Better Booch

Tea Time Part 1: What’s the difference?

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Tea (or it's technical name, Camellia sinensis) is a plant that gets around.  It’s use is thought to pre-date historical records and it has somehow weaseled it’s way into becoming the most consumed beverage worldwide, apart from water (give it time, it hasn’t been around as long).

So what’s the difference between black, green or white teas?  I’m inclined to say there is none.  It’s all the same species, carted from one early civilization to another with every attempt made to preserve it’s original flavor. Fortunately, that is not the case.

The two major factors that differentiate one boiling pile of leaves from another are Terroir ([tɛʁwaʁ] or tɛːˈwɑ) and how it is prepared.  In part two of this two-part series, I will go over terroir, which is the impact of the soil, altitude, watering routine, harvest time, etc.  I will also discuss how different varieties of tea affect Kombucha, based on my testing, and give recommendations of what tea to use when going for a specific flavor of Kombucha.  This post, I will briefly describe the six main categories of tea and explain what flavors one can expect in each, based on my personal tasting experience.

Black Tea

Approximately 85% of all tea consumed is black tea.  Black tea is the most oxidized and typically has the boldest flavor.  It is heavily favored in the making of Kombucha because it can hold up to the strongest fruits and spices while still contributing an earthy bitterness.  Black tea gets it’s color from being heavily oxidized (the same way a peach changes color when it is bruised).  All tea starts as the shoot or top few leaves of each bush.  It is then picked, dried slightly and from there the paths diverge.  In the instance of black tea, the leaves are either crushed or flattened, causing heavy bruising which leads to heavy oxidation.  Oxidation produces tannins and other polyphenols, which contribute mouthfeel and bitterness.  Once the desired amount of oxidation takes place, the leaves are heat treated to prevent any further change.

Because of it’s high tannin content, black tea could be described as rich, bold, or hearty.   Black tea runs the gamut from exhibiting soft floral and fruity qualities to being earthy, leathery, and tobacco-like.  Popular varietals from China include Yunnan and Keemun.  From India one can find Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri, just to name a few.

Green Tea

The main difference between black tea and green tea is that green tea is not allowed to oxidize for nearly as long.  Additionally, Chinese and Japanese green teas are prepared in different ways.  Chinese green tea is heat treated by pan frying.  This imparts a kettle corn (without the sweetness) or lightly roasted quality.  Japanese green tea on the other hand is steam treated, which brings out a slight umami flavor.

Green tea is typically more subtle in flavor than black tea and in general has a grassy, earthly, and sometimes savory quality to it.  It is said that one cannot make Kombucha with green tea, but with a healthy starter and SCOBY I have had not trouble fermenting several green tea batches.

Blue Tea or Oolong

Oolong seems to fall somewhere between green and black in terms of oxidation.  As far as I have found, Oolong is cultivated in a way as to produce a very strong aromatic quality.

Oolong screams floral in all the varietals I have sampled.  It tends to be less tannic than black tea, but favors heavy fruit and floral notes.  For those that have trouble telling the difference between dark teas, I would recommend trying an Oolong, as it is fairly unique.

White Tea

White tea has little to no oxidation.  Because of this, the flavor tends to be very subtle with little to no mouthfeel.

White tea seems to trend toward grassy and light floral notes.  Some varietals can be piney and citrusy, but all are light and a bit hard to distinguish from each other, for those that have not yet developed a pallet.

Yellow Tea

The least known preparation of tea is also the most majestic, though I haven’t been impressed by it’s flavor quality.  Yellow tea was created as a tribute to the Chinese Emperor.  This tea has an extra step after being oxidized where it is piled up, under a damp cloth and allowed to be fermented for a while before it is heat treated.

As I have only had one cup of yellow tea, I cannot generalize it’s flavor profile.  However, the Golden Dragon Yellow Tea I did have had an interesting honeysuckle flavor I haven’t found in any other tea.

