A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: probiotic

Wild Tonic

This is not the review we expected to be writing about Olinka Kombucha. Yes, Olinka. That was the original name of the now rebranded and reformulated brew known throughout Arizona these days* as Wild Tonic Jun Kombucha.

Arizona Honey Jun

A little over a year ago while driving through Sedona we stopped by chance at what seemed to be nothing more than your average roadside pull-off, albeit a cute one. Inside Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market we were surprised by a selection of food and drink atypical to these sorts of establishments. When we discovered that they served a locally-made kombucha on tap we had to try it. The flavour of the day was Raspberry Goji Rose, and to date it remains one of the best kombuchas we’ve ever had. (So far, its only competition in our book is Mountain Culture Kombucha.) All three named flavours were perfectly recognizable, playing off each other brilliantly, complementing and recontextualizing each other in a delightfully dynamic performance.

Who made this stuff? Not that it’s a rule, but usually these small-town, local kombuchas aren’t much to write home about. Drinkable at best, but very rarely anything approaching exemplary. Not this time. Olinka Kombucha, which upon further research seemed to be little more than a basement side-project, blew us away with its delicacy, balance, and clarity. It was a very memorable experience, one that stuck with us after a year of other kombucha tastings and travels.

When it looked like we might be swinging through Arizona again, we decided to look Olinka up and see how they were doing. After all, it had been a year. We did find them, but not at all in the form we were expecting. They had rebranded, renamed themselves Wild Tonic, and most importantly were now brewing their kombuchas with honey instead of cane sugar – a change that warrants a distinct titular designation; namely that of ‘jun’. As honey enthusiasts, we were curious and looked forward to experiencing the outcome.

Jun isn’t exactly a revolution, but simply a variation. As opposed to kombuchas, juns generally use honey as their source of sugar, green tea instead of black, and ferment for about half as long (about 3-5 days). Their SCOBYs are naturally also a bit different, but not radically. Wild Tonic makes claims** about juns as a whole being characteristically ‘lighter’ and ‘smoother’, but they aren’t exactly true. We’ve found that just as with kombucha, it’s entirely up to the brewer and the culture they nurture what flavoural and textural properties result, and we can attest to having drank both syrupy-sweet juns heavy as soda and kombuchas so light they verged on seltzer.

Our first encounter with the new brews was at the now aggressively expanding Natural Grocers, who are popping up all over the West, in this case at a quiet intersection in Scottsdale, Arizona. We saw that of the flavours they had decided to keep in their lineup, our lost love Raspberry Goji Rose had stayed the change of tides and was here on the shelf waiting for us. Other interesting options were Rosemary Lemon, Lavender Love, Tropical Turmeric, and Spiced Pear.

We’ve spent a few months now with these drinks. We’ve gone through a multitude of batches, both in bottles and on tap. It’s been an interesting process, one that hasn’t gone at all as we’d expected. Olinka and all that it represented for us is no more, but Wild Tonic certainly plays an important role in the increasingly complex narrative that is contemporary kombucha culture.

The primary issue we have with these is their consistently overwhelming honey flavour, which is so prominent that it becomes the line’s defining feature. We understand that it’s a jun, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to experience so much honey with every sip that it takes away from everything else. The same honey seems to be in use throughout the whole line as well, which is a pity, as honey varietals have an enormous amount of variance and fair much better when paired accordingly.

And while the honey is oppressively omnipresent, the line as a whole suffers from inconsistent quality between batches***. With each flavour we found our notes varied measurably from bottle to bottle, bottle to tap, and even tap to tap. Of course, jun cultures are alive and complex, and as such it’s unrealistic to expect their products to ever be exactly the same, but the best brewers have an incredible amount of control over their process and are able to produce a fairly reliable identity with each flavour. This in mind, our notes are an average of our tastings, with things not shared between samples omitted.

Our once-favourite Raspberry Goji Rose is definitely still one of the better flavours, and undoubtedly the most user-friendly, smelling and tasting all at once like bubblegum, watermelon sour candy and a wine cooler. These things, as well as raspberry, goji, and rose. The fact that they captured the ever-so-subtle goji, though, is most impressive. Rose here, as it often does in kombuchas, comes through wonderfully baring resemblance to ruby red grapefruit. Really, our only disappointment is in the addition of honey, the heaviness of which weighs down an otherwise deliciously ebullient flavour.

