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.
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 bunch. It’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.