Sunset Savor the Central Coast, the four-day food, wine and lifestyle festival sponsored by Sunset magazine and Visit San Luis Obispo County, is almost here.
One of the many local products being featured Sept. 26 at the Main Event at Santa Margarita Ranch is Whalebird Kombucha. A fermented tea, kombucha has a slight effervescence and an extremely low alcohol level — below 0.5 percent.
You may be more familiar with this business than you think.
The San Luis Obispo company recently underwent a complete rebranding. Formerly known as Komplete Kombucha, it unveiled its new Whalebird look in August.
Though the fledgling company had made good progress since sales began in March 2013, co-founder Mike Durighello and business partner Jake Pritzlaff felt they needed to further set themselves apart in the growing kombucha market.
“The intention of our rebrand is to help us connect with soda, beer and wine drinkers that are unfamiliar with live-culture food and drink, and to solidify kombucha as a craft-brewed, high-quality beverage,” Durighello said. “We went with a flying whale because it’s something people can quickly identify and perfectly represents our fun-loving company culture. Whales are also an icon of the Central Coast that you can see migrating every spring and summer.”
Durighello founded the kombucha company in 2012 with two friends — Alex Narodny and Molly Hemler — who have since left the business. Pritzlaff came onboard almost two years ago.
Kombucha has been rapidly gaining popularity among “people who are fit, health-conscious and hip to fermented products,” Durighello said.
“It’s a much healthier alternative to soda and even to beer given its much lower alcohol level,” he added. “But there are still many, many people out there who have no idea what kombucha is all about.”
Accounts of kombucha’s origins vary. It definitely has a Chinese heritage, but the exact timeline reaches back either to 200 B.C. or stretches all the way to 5,000 years ago.
Either way, this ancient beverage is enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to its purported health benefits as a a fermented food containing probiotics — live bacteria and yeasts.
Considered especially healthy for the digestive system, probiotic foods have been associated with other health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, though specific claims have not been scientifically proven.
Probiotic foods such as vinegar, sourdough bread and active-culture yogurt get their launch with the help of a living starter, also referred to as a “mother” or a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY).
Other foods that contain probiotics are sauerkraut, kimchee, miso and certain ginger beers.
All the Whalebird Kombucha batches start with filtered hot water and organic teas. After the initial tea steeping, organic evaporated cane juice is added.
Once the mixture has cooled, kombucha from a completed batch is added to kick off the 30-day fermentation.
During that time, the 50-gallon fermentation vats are loosely covered, but the mixture is still exposed to the air so it can gain character from wild yeasts. As such, “No two batches are going to be exactly 100 percent the same,” Durighello explained.
After fermentation, organic fruits, herbs and spices are added to the kombucha and allowed to steep overnight to create Whalebird’s five flavors: Original (black tea), Jasmine Bliss, Ginger Sarsaparilla, Chai and Lavender Lemonade.
Then the kombucha is lightly strained directly into kegs, chilled, carbonated and stored in the company’s walk-in fridge.
There are several ways to enjoy the refreshing and slightly tart Whalebird Kombucha. Avid fans can get their own growlers filled at the brewing facility or at the company’s booth during the Thursday night Farmers Market in San Luis Obispo.
In addition, local establishments such as Bliss Café, Kreutzberg Coffee Co. and the SLO Natural Foods Co-Op, all in San Luis Obispo, are serving Whalebird Kombucha by the glass — thanks to a dedicated keg system that keeps the product chilled. When the keg is empty, it’s swapped out for one filled with freshly brewed kombucha.
That’s a concept that sets Whalebird Kombucha apart from other commercial brands. The “best by” date on some bottled kombuchas can be as long as three months.
“With Whalebird, you’re drinking a locally crafted product that’s freshly brewed and hasn’t been sitting on some shelf,” Durighello said.
3576 Empleo St., Suite 1, San Luis Obispo 712-8442, 415-250-5533 http://whalebirdkombucha.com
Hours: Brewery open Monday and Wednesday, 5 to 7:30 p.m., and at the Thursday night Farmers Market in downtown San Luis Obispo, 6 to 9 p.m.; additional locations listed on website.