Tropical Turmeric sort of immediately offends us by its name alone. We aren’t fans of employing the generic ‘tropical’ to connote such a narrow flavour spectrum to begin with. Abbreviating the most biologically diverse region on the planet to a few of its more popular species is grossly unfair, to say the least. Once we ignore the title though, and judge it for what it is… we’re confused at best. The honey overwhelmingly dominates the nose, being far too dark for the bright turmeric and pineapple to come through much at all. On the palette, the turmeric ends up lending a slight smokey quality, which though interesting, like the honey, doesn’t leave room for the pineapple. Hints of the fruit faintly wash around alongside the here surprisingly sheepish ginger, never becoming very present. Peppercorns appear as another nearly undetectable ingredient, likely for their ability to increase the absorption of turmeric into the blood stream, enhancing its anti-inflammatory effects. While appreciated, in this instance the pepper really serves more of a symbolic purpose than anything else, as the quantity of turmeric is far too insignificant for any noticeable therapeutic effects.

Though gaining more and more attention in the culinary sphere, lavender is still a flavour difficult to find done well. While many go overboard into soap territory, Wild Tonic’s Lavender Love pleasantly does not. It actually smells and tastes like flowers, rather than cheap extract, and captures a rich, darker part of the flower that’s almost spice-like. This flavour, by far, pairs best with the line’s uniform honey, melding almost perfectly with its full body. The ingredient list states more than just lavender though, including rose hips, jasmine, hibiscus, and prickly pear. The first two of these provide much needed acidity and richness respectively, but the latter items have with each tasting been completely lost on us and seem like an empty gesture. Delicious, but a bit one-note.

Rosemary Lemon has been the least consistent from batch to batch in our experience, but it may be on average the most interesting, successful flavour Wild Tonic has to offer. To find rosemary in a drink is rare to say the least, and not surprisingly so. Its hyper-herbaceous quality is difficult to tame, but here they’ve done just that, and perfectly – balancing it between the syrupy-sweet depths of the honey and the bright cut of the lemon. Much like with Lavender Love, they’ve captured a very accurate portrait of the plant, and in their unexaggerated and perceptive technique they effectively communicate what otherwise could easily become lost in translation.

Spiced Pear is surely the gravest disappointment of the bunchIt’s a shock to us that it successfully made it to market shelves at all. While it may sound promising, especially in the cooler months, its reality is one smelling and tasting unmistakably of melting plastic. We don’t mean reminiscent of, hinting at, or subtly imbued with, we mean it literally smells and tastes like melting plastic. There’s something resembling olives snuggling up to the plastic too, and somewhere underneath all that it’s possible (kind of) to identify the presence of a pear and some spices. It’s incredibly bland, basically amounting to not much more than mildly fizzy plastic honey water.

With the exception of Spiced Pear, these flavours are far from awful. Remnants of mastery can easily be found throughout the line. The problems that are there might get worked out over time, but why the company felt compelled to rush some of these to market instead of just honing their new craft as they did their old is beyond us. Something about it reeks of a desperate, get-rich-quick sort of scheme. Admittedly, it’s one that seems to be working out for them just fine – as they’re already planning to expand nationally within the year.

As consumers, we’re always sad to see small-scale artisans sell-out as they scale-up. It isn’t at all necessary, as so many before have demonstrated. We hope that fledgling producers choose whose steps they wish to follow in wisely, for even if they both lead to wealth and success, one comes at the expense of both dignity and artistry.

*We have since learned that the founders of Olinka worked with Wild Tonic to reformulate their kombucha recipes into juns and bring them to mass market. Long story short, while the Wild Tonic project has proved to be rather successful, the relationship between the two parties didn’t work out, and the Olinka folks decided to return to their smaller Sedona-local operation with classic cane sugar brews and new flavours.

**They make a number of other claims that are either unfounded, misleading, or entirely untrue. One of them is a widely proliferated myth regarding jun’s origins – see Jenny at Nourished Kitchen‘s findings on the subject.

***As of May 2016, it appears that Wild Tonic has finally resolved their batch inconsistency issues. All recent samples over the past 3 months have been thoroughly consistent.

 

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 Mountain Culture Kombucha

While passing through Virginia recently, we came upon a brand of kombucha we’d never seen before which turned out to come from some local brewers: Mountain Culture Kombucha. Admittedly, the goofy-casual branding on the bottles had us skeptical about the quality of what they might contain, but their ingredients seemed solid and their flavoural aims were intriguing enough. So, we picked up three flavours that covered a decently broad scope and crossed our fingers.

Mountain_Culture_Kombucha_Original_Appalachian_Harvest_Citra_Hops

By the time we had tried the first one, we were already back on the road. If only we’d known while we were still in Virginia how incredible these were! We would have picked up one of every flavour. These are brilliants brews; so far, across the whole line. Our selections were Citra Hops, Original, and Appalachian Harvest. To get a sense of the brewer’s baseline approach when trying new kombuchas, we always make an effort to pick up an ‘original’ if they produce one. It’s an important barometer once you start trying their blends.

