By Amy Strauss
In the world of non-alcoholic fermentation, kombucha is the modern-day forerunner. The naturally carbonated, probiotic-rich tea develops by bubbling in small batches, infused with fruits and herbs to enhance its multidimensional character. It’s become the “it” drink for health-conscious types that are eager to drink their enzymes and maintain digestive health.
It’s not just juice bars and organic shops where the fizzy bottles are found. Olga Sorzano’s Baba’s Bucha, a year-old leader of Philadelphia’s kombucha movement, revealed that she is finding her place within the market via citywide draft lines. Pouring on tap in hip Philly haunts like Di Bruno Brothers, Front Street Cafe, Martha and Talula’s Daily, the former private chef’s “booch”—as she calls it—is a popular alternative for those looking for a beer break or a new cocktail ingredient.
“We started on draft to be more sustainable,” she shared. “We thought of ways to be more green without having to have people return the bottles for us to wash and reuse ourselves. On-tap is great. We even get to provide the growlers.”
Baba’s Bucha entered the market in February 2015. In their first farmers market season, they blew through 10 kegs. Sure, they still produce and distribute 12-ounce bottles to more than 55 stores in the Philadelphia area, but by nixing the packaging and bottling for select customers, their eco-conscious efforts really hit home. (Their sales are now roughly 50/50 for kegs and bottles.)
What made the firecracker chef of Russian descent go small batch and start a kombucha business in the first place? “I grew up on kombucha,” she said. “It was always in my family. My grandmother’s recipes were just plain ‘booch,’ where she’d throw in whatever she had at the time. If she’d pick up some berries—bam, she’d throw them in.”
Though Olga’s grandmother—known as ‘Baba,’ short for babushka—was the type to “never write anything down,” her granddaughter’s recipes are a loose translation of what she grew up, updated with her own culinary creativity and experiences.
“When I came to the United States, I was in the restaurant business,” she elaborated. “My friend came up to me and went ‘you have to try this new drink!’ I tasted it and was like, ‘wow this is weirdly familiar.’ I Googled it and surely enough it was the kombucha that I had brewed all my life.”
In Russia, they loosely define the beverage as a mushroom tea. “Mistakenly, they think it’s mushrooms floating in the fermentation, but it’s not mushrooms at all—it’s scoby, which is a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. But, it just reminds people of floating mushrooms and that’s why they refer to it as that,” she explained.
Though the actual science behind kombucha-making may make your head spin with its dealings of controlled humidity, temperature regulation, pH monitoring and symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast, let us break it down for you in the simplest terms. Baba’s ‘Bucha begins with a sugary combination of black, oolong and green teas. Olga and her team then introduce a scoby to the tea, which eats most of its sugar and transforms it into a fermented beverage that possesses mild vinegar notes and becomes fizzy. The first Baba fermentation lasts seven days, and following that, then begins a secondary fermentation where the 2,000-year-old “Elixir of Life” develops dynamic natural infusions with herbs, fruit, roots and seasonings. The end result is a low-calorie bubbling drink that continuously ferments—make sure keep it refrigerated—and maintains a three-month shelf life.
The beauty of Sorzano’s business is that her clever flavor combinations provide an effervescent experience until any other. Self-proclaiming that she has “chef in her blood,” her four flagship flavors include Chamomile Honey, Blueberry, Flower Power and Hibiscus. She also launches two rotating one-off varieties per season.
The Flower Power blend is her personal favorite. It’s a variety she developed when she was pregnant and just wanted a damn glass of rosé. “I wanted to create something that would remind me of rosé from the Rhône Valley,” she explained. “You get the essence of rose petals, lavender and wonderful floral aromas. I still feel like it’s almost insulting to pour in a cup—it’s meant to be poured in a wine glass.” (Word is, it also makes absolutely killer martinis.)
Additional selling points of the West Cheste-brewed ‘Bucha is the fact that she doesn’t use extracts, sources all-organic ingredients and strives to support local. The fruit for a seasonal Asian pear-ginger blend was sourced from an Amish farm in Quarryville. West Grove’s Swarmbustin’ Honey is also a lead provider.
Though it may already be mind-boggling to already keep up with this vivacious ‘Bucha producer, she has big news: Baba’s Bucha is on the move. As of May 2016, they signed a lease to relocate to downtown Phoenixville, to the former Blue Marble Cysery. The new location will allow for production expansion and even feature a tasting room for visitors.
In the meantime, gulp your share of Baba’s Bucha by visiting www.babasbrew.com. In addition to locations aforementioned, scout out a bottle at Crime & Punishment Brewing Co. (2711 W. Girard Ave.), Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market (51 N. 12th St.) and Miss Rachel’s Pantry (1938 S. Chadwick St.), among others.