Dark Tea or Pu-Erh

Pu-Erh is very different from most other teas.  It can be green, black, or white tea that is moistened and allowed to ferment.  This “aged tea” is said to improve over time and many people tend to agree because they believe it can’t get much worse. Pu-Erh originated from East China shipping tea to West China. By the time it arrived in West China, it had fermented over a number of weeks, due to travel. West China had grown custom to this fermented flavor and didn't seem to know any better, or so the story goes...

Pu-Erh can exhibit many different and unique flavors.  From the teas I have tried, I have found earthy, horsey, leathery, tobacco, clove, citrus, vanilla, and sherry notes (just to name a few).  Pu-Erh is not for everyone, but when done well, it can be as complex as a fine wine.

These categories of tea are just the tip of the iceberg.  Next post I will explain how the environment plays a major role in tea diversity and give suggestions for different teas to try when making Kombucha.  If you have any questions or just want to teas me for my terrible pun, feel free to comment.

Cheers,

Evan Julien

 

References

  1. Prat, James Norwood and Shah, Devan. (2012) Tea Sommelier: Introduction to Tea. Devan Shah.
  2. http://www.teausa.com/14655/tea-fact-sheet
  3. https://narien.com/blog/the-six-types-of-tea

Not All Sugar Is Created Equal

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When I was younger, I had a strange obsession with baking.  I would convince my parents to use their hard earned money to buy expensive ingredients.  I would make cookies, pies, brownies, and I even tried bagels, which I would then sell at the fair for a paltry couple of dollars.  My enterprise was all profit and I had no operational costs. Business was good.  One thing I learned from my mass production of confectionaries was that what differentiates basic baked goods is essentially just the ratio of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter.  More butter for brownies, less sugar for bread, easy.  My next big discovery happened when I would run out of sugar and I either needed to put sugar on the grocery list or improvise.  Since my parents usually travelled to the grocery store approximately once a week and my anxious fair-goers couldn’t wait that long, I would improvise more than not.  Powdered sugar? Sure!  Brown sugar? Why not?  Black tar molasses? Now were pushing it... 

Through all my substitutions and experimentations, I never got a single complaint.  My baked goods were generally the same sweetness and the flavor was pretty constant.  When cooked in with butter, chocolate, and what have you, people aren’t too pick about what sugar you use (at least not my fair-going Guinea Pigs). However, yeast does not share this indiscretion.  In the next few paragraphs I will explain what differentiates sugar from a flavor prospective and how different sugars affect fermentation.  I will try to keep science to a bare minimum.

Maillard Reactions (my-YAR, not like the duck)

Sugar beats are beige, sugarcane is yellowy green to red, cane juice is pale green, and molasses, a normal by product of sugar production, is… black.  Hmm, seems strange.  While some of this phenomena can be explained by caramelization, which is the breakdown (oxidation) of sugar through simply adding heat, the main culprit that produces the rich and almost savory tar is Maillard Reactions.  Table sugar (sucrose) is produced by juicing beets and sugarcane and boiling off the water.  The more pure sugar is extracted from the boiling mass early, before the heat has time to get some serious chemical reactions in. The second and third batch has been transformed from the heat into a completely different product.  Ever wonder why cooked chicken smells so much better than raw or why seared tofu and mushrooms can taste meaty?  Yep, that’s because of Maillard Reactions.  It turns out, if you add heat, sugar, protein, and some moisture together, you can come up with some awesome smells and even better tastes.  So show some respect to the next person you see milling about by the barbecue while consuming large amounts of beer and trying desperately not to burn the house down. After all, they are conducting science!

These Maillard Reactions and caramelization reactions create vastly different flavors that when disguised by a heaping portion of butter might not be recognizable, but when added to a very light combination of tea, water, and a S.C.O.B.Y. can be transformative (i.e. Kombucha).