We already mentioned that part of what convinced us to give Mountain Culture a try was their unique flavours. Citra Hops? We’d yet to have hops in any kombucha (excluding kombucha beer), and most certainly not such particular, fun varieties of hops (they use centennial hops as well as the eponymous citra hops). With Appalachian Harvest, the name drew us in. It clearly communicated a flavoural impression without relying on explicitly named ingredients or gimmicky-cute titles (e.g. Fred Astaire Pear or Elite Beet). Others we’ve yet to experience include a mixed mint blend that includes one of our favorite mint varieties – chocolate mint, and Sumatra Sunrise, a coffee-infused kombucha and the only one of theirs to use honey.

Extreme balance and delicacy struck us most about Mountain Culture. For having such strong personalities, every one of the varieties we tried was almost weirdly understated, ‘quiet’, and remarkably tasteful, with a physical lightness that nearly lifts you up with it (likely a result of Mountain Culture’s apparent preference for green tea as opposed to black). But that alone doesn’t get close to explaining the miracles these bottles contain. For all their delicateness, they are intensely clear and focused. The two biggest kombucha problems are entirely avoided: it isn’t yeasty, or vinegary. The effervescence is perfect – fine, concentrated, and released gradually and consistently throughout. Not too strong at the outset, and not going flat five minutes after opening. Even their appearance is distinctive, with the colours of all three possessing a glowing quality similar to what you might see in fresh whey from good raw milk.

Despite Mountain Culture’s complexity, these are by far some of the most accessible kombuchas we’ve had. If you’ve yet to successfully convince people that kombucha can be anything other than just a ‘silly health tonic’, these would be a great place to start. Seriously, you could serve these in place of champagne or prosecco at a fancy dinner party and no one would be disappointed, except of course those expecting alcohol.

Citra Hops provides incredibly refreshing perspectives on both kombucha and hops. Dried hops have such a wonderful smell, and making a simple tea from them with lemon juice is lovely. It’s sad that they’re an ingredient so inextricably related to beer for most people, as they’ve got much more going on flavour-wise than the ‘hoppy’ quality generally identified in a typical beer profile. In the context of a kombucha, which is lighter than pretty much any beer you’re likely to find, hops gets to have fun and lend its floral and fruity notes, leaving its bitter baggage behind. Citra Hops explodes at the top end with bright citrus, particularly grapefruit and lime, with a delicate rosewater-like quality balancing out the high end.

Their Original is a radically unique essential kombucha. Especially surprising in relation to Citra Hops, as so much of what seemed to be decoration from the hops was actually coming from the brew itself! The intense lightness, the smooth profile, and excitingly elusive citrus seem to characterize Mountain Culture as a whole, at least what we’ve had of it so far, and for these qualities to come from the kombucha alone is incredible. More than with most kombucha lines, this Original is very much a part of the other flavours – not only tying them together as a series or serving as a carrier, but playing an integral part in their identity. The way it handled sweetness was so perfect it could almost slip by unnoticed; like the temperature outside matching that of the surface of your skin. To craft a kombucha of such piercing, quiet beauty without adulteration shows true artistry on the part of brewmaster Peter Roderick.

Mountain_Culture_Kombucha_Appalachian_Harvest

Though these all blew us away, Appalachian Harvest was especially different, both in appearance and taste. Its color is a distinctive hazy orange, almost unnatural looking before you remember the ingredients. Its flavour is a skillful balancing act of carrot, apple, ginger, and of course kombucha. Though its not unusual to find these three ingredients together, the way it’s done is unlike anything we’ve ever had. Carrot contributes earthy, rooty tones that are somehow light, nonintrusive, and pleasantly avoidant of its typical association with juice bars. Ginger is surprisingly subdued, adding the slightest electric zing without ever getting to its usual point of bite. Apple is almost unidentifiably mild, except as a very gentle supporting sweetness outside the kombucha base’s profile, rounding out the picture perfectly. Appalachian Harvest appreciates aspects of all three flavours that ultimately feel deeply familiar, highlighting by association elements of each that you may have forgotten were even there.

Ingredient wise, it seems as though Mountain Culture is doing everything right, but we can’t say for sure as their labeling is a bit unclear. As is pretty much standard for kombucha at this point, they are organic and unpasteurized. They use spring water, which always gets a plus in our book, and especially so when they’re trying to reflect their regional character by using local water sources. On their site it says they use fresh-pressed juices and ‘raw sugar’, which would be amazing and rare, but on their bottles some juices are labeled ‘fresh-pressed’ and others are simply ‘pressed’ (leading us to think probably cold-pressed but bottled juices), and the sugar is just evaporated cane juice. We’re betting this is probably just a case of a young company that hasn’t gotten their labeling and information unified yet, rather than any sort of purposeful evasiveness on their part.

If you happen to live in Virginia or otherwise find yourself in the area, lucky you! Grab as many as you can get your hands on! Unfortunately for most of us, Mountain Culture is currently keeping close to home, and doesn’t appear to be available in stores outside the state, with D.C. being the one exception. It’s also available by delivery in select parts of North Carolina.