Andrew Bannister grows hops in his garden in Larkinville, and brews beer at home, but that isn't how he and his friend Tara Sasiadek make part of their living. Instead, they brew and sell kombucha: a black tea fermented by wild yeast – and often softened by herbs and fruits – and packed with antioxidants and probiotics.
"It has a nice mouthfeel to it," Bannister said. "It's carbonated. It's also a great replacement for soda. We get quite a few people in here who, for lack of a better term, are addicted to pop. Either you're going to have 30 grams of sugar, or aspartame, in soda. …. or have about 1 gram of sugar per 8-ounce serving.
Bannister met Sasiadek in 2014 when he started dating one of her close friends, whom he later married. Andrew and Marissa Bannister also have a 2-month-old daughter, Freyja.
Sasiadek – an artist, muralist and former teacher – started making kombucha at home several years ago because she survived skin cancer in her early 20s and is always looking for ways to prevent its return. "Kombucha isn’t magical," she said, "despite what you may hear, but it is a delicious replacement for pop or other sugary beverages, with the benefit of probiotics."
Bannister and Sasiadek became so successful brewing kombucha in their own homes – and selling it occasionally outside her family's new business project, The Barrel Factory, that the duo decided to lease a four-stool tasting bar and production space inside at 65 Vandalia St. in the Old First Ward.
Snowy Owl Kombucha is perched on the first floor, which also includes Lakeward Spirits distillery and Elevator Alley Kayak. It is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Fridays and noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays, said Bannister, 36, who also is interim executive director at the nearby Old First Ward Community Center. The space holds three refrigerators, two shelves with 5-gallon crocks, and three 100-gallon fermenters.
It costs $10 there to fill an "owler," a 32-ounce bottle with the company logo – designed by Sasiadek – and $8 for refills.
Eight ounces of kombucha do the work of 1 ounce of apple cider vinegar – "and tastes a lot better," Bannister said.
Flavors offered last weekend included tart cherry coconut, raspberry acai, black raspberry vanilla and lavender lemonade (made with lemongrass).
"I mix seven parts kombucha to one part flavor in a growler, or you can just buy the base," Bannister said.
Q. Any special plans for the Shamrock Run next Saturday, March 4? (They're a block west of Gene McCarthy's Irish Pub)
Tara wants to do something green for St. Patrick's Day. We want to try doing something with a green juice, and maybe beets. The building will be open. It's one of our normal days for business. We're not sure how kombucha will be received by the race crowd. If we sold beer, we'd be rolling in dough at the end of the day. I have a feeling we're going to get a ton of people using the bathroom. If there are people who are designated driving, this is a great option for them. The other event the following weekend is the Old Neighborhood Parade, which is a fun weekend and counts as one of the best days of the year.
Q. How do tastings work here?
They're free. Anyone can come up and try what they'd like. We offer a bottomless bottle if you're coming into the building and hanging out at an event. It's $4 and you can refill it as many times as you want. Sometimes, we get college kids that come in and work on their laptops and keep drinking kombucha.
Q. Talk about the benefits of kombucha. How does it fit into a healthy lifestyle?
We're very quick to not claim health benefits of kombucha. We're not health professionals. Some research says it supports hydration, your immune system, takes down inflammation – because it generally has an alkalizing effect on your body. We do get a lot of anecdotal reports back about how it's affecting people. Some of our customers include people with autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. They tell us it seems to have a positive effect. We consider it a good drink for diabetics because it's very low sugar, especially if they just drink the base.
Some of the research out there suggests it's good for your immune system, good for hydration. Some people claim that it's good for weight loss. What we encourage people to understand about it is that it's going to help promote balance with the alkalizing effect. We know that certain illnesses in your body – certain things that make you feel unwell – breed in an acidic environment, even if it's slightly acidic. An alkalizing effect can make your body inhospitable to virus and different infiltrating organisms. In that way, it has shown a positive benefit – but it's not a silver bullet in any way.
Q. What's the difference between making kombucha and making beer?
Brewing differs from fermenting in that with brewing you discard the materials that you brew. They make a wort and then discard all the grain. We start with black tea as a liquid form. That stays whole. I also brew beer.
We start by brewing a very strong black tea. It's our proprietary blend. Then you add cane sugar. I've experimented with almost every sweetener, including agave, molasses. Nothing yielded the results as cane sugar. I use about a half-pound per gallon. It creates a nutrient solution.
There's wild yeast in the kombucha fermenting process. Like a sour beer, these wild yeasts and bacteria are everywhere and are an extension of your environment. It's like eating local wild honey because it helps with your immunity. The same can be said of wild yeast.
We don't pitch yeast like a brewer would. It's just in there, wild and accumulated. We give the yeast a ton of real strong black tea with sugar. It converts the sugar to alcohol almost immediately – within three days – and then this is where the magic of kombucha happens. These acetobacter, a bacteria enzyme, convert all of the alcohol in there to acetic acid. For a minute, it is alcoholic but it's not palatable. After about one and a half days, it's about 1.5 percent alcohol by volume but after the acetobactor converts it, it gets it down to about 0.5 percent by the time you finish the fermentation process.