In general, darker sugars (those that have undergone more Maillard and caramelization reactions) can contribute a range of caramel, nut, toffee, roasted, burnt, smokey, umami, and bread-like characters, among many others.  Here is a ranking of sugar from least “character” to most:

  1. Granulated, powdered, pearl, confectioners sugar - different particle sizes and thus different rate of dissolving, however, these are all usually 99% sucrose and have little other contribution except simply adding sweetness
  2. Cane sugar - very similar to granulated sugar, but slightly darker
  3. Demerara sugar - slightly less refined and more toffee character
  4. Turbinado sugar - noticeably darker than Demerara and a bit more caramel character
  5. Light brown sugar - this can range in molasses character because it is granulated sugar with molasses added in various ratios
  6. Dark brown sugar - same process as light brown sugar, with more molasses added in
  7. Muscovado sugar - very dark and moist due to high amount of molasses with an extremely complex character (a little goes a long way)

Fermentability of Sugars

Here is where things get a little more science-y.  Yeast and other microorganisms have many different enzymes and transport proteins to convert sugar into energy.  Simple sugar is a broad term that describes monosaccharides (glucose, sucrose, galactose, etc) and disaccharides (sucrose, maltose, lactose, etc).  Some types of simple sugars require much more work for the yeast to digest than others.  It’s all very complex, but the take home message is that yeast is lazy.  When given a choice between un-shelled pistachios and candy bars, yeast is going to go to town on the candy bars and then maybe shell a few pistachios if it absolutely has to.  I blame poor parenting.  A particularly noteworthy disaccharide that is easy to acquire and hard for yeast to digest is lactose (milk sugar).  In other words, if you would like a Kombucha that finishes a bit sweeter, pick up some lactose and do some experiments.

Warning- if you are lactose intolerant (like me), do not consume ferments sweetened by lactose unless you feel like punishing yourself.

Wrap Up

Here are the main points and how they will influence fermentation:

  1. Darker sugars will provide roasted, caramel character to foods and fermentations.  Additionally, the darker the sugar, the harder it is for yeast to ferment, so the sweeter the final product will be.
  2. Your fermentation will change drastically with the type of sugar you use.  If you want a dry finish, use a more fermentable sugar and if you want a sweeter finish, use sugars that are less fermentable.  Here is a list of simple sugars from most fermentable to least:
    1. Sucrose - table sugar
    2. Glucose - fruit, honey, invert sugar
    3. Fructose - fruit
    4. Lactose - milk

That’s all for sugar.  Variety is the spice of life.  It is surprising how a little note of caramel can push a good ferment into a great one.  Happy fermentations!

Cheers,

Evan Julien

References

  1. http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-muscovado-145157
  2. http://www.thekitchn.com/a-complete-visual-guide-to-sugar-ingredient-intelligence-213715
  3. Kunze, Wolfgang. (2014) Technology: Brewing and Malting. VLB Berlin.
  4. Amot, Stephanie. (2011) Fermentation of Various Sugars in Baker's Yeast.

YEAST IS A JERK: A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF FERMENTATION

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Fermentation:  the act of living.  Fermentation is a bond we share with the tiniest of creatures.  It has kept our food safe for millennia, it has created distinct, cultural specific dishes in the process. Fermentation is wildly complex, yet relies on very simple principles.  Millions of different organisms can work together to produce thousands of different fermentation by-products and like snowflakes, no two ferments are the same.  The beauty of fermentation is that virtually anything that is slightly sweet and mildly damp will undergo an artistic and collaborative transformation.  And like art, not every project is universally appreciated (I'm looking at you, Kimchi!).  With the sheer amount of coordination carried out by groups of microorganisms, one would think each organism works as a team to accomplish this massive feat.  This is unfortunately not true.  Yeast, which is responsible for bread, beer, mead, wine, kombucha and much more, is a selfish jerk, and I'll tell you why.

Fermentation:

Before I discuss how yeast doesn’t play nice, I wanted to briefly describe fermentation.  Fermentation at it’s most basic is the transformation of one chemical to another in the absence of oxygen in order to provide energy.  The fuel for this reaction is usually a simple sugar (sucrose, dextrose, maltose, glucose, etc) and the product ranges from alcohol to organic acids.  To get fermentation started, organisms also need water to move around in and nutrients to form enzymes (just like us).  Lastly, some organisms will burst when in the presence of oxygen and others don’t need it and don’t mind it being around, so fermentation yields very different results in the presence and absence of oxygen.  So basically, if you leave something out that is sweet and moist, it will remind you in a few days, and it won’t be pleasant.

