today was our best Black Friday ever, and one of the best days in the history of the shop. We had a lot of people in the store, and there were times when we struggled to keep up. But I still had a chance to say “hi” to all of the regulars, talk to folks about the book signing, and help people select gifts. Could today have been bigger? Sure. We could have offered steep discounts, advertised like mad, and opened at 5:00 a.m. I’ll bet we would have sold a lot more. But to me, it wouldn’t have been worth it.
The nearest city of any size is Billings, Montana, which is about an hour’s drive from here. A sales representative from the big mall there popped by a while ago to see if we wanted to open a kiosk or small satellite store in the mall for the Christmas season. He threw out some amazing numbers. A little kiosk in the mall could possibly generate more sales in a month than our whole store in Red Lodge — and that’s if the kiosk is only selling tea, which accounts for about a quarter of our sales at the shop.
I’d be silly not to jump at that opportunity, right?
People can get a cup of tea anywhere. Ditto a good book. The reason people come to my store is because we take the time to talk to them. I may spend ten minutes with someone pulling jars down from the shelf and asking questions before they settle on the perfect tea for them. They may describe a tea that they got at a favorite shop a thousand miles away and ask me to blend them something similar. I can help customers find a book based on the sketchiest description (“I think it was set in Wyoming and had a green cover”), and recommend a new author based on what they tell me about themselves.
And that’s what makes owning a store fun!
Spending every day frantically preparing cups of tea until I’m sticky from the honey and agave nectar and I smell like a chai latte isn’t my idea of fun. I don’t think my employees would particularly enjoy it, either. But introducing a black tea drinker to a well-whisked matcha gives one a real sense of satisfaction. Having someone say, “this will be perfect for my cousin for Christmas” makes my day. Hearing a customer call their spouse on their cellphone to say, “you have got to come meet me at this amazing tea shop” puts a smile on my face every day.
The sales numbers for an airport bookstore or a shopping mall kiosk sound attractive, but that’s not my lifestyle. I don’t want to end the day thinking I just can’t stand to look at another customer. I don’t want customers stalking out of my store because my employees don’t have time to explain the difference between sencha and dragonwell, or to help them find a good mystery book set in the West with a believable female protagonist. I want to end the day feeling like I made enough money to pay all the bills, made my customers a little bit happier than they were when the day started, and (hopefully) learned something myself. That won’t happen in Wal-Mart in Denver. It does happen at my store in Red Lodge, Montana, and I hope it will keep happening for many years to come.
“I want to end the day feeling like I made enough money to pay all the bills, made my customers a little bit happier than they were when the day started, and (hopefully) learned something myself.”
Let me end this post with a hearty thank you to all of my customers — my friends — who came in the store to shop today. Yeah, it sounds sappy, but it’s genuine. You give me a reason to open the store in the morning, and I appreciate it.
The more I learn about tea, the more I want to learn. The more I experience, the more I want to experience. I experiment, I read books, I read blogs, I attend tea conferences, and I take classes. I buy tea from all over the world, and try out different blends and combinations. Basically, I do whatever my budget allows.
One thing my budget has not, alas, allowed has been traveling to the world’s great tea growing areas and getting familiar with tea bushes. My tea experiences all start with processed leaves, not with the plants themselves. Today marked the first step in changing that.
I got a phone call this afternoon from Naomi Rosen, of Joy’s Teaspoon. I met Naomi at a blogger’s panel at World Tea Expo 2013 this summer (CAUTION: this link to World Tea Expo plays video and makes noise — careful where you are when you click it). Naomi was calling because she’s working with Jason McDonald of FiLoLi Tea Farm and the United States League of Tea Growers on a new initiative they call #TeaAcrossAmerica.
Their simple yet ambitious objective: put a tea plant into every state and the District of Columbia. Some U.S. states already have established tea plantations. Others have hobbyists with a few bushes going. Many states have climates that Camellia sinensis considers inhospitable. I happen to live in one of those states: Montana.
Naomi asked if I’d be willing to represent Montana in #TeaAcrossAmerica, and I jumped at the opportunity. To participate, I need to take a cutting from FiLoLi Tea Farm in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and grow it here in Montana. Jason has written up some directions to make caring for the cutting easier, and I’ll be able to keep it indoors where the harsh Montana winters won’t kill it. My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. The only problem will be humidity — it’s very dry here — but we can deal with that.
