Red Star Kombucha: A Bold New Beverage
By: Ricky Perrotta
Red Star Kombucha is made right here in Pittsburgh by native Naomi Auth, the founder of the company, and her partner Joseph Reichenbacher. Speaking with them, their enthusiasm for Kombucha is readily apparent. For Joseph, that enthusiasm is born out of the excitement that comes along with venturing into new, uncharted territory.
“We’re introducing PA to a new beverage!” he says, the energy in his voice barely restrained. “It’s not like we’re just coming out with another double IPA or something like that. This is something many people have never had before.”
Joseph is certainly correct concerning that last remark. What exactly is this mysterious drink whose origins date back to ancient China and is renowned by proponents for its refreshing, effervescent taste and healthful qualities? Tea? Beer? Elixir? Cure for baldness?
“Nowhere on this bottle does it say, this will make you grow hair,” says Joseph Reichenbacher, quick to dismiss some of the more outrageous claims. “But the benefits of drinking something that is probiotic cannot be argued.” The World Health Organization defines probiotics as, “Live micro-organisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
So, yes – it’s alive. Guess who the host is? Kombucha is made from fermenting various kinds of tea with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY. Taste-wise, it is described as being a very pleasant, refreshing mix of sour beer and hard cider. When asked where the bacteria comes from, Mr. Reichenbacher is quick to answer. “Hell if I know.” Naomi chimes in to provide a bit more information. “You get different flavors based on what kind of tea you use and how long you let them ferment. There are also different yeasts, and the bacteria lactobacillales.” Lactobacillales are also used to make yogurt and in the fermenting of salted cabbage to make sauerkraut. For Kombucha, this process results in an ABV of 1 to 3%. Mr. Reichenbacher told us that the ABV can be manipulated so that it is higher, but generally stays low because “the bacteria eat the alcohol.”
In the beginning, that alcohol content turned out to be a problem for Red Star. Naomi, originally from Pittsburgh, began selling Red Star Kombucha in Portaland, Oregon 5 or 6 years ago before returning to her home and selling to local coffee shops in Polish Hill. The response was terrific, but before long production was stopped by the PLCB, the reason being that 0.5% ABV is the cutoff for a non-alcoholic beverage. According to the PLCB, Kombucha was to be classified as a beer. One of the people affected by this decision was Mr. Reichenbacher.
“I couldn’t stand the Kombucha I had tried before,” he says, “then I started drinking Red Star and had to have it everyday. One day I went to get some and they told me it had been shut down.” Mr. Reichenbacher, not one to take things lying down, got in touch with Naomi Auth and told her they should go into business together. So, they applied for a brewing license and it was smooth sailing from there on out, right?
Not exactly. They did indeed receive a brewing license, but there are a ton of regulations that come along with being considered a beer. Also, in an unusual set of circumstances, it is the brewers from Red Star who have had to educate the PLCB as to what exactly Kombucha is and how it is made. The corpus of information concerning beer is extensive. The information available concerning Kombucha? Not so much.
An attempt is being made to ameliorate that lack. “We’re one of the founding members of Kombucha Brewers International,” says Mr. Reichenbacher. The inaugural meeting will be held this upcoming January in Los Angeles, where various Kombucha brewers hope to meet and share their collective wisdom.
In the meantime, Red Star continues producing Kombucha for a group of dedicated followers. They currently brew 3 different, gluten-free varieties, all with an ABV not much higher than 1%. Original Green, a fruity concoction made from green tea. Zingerbuch, a tart, spicy variety mixed with ginger, and 1877, made from black tea and flavored with lemon.
1877 is named after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in which Pittsburgh played a role. While many beer breweries consider it bad business to even mark their lower ABV products, Mr. Reichenbacher says Red Star plans on making low ABV a selling point. “Low ABV is not yet catching on in PA, but it is becoming a viable thing nationally. We’re trying to get ahead of the market.”
Red Star currently produces about 30 cases at a time, though they have already had to expand production twice and plan to do so again once they move to a larger facility. The brewing process also results in one of the more famous (or infamous) traits of Kombucha – since traditional Kombucha is not filtered or pasteurized, once inside the bottle the live cultures continue to ferment, resulting in a “glob,” or gelatinous formation. This glob is actually just a smaller SCOBY. “Some people are grossed out by the glob,” says Mr. Reichenbacher, “But some people love it. It can be eaten.” Eaten? “It’s one of the healthier parts of the beverage.” He adds, “It actually doesn’t taste like much, and can be strained out.” In fact, their web site is called
Currently, Red Star Kombucha can be purchased at various locations, most notably Franktuary in Lawrenceville, where they have all 3 varieties and Original Green on tap and Whole Foods, Wexford. Plus you can visit the Red Star brewery itself, which is located at 1721 Lowrie St., 15212 – open from 12:00pm to 6:00pm on Saturdays. 4 Packs, Cases, & Kegs and Gift certificates are available. The drink is certainly catching on in Pittsburgh, a city quickly becoming known for its cultural appetite. If you have a spirit for adventure, and want to try something truly new and unique, you will want to try Red Star Kombucha.
Made with green tea from India’s Dooars region, Original Green has a light body with fruity essences and natural carbonation. Its clean, crisp flavor pairs well with rich foods and make an excellent mixer with distilled spirits and beers.
Fresh ginger puts the “zing” in Zingerbuch, and hibiscus flowers add a beautiful pink color. Tart, spicy and refreshing, it is the perfect drink for any time of day.
Robust black tea and refreshing lemon come together in the 1877, a classic flavor combination that is so popular in Pittsburgh. The name commemorates the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when workers in Pittsburgh and other cities showed their power to organize and challenge the robber barons.
Red Star Kombucha is proudly distributed by Vencenie Distributing Company.