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Fermented tea trend makes its way to Buffalo's West Side

There’s something new brewing on Buffalo’s West Side – and this time it’s not craft beer.

Think blueberry lavender. Tart cherry mint. Hibiscus lime. Turmeric orange and lemon.

Those are some of the flavors used in kombucha, a fermented, fizzy and lightly sweetened tea drink popular with millennials and people following the latest health trends.

Like a lot of trends, Buffalo is a little late to catch on. The drink, which is believed to have originated in ancient China, became popular more than 10 years ago on the West Coast. Now it’s catching on here.

Bootleg Bucha co-owners, from left, Todd Salansky, Heather Lucas and her husband Jeffrey Empric are seen with employee Sarah Bartolotta. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Two brewers of kombucha – Bootleg Bucha and Barrel + Brine – have set up shop on Buffalo’s West Side, while a third, Snowy Owl Kombucha, has set up shop at the Barrel Factory in the Old First Ward.

“Americans love carbonation, so you have a carbonated cold beverage that tastes really good, is low sugar and has a lot of health benefits between vitamin B, antioxidants, glucuronic acid and probiotics,” said Jeff Empric, who started Bootleg Bucha 15 months ago with wife Heather Lucas and business partner Todd Salansky.

Lindsey Marvin, who co-owns Barrel + Brine, 257 Carolina St., with husband RJ, also pointed to the health benefits for the growing popularity.

“It’s a way to get your probiotics and antioxidants, and it tastes really good,” she said. Kombucha’s medical claims have been disputed, including by the American Cancer Society. Most health concerns, however, surround the safety of home-brewed kombucha.

Bootleg Bucha is the larger of the two local breweries. It moved into 1250 Niagara St. four months ago to increase production of the drink. It also opened a cafe, where about half of the company’s 20 flavors are served on tap.

Jeffrey Empric used to make kombucha drinks out of his house as a way to add probiotics to his diet. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Empric learned about kombucha after using probiotics to overcome his acid reflux. Kombucha was at first just another way to add probiotics to his diet.

Empric and Lucas used to make kombucha drinks out of their house, but after testing flavors with friends, they decided with Salansky to market them.

The three started their business in 2015 at Horsefeathers Market & Residences on Connecticut Street before moving to their present location last August. Bootleg Bucha’s drinks will soon be served at 65 grocery stores, health food stores and food co-ops with the addition next week of Wegmans.

And next week, Bootleg Bucha’s products are scheduled to be distributed in up to 500 locations across the East Coast.

Production begins in four 400-pound gallon fermenting tanks.

A batch of blended black and green tea is brewed. Organic pure cane sugar is then added, and the batch is flash-chilled, with cooler jackets on the tanks releasing ice-cold water. After the batch returns to room temperature, starter kombucha from a previous batch is added, followed by a culture of bacteria and yeast called SCOBY, which starts the fermentation process and activates the bacteria and yeast.

Bootleg Bucha uses local ingredients in its kombucha beverages. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The batch is fermented in the tank for three weeks, flavored and then placed in secondary fermentation tanks in the walk-in cooler for three to five days to gain carbonation and to blend in the fruit flavors. When finished, the kombucha is ready to be bottled or kegged, then distributed.

The company uses local ingredients. Cherry and grape concentrates come from farms in Niagara County, for instance. So does the pear juice and apple cider.

Empric, a South Buffalo native, graduated from SUNY Buffalo State with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He said he puts his education to good use when brewing and handling other back-end operations.

“It’s a little like being a Mr. Wizard back there,” Empric said.

The drinks have about 10 percent fruit juices. An average 12-ounce bottle has seven grams of sugar, 35 calories in all, compared to a 12 ounce serving of Coca-Cola that has 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar, and Pepsi, which has 150 calories and 41 grams of sugar in the same size serving.

Kombucha producers last year had to convince the State Liquor Authority and the State Department of Agriculture and Markets that their product should be regulated as a food and not an alcoholic beverage, despite trace amounts of alcohol. The talks culminated in an agreement in September that also established standards of food safety and product handling for kombucha production.

“New York State Agriculture and Markets was over-the-top cooperative, once we got a channel of communication going with them,” Empric said.

Barrel + Brine makes kombucha, though at much smaller quantities. The company sells Elderflower Tonic Kombucha in a couple of stores, and plans to add more next month.

Marvin said she and her husband want to show that something healthy can also taste good. They blend black teas and use only fresh and natural fruit ingredients.

“Everything we do is from a culinary perspective, with flavor in mind,” she said.

Empric believes kombucha won’t turn out to be just another fad.

“I’m not concerned because it’s been on the West Coast for over 10 years, and companies continue to grow and spread the market,” Empric said. “I think people are also just beginning to realize the disadvantage of drinking these highly sugared beverages.”

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