It’s going to be a month or two before my little tea bush arrives, so we have plenty of time to prepare. I will keep everyone up-to-date on the progress as we get things going. In the meantime, thanks to Jason for the opportunity and to Naomi for suggesting me as a volunteer!
As I wrote about in my other blog, we went to Portland, Oregon for a book show last week. I was there to roll out my new book (Who Pooped in the Cascades?) and to take a look at interesting books from other authors — not to mention a whole lot of networking. What I didn’t mention in that other blog was that I took some time out to meet fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman for a cup or three of tea (and maybe a beer or two, but that’s completely beside the point). I told Geoffrey to pick his favorite tea shop in Portland and take me there. He chose The Jasmine Pearl on NE 22nd, and the adventure went from there…
My son, Doug, accompanied Geoffrey and I to the shop, and we entered to the wondrous smell of tea blending and brewing. We met the owners and several other staff members, and then settled in to browse.
As I typically do when entering a new tea shop, I explored their tea list to see what they had available. They had the usual selection of flavored teas & scented tea (Earl Grey, Moroccan mint, jasmine pearls…) and old standbys (tieguanyin, English breakfast, gunpowder green…). They also had some very interesting-looking varietals and single-source teas, including kukicha, dong ding oolong, and Gaba oolong.
After we looked around a bit, they informed us that tasting was free and pretty much everything was available to taste. One of the staff pulled out a couple of gaiwans, along with cups, strainers, and other related accoutrements, and asked where we’d like to start.
We started with the kukicha and dong ding oolong, and they were both good. The Gaba oolong, on the other hand, was an absolutely wonderful, and it has a great story behind it, too — but that’s for another blog post.
After going through the oolongs, Doug chose to try his favorite, a lapsang souchong, and he ended up loving it.
I, on the other hand, wanted to try pu-erhs.
I asked her what was their richest, earthiest, most complex pu-erh. She immediately guided me to the Gold Nugget. Not to spoil the ending to this story, but I ended up buying some to bring home.
It looks like any other brick of pu-erh when it’s wrapped up like that, but when the wrapper comes off, it gets different. It seems that it has the name “Gold Nugget” for a reason.
Most pressed tea is made with larger leaf varietals of Camellia sinensis, and the leaves are laid out rather randomly. This requires flaking off bits of the tea with a pu-erh knife or some similar implement. This shu (“ripe”) pu-erh uses whole leaves, but they are rolled up like an oolong or gunpowder tea first. These “nuggets” are then pressed into the cake.
When I’m comparing tea, I like to keep the variables to a minimum. The little pile of nuggets in the picture weighs 7 grams. I put them in my infuser and did a 10-second wash with boiling water, which I drained out completely. Then I added 16 ounces of boiling water and let it steep for three minutes.
To me, three minutes is a long steep time for a shu pu-erh. When I’m drinking my favorite pu-erhs, I usually go for more like 90 seconds. Our first taste of this in the tea bar, on the other hand, was steeped for five minutes, because I told her I liked it strong.
I do, indeed, like it strong, but after steeping for five minutes, the flavors are rather muddled together. That’s why my first pass at home was for three.
The result was exactly what I had asked for: rich and complex are great adjectives for this tea. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the last pu-erh I blogged about. I will, however, be using longer steep times than usual for my first infusion, simply because those nuggets are rolled so tight that it takes a couple of infusions to open them up all the way.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I came back with some great tea, lots and lots of autographed books, and some fond memories. After the tea tasting, we met my wife at a sushi restaurant and had some wonderful sushi rolls and interesting beers. I wouldn’t say Geoff knows as much about beer as he does about tea, but I think we’ll be having some future conversations about the differences and similarities in teas and beers.
At World Tea Expo this year, I picked up a Laotian pu-erh (well, technically a “dark tea,” since it doesn’t come from Yunnan) from Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House. I mentioned this in a blog post back in June, and said I’d be tasting it and writing about it “soon.” Well, since it’s a very young sheng (a.k.a. “raw”) pu-erh, I figured it wasn’t a big hurry, and “soon” ended up being October. Oh, well. Had to get all that Oktoberfest stuff out of the way first, I suppose.
