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Q and A: Rachelle Rahn is brewing up Duluth’s own kombucha

Rachelle Rahn is the SCOBY-handler behind Duluth Kombucha, one of few local large-scale brewers of fermented tea. (David Ballard Photography)1 / 6
Rachelle Rahn holds a SCOBY, which is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It's key to creating the fermented drink kombucha. (David Ballard Photography)2 / 6
Rachelle Rahn slices watermelon to flavor a batch of kombucha. (David Ballard Photography)3 / 6
Rachelle Rahn pours a freshly brewed blend of organic black and green tea into a repurposed whiskey oak barrel. The tea is mixed with the SCOBY where the primary fermentation takes place to turn the mixture into kombucha. (David Ballard Photography)4 / 6
Rachelle Rahn stirs organic sugar into a simmering pot of a tea mixture of black and green tea. After she cooks the mixture she will transfer it to a barrel similar to the ones pictured in the background to let it ferment. (David Ballard Photography)5 / 6
Guide books sit in the kitchen where Rachelle Rahn works on a batch of kombucha. (David Ballard Photography)6 / 6

Rachelle Rahn is the SCOBY-handler behind Duluth Kombucha, one of few local large-scale brewers of fermented tea. In addition to what works and doesn’t work alongside celeriac, Rahn teaches at Duluth Folk School, site of her ’booch bar. The self-described DIYer talked to Duluth.com magazine about the sustainability tips she posts on her Facebook page and experimenting with SCOBY soap.

Did you find kombucha, or did kombucha find you?

(David Ballard Photography)A few years ago, I was working 60-90 hours a week and was going months without taking a day off. Inevitably, I was sick all of the time. My body was basically screaming, “Please rest!” My partner introduced me to kombucha as a means of feeling better, and I was hooked after the first sip. I love craft beer, specifically sour ales, and so the tartness of kombucha drew me right in. Being a DIY-er, I started researching what it was and how I could make it at home. From there, I started posting my excess batches to friends and family on Facebook and before I knew it, strangers were asking for my kombucha. It naturally evolved from there.

What does the local kombucha scene look like?

I think that the local kombucha scene is at a pivotal point right now. There’s myself, The Snooty Fox as well as a number of options from the Twin Cities, like Deane’s Kombucha, and so many others popping up throughout Wisconsin. Deane’s Kombucha has been an inspiration for me as Bryan (Deane) got started many years ago before it was “hip,” and I view him as a pioneer, especially in our local kombucha scene. Even just a few years ago, kombucha options in our local stores were few and far between with GT’s being the only brand you could find, if any at all. Now when I walk into the (Whole Foods) Co-op, it’s like Christmas morning with so many options! It’s inspiring to see the creativity and gumption from so many local brewers.

You're known for interesting flavor combos. What has been your biggest flavor victory?

I love to buy ingredients that I’ve never worked with or might not even know how to pronounce and throw them in a kombucha. My favorite creation from this erratic process is Blackberry Celeriac. It’s sweet and earthy at the same time! A customer favorite is blueberry ginger by far. This year, I’m going to try to sneak some Burdock Root in there, too.

What doesn't work as a kombucha flavor?

Well, I took my newfound love for celeriac root a little too far. I thought an “Enlighten-mint” flavor with celeriac root, spirulina and spearmint would be the bee’s knees. The celeriac took over the whole flavor profile, and the spirulina didn’t help the cause by turning the kombucha swamp green in color. It was not a very enlightened flavor choice.

Tell us about the SCOBY. What does it feel like, smell like, do they ever wear out? And then, what do you do with them?

Ah, the SCOBY is a pal and a confidant. SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. Also referred to as the “mother” or less flattering terms such as, “the weird alien-looking thing.” Although not aesthetically pleasing, she’s responsible for turning plain old sweet tea into bubbly, tart, delicious kombucha. They feel slippery and squishy and have a pungent vinegar smell. It’s like something you’d expect to see as a prop on the set of an alien movie. (Gee, I’m really selling my product here.) A healthy culture can continue to live on for years. During each brew cycle, the SCOBY self-propagates, creating a new SCOBY. I’m currently experimenting with a few different uses for my retired mamas, such as SCOAP (cold-process soap made with SCOBYs) and fruit leathers. They’re also great for kick-starting compost piles. There’s even a new fashion movement coming out of using SCOBYs to create sustainable clothing. I’ll leave that one to the professionals, but wouldn’t mind having a SCOBY dress made by Sacha Laurin!

Has kombucha been a gateway to other fermentation projects?

(David Ballard Photography)I like to think that I’ve been able to keep it under control. I’ve experimented with fermented watermelon rinds, and (this) year am hoping to ferment everything in my garden. As I typed that, I realized how not-under-control it is. Where there’s counter space, there’s fermentation space!

You've started posting Sustainable Sunday tips for better, more environmentally-minded pro-activity. What else do you see the Duluth Kombucha brand taking on in the next months, years?

This winter, Duluth Kombucha will be hosting monthly “Sip, Sip, Knit” meetings, which will serve as a gathering place for local knitters and crocheters to come together and fabricate hats, mittens and blankets for those in need. I’ll also be teaching more workshops on how to brew your own kombucha at home, as well as having regular open hours at my studio inside the Duluth Folk School. As far as long-term, I’m beyond thrilled for Duluth Kombucha to have a stand-alone kombuchery. It’ll be Duluth’s only dedicated non-alcoholic tap bar. A place where families and individuals can have a flight of kombucha, take a yoga class, tour the kombuchery, and take home a growler of ’booch. There will also be a small retail shop on-site supplying local and handmade goods related to fermentation and sustainability. In addition to displaying local artwork for sale, local music will be hosted on a regular basis. Duluth Kombucha looks forward to creating a sustainable, inclusive and vibrant space for and with our community.

This article originally ran in Duluth.com magazine. Read it online here.