    Home-Brew Tip: If you experience a stuck fermentation (when there is no visible sign that fermentation is occurring) there are 4 common causes:

  1. There are not enough microorganisms to produce visible signs of fermentation.  To fix this, add more starter or gently stir periodically if it is a wild ferment.
  2. The organisms do not have sufficient nutrients to continue fermentation.  Adding a nutrient blend like fermaid K will quickly fix this problem.
  3. The simple sugars have been depleted or there are not enough to sustain fermentation.  This problem can be alleviated by adding an enzyme to break starch into sugar or simply adding more sugar.
  4. The environment is inhospitable and no longer supports fermentation.  This is a much less common problem that is much harder to solve, but may be caused by an excessively low or high pH or the presence of preservatives.

The 3 Reasons Yeast is a Jerk:

1. Yeast has masochistic behavior.  There are instances where yeast sacrifices a healthy, productive lifestyle to screw over its competition.  Let me explain.  While most single celled organisms can only undergo fermentation, yeast, like us, can take part in respiration when oxygen is around.  Respiration digests the sugar fully into harmless gas and yields significantly more energy than fermentation.  Why yeast is such a jerk stems from the fact that even in the presence of oxygen, some sugars cause yeast to conduct fermentation (Crabtree Effect), which produces much less energy.  On top of that, yeast fermentation produces alcohol, which is not great for yeast but very toxic to most other microorganisms.  Some scientist believe the crabtree effect occurs when yeast finds itself in a nutrient rich area such as the skin of a grape, where bountiful presence of sugar initiates the release of alcohol as a way to reduce competition.  In this case, yeast is a jerk because instead of using oxygen to generate a ton of energy for itself, it switches to fermentation just to screw over its neighbors by producing toxins.  Imagine if you and your twin brother were given a single Swagway to share for your birthday and he peed all over it.  He might not enjoy it as much as he could have, but he is still enjoying it more than you.  Jerk!

    Home-Brew Tip: Aeration as opposed to fermentation produces many more cells during propagation, the process of growing a yeast colony before pitching into a fermentation vessel.  It is not uncommon for professional breweries to add air once an hour for 5 minutes to their propagation tank.  While 5 minutes an hour would definitely kill a small starter, an initial short burst of oxygen or replacing the air-lock with a sponge will do wonders for cell growth.

2. While on the subject of the anti-microbial properties of alcohol, the next selfish aspect of yeast is a bit more dastardly.  Yeast is grossly outperformed by bacteria when it comes to reproduction.  In fact, in the time it takes yeast to double it’s population, bacteria has already doubled several times.  In order to level the playing field, yeast has become very good at surviving high levels of alcohol.  Some strains (ninja yeast) can live in up to 30% alcohol by volume.  When yeast finds itself outnumbered, instead of competing in the numbers game, it gradually toxifies its environment until it is the last man standing and beyond.  This would be like competing in a cake eating competition in a closed room and resorting to particularly foul flatulence instead of cake eating prowess to clear the room and slowly enjoy your delicious bounty in peace.  This is definitely something a jerk would do, a very gross jerk.

3. Yeast is an elitist.  Sure, yeast may produce a biofilm called a pellicle or SCOBY on top of a fermenting batch of Kombucha to help his friends access oxygen without being exposed to its harmful effects.  It may even seem like a pretty gregarious species when you see the long chains of buddies hanging out together.  But upon further inspection, yeasts biases become apparent.  Most cultured yeasts rarely take part in sexual reproduction.  Instead, yeast makes identical copies of itself.  I can’t think of a better example of an organism with a superiority complex than yeast, who is so self-absorbed, it prefers itself over everyone it meets nearly every time .  Come on Yeast, test the waters, you might meet someone you like, jerk…

This wraps up the first section of fermentation.  In future blogs I will discuss specific microbes and how they contribute to the making of delicious food.  If you feel that I have besmirched the name of the noble yeast and would like me to apologize for my blasphemous ways, please comment below.