Let me begin by explaining the label and the style of this tea.
That big “2011″ on the label is the year that it was produced. Most pu-erh drinkers will tell you that a sheng pu-erh should be aged a minimum of five years before you drink it. I certainly won’t argue that the flavors improve and ripen as the tea ages, but in my humble opinion there’s nothing at all wrong with drinking a young sheng. I enjoyed the bit that I took off of this 357-gram beeng cha (pressed cake), but I’ll be saving most of it to drink as it matures. Will I be able to hang on another three years or more to drink the majority of it? That remains to be seen.
The words “Phong Sali” do not refer to the style of the tea, but to its origin. Phong Sali (or, more commonly, Phongsali) is the capital of Phongsali province in Laos. Technically, as I mentioned above, this tea style should be called by its generic name (“dark tea”) rather than its regional name (“pu-erh”), because it doesn’t come from the Yunnan province of China. Since the little town of Phongsali (population about 6,000) is only about 50 miles from Yunnan (which borders Phongsali province on the west and north), I think we can let that bit of terminology slide.
“Old tree” refers to the tea plants themselves. In most modern plantations, the tea is pruned to about waist height to make it easy to pick. In many older plantations, the tea has been allowed to grow into trees, which can reach heights of thirty feet or more. The particular tea trees from which this tea comes are over 100 years old.
Tasting the tea
Unwrapping the beeng cha provided my first close look at the tea. The leaves are quite large, and the cake is threaded with golden leaves that didn’t oxidize fully.
There is still enough moisture in the cake to make it fairly easy to flake off some tea from one edge. Shu pu-erh is often dried very hard, as it is “force fermented” so that it will be ready to drink earlier. Sheng pu-erh, on the other hand, needs a bit of moisture in it to continue fermenting over time. I decided to try it in a gaiwan rather than making a large cup, so that it would be easier to experiment with multiple infusions and smell/taste the tea as I went.
I used water just a bit cooler than boiling (water boils at 202°F at this altitude, and I used 195°F water for this tea), and roughly 7 or 8 grams of tea. Unscientific, I know, but I didn’t measure it. I steeped the tea for just a minute the first time, and got a delicate but flavorful cup of tea. The flavor is similar to a characteristic Chinese green tea (think dragonwell), but more woody and with a bit of spice.
The picture on the right shows the leaves, uncurled after the first steeping. They are large, supple, and fragrant.
That one-minute steep wasn’t really enough to hydrate the leaves, so I went for a second steep at 1:30 (pictured at left above). Much more flavor, but still extremely delicate compared to a fully-aged sheng pu-erh. I enjoyed a third and fourth steep, which had only minor changes in flavor, but was interrupted before I had a chance to keep going and see how it stood up to eight or ten steeps. An experiment for a quieter day, I suppose.
This tea is definitely worth enjoying a bit early, and I will definitely be coming back to it. Again, we’ll see how much survives to full maturity. I’m not very good at waiting!
I mentioned theanine (C7H14N2O3) in the first post of my caffeine trilogy, but I haven’t really gone into any detail about it. I suppose now is as good a time as any.
Theanine (or more precisely, L-theanine) is an amino acid found in tea, guayusa, and certain mushrooms. It acts as a relaxant, helps to improve concentration, and adds a savory (umami) flavor to whatever it’s added to. Most importantly — at least when we’re talking about tea — is what it does when combined with caffeine.
At the 2012 World Tea Expo, I attended a session entitled “Tea, Nutrition and Health: Myths and Truths for the Layman,” presented by Kyle Stewart and Neva Cochrane. They discussed the relaxation and alertness affect of tea, and also noted that a “2012 study found tea was associated with increased work performance and reduced tiredness, especially when consumed without milk or sugar.”
This caught my attention not only because of the increased work performance, but because it validated my personal preference for tea without sweetener or milk.
Stewart and Cochrane attributed the increased work performance to the combination of caffeine, theanine, theophylline, and theobromine. There have been some excellent articles on theanine, including Tony Gebely’s “Theanine: a 4000 Year Old Mind-Hack” and RateTea’s “L-Theanine and Tea.”