Q. Where did you brew the first batch of kombucha together?
After we brewed some batches at our homes, we started brewing it last May at the Old First Ward Community Center. They have a health department-approved facility. We rented some space there and were selling it from out of a tent outside The Barrel Factory. We'd get super excited if we went through a keg. It was a lot smaller then. We've been selling it inside since October.
Q. Does that add a lot of calories?
No, because the sugar is fermented out. What you're left with after fermentation is an effervescent beverage high in acetic acid, probiotics, several amino acids and only about 1 to 2 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving. The yeast attack that sugar immediately and the acetobacter converts it to acetic acid. It goes through all the sugar.
You have to start with some form of already made kombucha. We use a continuous fermentation method. Essentially, we have a scoby: a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, largely made up of cellulose, a structure to let them live in. In order for that to survive, you have to keep a low ph. We aim at under 3.5 for a ph. That ensures there's nothing that we'd consider an intruding agent could survive in that. It's too acidic for fungus, for molds. You can buy scobys online or I could cut one in here into literally 100 pieces. It starts with a film across the top and grows from there. It's a cool process. If we were to walk away for about six months, it would continue to ferment and become a vinegar. It's really nice at that point, kind of sweet, and we can make salad dressing out of it.
For kombucha, our brew cycle is about a week.
Q. How do you make the different varieties and what are some of your standards?
We have the same base for all of our flavors. We deviate by using additive flavors. For instance, with our lavender lemonade, we use lavender petals and lemongrass, and steep it like you would an herbal tea. We try not to add any more sugar once it's fermented because, let's face it, most of our country is addicted to sugar. Plus a lot of our customers are diabetic and search this out because it doesn't have (much) sugar.
We find some of the most delightful flavors are citrus, ginger. Those are two heavy hitters. We've done ginger lemon, ginger lime. We did a ginger cranberry around the holidays.
Our most popular flavor by far is the tart cherry coconut. It's been around since the beginning and people keep coming back for it. Our Concord grape and green tea blend was popular around Christmastime. We got the grapes from my father's vines in the Old First Ward.
Q. Can you talk about your Kombucha Share. How does it work?
One of the reasons we started this business is that we couldn't afford to drink kombucha at the level we do. When you go to a store, the national brands will charge about $4 for a 12-ounce bottle. We want to keep the cost manageable. … Our share program is meant to get the cost down. It costs $10 to fill one of our 32-ounce bottles and $8 refill it. It doesn't have to be one of ours. We'll refill any bottle. If you want to bring in a beer growler, we'll fill that 64-ounce growler for $15. For the share, if you're going to drink two 32-ounce bottles a week, we do it for $6 a fill, but you pay up front, so it's $48 and you essentially get eight fills. We give people a punch card.
Q. Why use organic and fair trade practices?
We do it when we source our tea. It's harder with some of our extracts. Sourcing our tea was one of the first things we decided. We both grew up in homes where money was a little tight and we learned the value of labor and the dignity of labor. … Whether or not people can see it, you have to bring a fairness to trade to keep everybody with equal access to having at least a little dignity of what you're doing.
Q. Does that impact the cost?
We probably could buy cheaper tea but in the grand scheme of things I wouldn't say the impact on cost is significant.
Q. You grow hops in your backyard? What kind, and where to they end up?
So far, the yield has been low. I'm going on my third year now and that's the time frame when it should be up full fruition. I have Centennial and Cascade hops. I have 44 grow sites and each one has four different plants. I also have a pretty big vegetable garden, too. Once the hops are ready to go, I'm going to sell some to the local breweries and use some for myself.
Q. How did you come up with the name?
We thought it was important to not be Buffalo-centric with the name. There's a lot of companies that choose to go that route. We have aspirations of going beyond Buffalo if it grows that much. Once we threw out the Rusty's and the Queen City's and all those names, we were trying to think of something that was inviting, safe, and we started talking about animals we liked. Owls are my favorite animals and they just happened to be Tara's, too. We're both kind of huge nerds. We're both big fans of "Harry Potter" and started talking about Snowy Owls. Hedwig is the owl from "Harry Potter," and we decided, "That's it." It has that regional Northern feel. From there, it took off. Tara made our logo.
Q. Is your kombucha available in other places?
It's pretty limited right now. We're at Lakewood Distillery. We're at Undergrounds Coffee House & Roastery on South Park Avenue in Hamburg.
Q. What are your future plans?
Right now, we're mostly retail but as we start to grow distribution we'll let people know. We just quadrupled our capacity to ferment. Once our three 100-gallon tanks are up and rolling – and it's going to take a little time, probably two or three months – we'll start doing more wholesale distribution. Despite our limited hours, we do see quite a few people, especially on Saturdays. We're already seeing quite a bit of loyalty.