Cheers,

Evan Julien

References:

1. http://phdinbeer.com/2015/01/30/beer-microbiology-what-is-a-pellicle/

2. White, Chris and Zainasheff, Jamil. (2010) Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation. Brewers Publishing.

3. Kunze, Wolfgang. (2014) Technology: Brewing and Malting. VLB Berlin.

Health Benefits: Part 1

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As a re-occurring segment in this blog, I would like to discuss the health benefits of kombucha or ingredients commonly found in kombucha that have been substantiated with scientific evidence.  It’s almost comical the gamut of health claims pertaining to kombucha.  They range from curing AIDS to causing death.  Kombucha apparently detoxifies the liver while at the same time acidifying it.  The sheer volume of claims and the certainty with which they are made can be overwhelming.  Even when studies are cited, it is difficult to discern the truth because some scientific writings almost seem to be written in a different language.  Due to my background and work experience, I have spent a fair bit of time dissecting scientific documents and I will use these posts to clarify the findings to the best of my ability.  A minor disclaimer, I am not a doctor, I am not recommending kombucha as a replacement for any medical treatment prescribed by a doctor, and lastly, the health claims discussed here were not discovered by me and do not necessarily represent my opinion.

Negative Reports:

  The most cited instance of negative consequence pertaining to drinking kombucha was an unexplained death that occurred in Iowa.  An otherwise healthy woman died of an unknown cause and her only symptom was blood acidosis.  Another woman of the same town was also administered to the hospital because of shortness of breath.  The only common link they found was that both women drank kombucha and the assumption was made that because kombucha is acidic, it may have contributed to her condition.  However, after studying 24 kombucha drinkers from the same town, they were unable to link the kombucha as a cause of the illness.  Even though the link between blood acidosis and kombucha was determined to be unsubstantiated by the FDA (not enough evidence to establish any type of certainty), because they never determined the cause of death, kombucha can sometimes be branded as potentially harmful. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation.

NERD ALERT (Science to follow): pH is a measurement hydrogen ions.  Foods are basic and taste bitter when they have very few hydrogen ions (pH 7-14) and are acidic and sour when they have a ton of hydrogen ions to give away (pH 1-7).  Bleach would be an example of an extremely basic compound (pH 12) while eggs would be mildly basic (pH 8).  On the other side of the spectrum, milk would be a very mildly acidic product (pH 6.7) with common table vinegar being more aggressively acidic (pH 2.4). 

Food for Thought: Most sodas (i.e. Coke and Pepsi) have a pH of around 2.5 and kombucha is well above that. If we compare a soda of ph 2.5 to a kombucha of pH 3.5, the difference in 1 pH means the soda is ten times as acidic as the kombucha.  If consuming acidic beverages leads to blood acidosis, our country's larger demographic of soda drinkers (based on yearly sales (1,2)) would be among the first to develop symptoms.

Alcohol: 

Kombucha relies on a balance between yeast and bacteria to provide a variety of organic acids and unique flavors.  These organisms may have a symbiotic relationship, but make no mistake, they are not friends.  It is thought that one of the reasons yeast produces alcohol to slow down and even kill its competition.  With that being said, if yeast is not properly managed, or if there is an over-abundance of yeast in the starter culture, a large quantity of alcohol could be produced.  Additionally, yeast is very acid-resistant, so later in the fermentation, there is a chance that yeast is still active long after the bacteria has given up, leading to elevated levels of alcohol.  This is compounded when secondary fermentation occurs in a closed vessel.  Secondary fermentation is when an additional sugar source is added to the already fermenting kombucha and the kombucha is transferred to a closed vessel.  Most bacteria is either aerobic (in the presence of oxygen) or anaerobic (without oxygen) where yeast is capable of both.  When yeast is around oxygen it typically produces more yeast and very little alcohol, however, when that oxygen is removed, yeast ferments and produces alcohol and CO2 (3,4).  Using Secondary fermentation is a great way to produce a carbonated product, however, alcohol is typically also produced.  At Better Booch, we use several safety measures to control and monitor our yeast populations, such as cold crashing and keeping our product aerated, but I will get into that in another post.