Both of them agree with the conclusion that theanine coupled with caffeine produces a seemingly-contradictory combination of relaxation and alertness. This isn’t news to tea aficionados, of course. People have been relaxing and focusing themselves with tea for millennia. Many of the health benefits of tea come from the caffeine, and those obviously apply to theanine-free drinks like coffee, cola, and cocoa.
Caffeine by itself doesn’t work quite the same way, however.
The “spike & crash” affect of caffeine is well known to any coffee drinker. You’re droopy and tired, you have your morning cup, and you swiftly find yourself wide awake and full of energy. A while later, bam! You’re back where you started, and possibly in a pissier mood than when you started. Yes, I said “pissier.” It’s a technical term. When drinking tea, thanks in large part to the theanine content, the effects take longer to kick in, and also take longer to wear off. Mixing a relaxant (theanine) with a stimulant (caffeine) works quite well in this case.
Wikipedia summarizes a half-dozen studies with this statement:
“Theanine has been studied for its potential ability to reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition, and boost mood and cognitive performance in a synergistic manner with caffeine.”
“Boost mood,” eh? As I wrote last week, there has been at least one study that indicates tea improves mood. That study, however, defined a good mood as decreased fatigue. It appears that there may be more to the mood-enhancing effects of tea than my previous post indicated!
I have heard it since I was a kid: Drink plenty of fluids means water. It doesn’t include caffeinated beverages like tea. That statement didn’t come with much explanation when I was little. Later, Mom explained that only clear liquids count. I couldn’t figure out why 7-Up was okay when I was sick, but iced tea wasn’t. When I got married, my wife explained to me that it was the caffeine that caused the problem. Caffeine, you see, is a diuretic. That means it makes you pee. The more you drink, the less hydrated you are. This explanation has always bothered me, but I never went to the trouble to research it for myself.
I came across a paper entitled Caffeine ingestion and fluid balance: a review, by R.J. Maughan and J. Griffin. They reached the conclusion that large amounts of caffeine consumed by people unused to caffeine can, indeed, cause dehydration. On the other hand, people who regularly drink caffeine can consume quite a bit of it without a problem. To quote their results directly:
“The available literature suggests that acute ingestion of caffeine in large doses (at least 250-300 mg, equivalent to the amount found in 2-3 cups of coffee or 5-8 cups of tea) results in a short-term stimulation of urine output in individuals who have been deprived of caffeine for a period of days or weeks. A profound tolerance to the diuretic and other effects of caffeine develops, however, and the actions are much diminished in individuals who regularly consume tea or coffee. Doses of caffeine equivalent to the amount normally found in standard servings of tea, coffee and carbonated soft drinks appear to have no diuretic action.”
In conclusion, when I am sick and/or dehydrated, I may feel free to drink my tea.
But wait! It gets better! I came across another paper entitled The effect of drinking tea at high altitude on hydration status and mood by D. Scott, J.A. Rycroft, J. Aspen, C. Chapman, and B. Brown. This is an absolutely awesome study, simply because they performed it at Mt. Everest base camp. It’s not a statistically valid sampling (only 13 people participated), and I’m not sure how valid a study performed at 17,500 feet altitude is for us lowlanders at 5,500 feet. But, hey, it was done at Mt. Everest base camp, and the procedure they used in the study does seem reasonably rigorous.
To put the results in their own words:
“The study shows therefore that even when drunk at high altitude where fluid balance is stressed, there is no evidence that tea acts as a diuretic when consumed through natural routes of ingestion by regular tea drinkers, but that it does have a positive effect on mood.”
Immediately upon reading this, I began putting together a list of people that might benefit from a few cups of tea. There are even those rare occasions when my own mood is not particularly sunny and bright. Not many, of course, but I must be prepared and have some good tea set aside for those moments.
Alas, upon closer reading I discovered that the “positive effect on mood” is actually “subjects reporting reduced fatigue when tea was included in the diet.” Oh, well. If you think about it, tea has long been touted as a good relaxant, so this particular finding makes sense.
With my hopes for a worldwide cure for bad moods rudely dashed, I shall have to fall back on tea as a way to hydrate and reduce fatigue. Sounds like the perfect thing to have along on a hike or at the gym. Surely that’s no surprise to my tea-loving readers!
Before we address the topic at hand, may I take a moment to get something off of my chest?
Today we are discussing a tea called masala chai. The word “masala” refers to a yummy blend of spices, often containing cardamom, ginger, and pepper. The word “chai” means “tea” in Hindi (and Urdu, and Russian, and Bulgarian, and Aramaic, and Swahili, and a variety of other languages). Therefore, when you refer to “chai tea,” you’re talking about “tea tea.” Although most Americans call masala chai just “chai,” they really should be calling it “masala” or “masala tea” if they don’t want to say “masala chai.”
We can thank the coffee industry for confusing our terminology a couple of decades ago, as they coined the phrase “chai latte” to differentiate masala chai (traditionally made with milk) from coffee lattes. Your other word of the week is “latte,” which just means “with milk” and has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. Tea made with heated and frothed milk is a latte, too!
Thank you. I feel better now. On to the aforementioned topic at hand:
I would never presume to tell you the right way to make a cup of tea. As I’ve mentioned so many times before, there is no single right way to do it. In this post, however, I will talk about one of the traditional ways to make masala chai. In India, where this concoction (or decoction, if you prefer) originated, it is almost always made with milk and sugar.
In a coffee shop, masala chai (which they usually call a chai latte) is almost always made from a pre-sweetened concentrate. It’s quick and easy to make, and it tastes pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like authentic masala chai.
In a tea shop, masala chai is usually brewed fresh from a blend of black tea leaves and masala spices. If they add milk, it is usually poured in after the tea is brewed, unless the tea shop is specifically set up for lattes. You get that fresh-brewed taste, but somehow the spices don’t seem quite right to me (my tea bar does it differently, but that’s a topic for another post).
At home, you can make it the way they do in India.
The masala spices
First of all, the masala spice mix and the tea (chai) are usually purchased and stored separately. Just as many Americans have a family chili or soup or cookie recipe, many Indian families have their own masala recipe handed down through the generations. You can research and experiment to come up with your own, or go to your favorite tea shop and see if they have a blend for sale. Many tea shops (including mine) will sell you the masala spice mix they use in-house without the tea.
If you’re really serious about it, you’ll make each batch up fresh, grinding cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and whatever other spices you use as needed. I know a few folks that do it that way, but not many. I’d recommend starting with a mix that you like.
In India, the tea leaf of choice is usually a rich black Indian tea like Assam. It’s brewed pretty strong so that you can taste the tea through all of the spice and milk and sweetener. That doesn’t mean you need to use an Assam, but it’s a good place to start.
Milk serves a definite purpose in masala chai. You can extract flavor from many spices much better in fats or oils than you can in water, as any chef will tell you. Steeping the spice blend in milk will result in a richer, more nuanced flavor than steeping it in water. In India, the milk of choice is typically water buffalo milk, which can be difficult to get hold of here in North America. The usual substitute is whole milk, although 1% or 2% is common with the more health-conscious crowd. Nonfat milk is rather pointless, as the fat is the main reason for using it.
Sugar. Some drink their masala chai unsweetened, but if there is sweetener, it will typically be sugar.
That said, when I’m making masala chai at home, I usually use honey or agave nectar.
You’ll need a pan, a stove, and a strainer to do this. This is my recipe for making enough for you and a few friends. Adjust accordingly if you’re drinking it by yourself.
- Heat up a pint (16 oz) of milk in the pan, but do not bring to a boil!
- Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of masala spice mix and simmer for five minutes, stirring gently
- Bring a pint (16 oz) of water to a boil in a kettle or microwave
- Add the water to the pan along with 1-1/2 tablespoons of tea leaves
- Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey
- Allow to simmer for another five minutes, stirring occasionally
- Pour through strainer to remove leaves and spices, and serve immediately
Put out more sugar or other sweetener for your guests. That single teaspoon is a lot less than a traditionalist would use, but I prefer to let everyone choose their own level of sweetness.
For best results, enjoy with your favorite Indian foods. Masala chai does a wonderful job of cutting the spiciness of curries. You can also use your masala chai tea in your Indian cooking: see my post on Chai Rice.