For the home-brewers reading this article, I will discuss in-detail how to effectively avoid production of alcohol and keeping cultures healthy in future posts.

A silver lining regarding both blood acidosis and alcoholic content is that as the kombucha industry is growing, the FDA is beginning to pay more attention to kombucha companies, which is a good thing.  Alcohol production is usually caused by lack of control or lack of understanding of fermentation.  A class action lawsuit resulted from a few companies that have been operating above the 0.5% alcohol limit. New regulations will enforce a safer, more well-understood product for consumers.

Low Calories:

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the least discussed and arguably the most important health benefit:  Kombucha is a delicious, low calorie beverage.  Kombucha begins it’s life as a sweet tea, but the probiotics soon convert the organic sugars into great tasting esters, organic acids, and alcohols.  The beauty of these fermentation by-products is that most add unique flavor and crisp acidity without adding any calories.  What little sugar is left coordinates with the acid to produce a sweet and sour canvas that accents the tea, fruit, and spice character.  While some kombuchas, home-brewed or otherwise, may be touted as medicine because it would be hard to imagine drinking them for fun, the landscape of kombucha is shifting towards an artisanal product, customized to the tastes of those who want something complex and refreshing.  While it is difficult to properly quantify the health benefits of doing something we enjoy, I think the benefit of drinking something that tastes good without bringing about the guilt of splurging on extra calories is intangible, but important.

 

That concludes the first section discussing health benefits.  In future sections I will go over the nutrients found in kombucha, probiotics, cancer studies, and a variety of other topics.  If you would like to suggest a specific topic for this section, have a general fermentation question, or would like me to go over something in particular for future posts, please leave a comment below!

Cheers,

Evan Julien

References:

1) http://www.statista.com/topics/1662/non-alcoholic-beverages-and-soft-drinks-in-the-us/

2) http://www.cnbc.com/2014/08/08/kombucha-cha-ching-a-probiotic-tea-fizzes-up-strong-growth.html

3) Tonsmeire, Michael. (2014) American Sour Beer: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations. Brewers Publications.

4) Katz, Sandor Ellix. (2012) The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Welcome!

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Brewing is an art, a science, a skill, a passion, a profession.  It is a chronicling of human progress and offers a snapshot of the tastes and rituals of ancient civilizations.  Fermented beverages were used as a health tonic, a currency, a token of good will across nations, and a sign of affluence.  Reliance on fermentation is a common thread across most, if not all cultures and the understanding of fermentation is one of the few things that link a village’s spiritual healer with an industrial Lab Technician.

 

The quest for a perfect fermented beverage has no endpoint, rather, it is an ongoing pursuit of excellence.  

 

Above all things, brewing is communal.

 

I am the head brewer of Better Booch.  I have been interested in fermentation for a decade, making my own kombucha, beer, sauerkraut, yogurt, cheese, pickles, corned beef, etc.  I have met some of the most genuinely interesting people and shared some of the best and worst homemade and professional creations.  I have seen glass carboys explode, drank beer made with live snails (accidentally), and consumed beverages described as “goaty” and “cat-pissy”, most I have even enjoyed.  My pursuit to create better batches has netted me a degree in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley and degree from the Master Brewer Program from the World Brewing Academy.  I have years of experience in the food and beverage industry and I have a network of friends who are also crazy enough to describe themselves as professional brewers.

 

My goal in writing this blog is to contribute to a community that I admire.  I would like to share my experience and knowledge to those who enjoy creating and consuming liquid art.  I aim to write entries every other week about some of the strange creations we have developed that were never intended for the shelves, about the nuts and bolts of brewing, and even about certain strategies that I have adopted that have made me a better brewer.  I would like to answer questions, provide advice, and eventually set up events where people can participate in our brewing sessions or at least try some of our creations.  Ultimately, I would like to give back to a community that has given me a passion, a profession, but most importantly, a sense of purpose.

Cheers,

Evan Julien