NOTE: The resulting masala chai will not look like the latte in the picture above. To get that look, I frothed up some milk and placed the foam on the top of the cup, and then added a dash of cinnamon powder.
Several times in the last couple of years, people have come in to the tea bar and asked if we have kombucha. The first time, I did a quick Google search, looked at the process required to brew it, and said no. After the third time, I figured I should look a bit deeper into this phenomenon. Conveniently enough, the Healthy Beverage Expo was held in Las Vegas alongside the World Tea Expo (the largest trade conference in the tea business) , so I was able to sign up for a kombucha seminar to go along with all of the tea seminars I was taking.
I learned quite a bit in the seminar, although virtually none of what the instructor covered was applicable to a tea shop serving freshly-brewed drinks. Almost everything she talked about applied to RTD (ready-to-drink) bottled beverages, which really doesn’t interest me. We don’t serve bottled tea or soda — or even bottled water — so RTDs didn’t really interest me much. I was there to learn about fresh beverages.
Following the seminar, I did some further research and made an informed decision about selling kombucha in my tea shop. Here is my thought process:
What is kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented drink made from a fairly heavily sweetened black tea (about 1 cup of sugar per gallon of tea), although other types of tea can be used as well. A symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast known by the acronym “SCOBY” is placed on top of the tea blend. It grows into a gelatinous mass on top of the tea as it ferments the sugars in the tea mixture. After a week or so, the freshly grown bacteria/yeast mat can be separated out into a new SCOBY for the next batch, and the liquid can be drawn off to drink.
It’s really good for you, right?
First of all, I don’t select teas based on health claims. I select teas that taste good. At times, those goals align, but I’m frankly underwhelmed at the amount of hard data backing most herbal health claims, and I’m not going to pass on health claims to my customers unless they are backed up by honest-to-goodness, peer-reviewed, reproducible studies — preferably with double-blind clinical studies.
Sitting in the kombucha seminar, I was struck by the PowerPoint slide titled “Health Benefits.” It listed every imaginable ailment from cancer to Alzheimer’s, heart disease to diabetes. The list was absolutely stunning. Before I had a chance to react, someone else in the audience asked what the basis was for this list. The instructor informed us that she had recorded everything her friends, family, and customers had told her. If someone told her they drank kombucha and their gout got better, she’d put gout on the list.
In other words, all of these health benefits were unconfirmed hearsay with no scientific basis whatsoever. A short amount of digging brought me to an article on kombucha by the American Cancer Society. I think one quote from that article sums it up really well:
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Kombucha tea promotes good health, prevents any ailments, or is works to treat cancer or any other disease. Serious side effects and occasional deaths have been linked with drinking Kombucha tea.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Logistics of kombucha
In a tea bar environment, I have dried leaves with a shelf life measured in months. The few fresh items I need, such as milk, boba pearls, and lemon slices, can either be purchased on a moment’s notice at the grocery store, or made in a matter of minutes. Kombucha requires at least a week to brew, which means if you want to serve it fresh, you need to be very good at predicting demand a week in advance.
If you wish to store and keep it, you have to bottle or keg it, and that takes me back to the RTD issue I opened this article with. If I’m going to serve a bottled beverage, I’d might as well buy it from someone else instead of trying to ferment it myself.
Fermentation leads to another issue as well. The yeast in the SCOBY does exactly what yeast does in beer or wine: it consumes sugars and excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 provides carbonation, most of which is allowed to escape. The alcohol is another issue. The Federal government puts strict controls over alcohol content in beverages. If you wish to sell fresh-brewed kombucha, you must carefully control and measure the amount of alcohol.
Not only can we not sell beverages to children if they contain more than a fraction of a percent alcohol, but without the proper licenses, we can’t produce alcoholic beverages in the tea bar anyway.
I used to do a lot of homebrewing. I really enjoyed making and drinking my own beer. If I still had all of my equipment set up for the beer, I’d probably brew up a batch of kombucha just for fun. I’m not, however, going to make it in the tea bar because the logistics are complex, it doesn’t fit the business model of freshly-brewed tea, and the health benefits are unsubstantiated.