The floor of Rich Awn’s car was sticky. The year was 2005, and he was lugging bowls and bottles of the kombucha his mom made regularly in their New Jersey house to his college apartment in Massachusetts. “I was fully addicted to her kombucha at that point,” Awn tells the Voice. “I had made up my mind that drinking it all the time was why I wasn’t getting sick.”
But transporting the fermented beverage was becoming a nuisance, and when friends started refusing rides due to the slightly sour stink emanating from his car’s carpeting, Awn did what any healthy addict might: He started brewing his own kombucha for personal consumption. A move to Brooklyn and five years later he started brewing professionally, and with his mother’s blessing Mombucha was born.
Kombucha is made when sweetened tea is introduced to a SCOBY — a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” — that ferments the liquid into an effervescent, refreshing beverage full of healthful bacteria and lots of bubbly flavor. Kombucha can be slightly sour, full-on sweet, or any balance in between, depending on the type of tea used, the kind and amount of sugar added, and any additional flavors or juices. The drink has been around for thousands of years but has seen a recent resurgence in popularity because of its hat trick combo of health benefits, taste, and straight-up fermenting fun.
While producing kombucha at home can be a relatively simple process, doing so on any sort of commercial scale is not for the faint of heart or body.
Awn gets to Magick City — his production space in the far northern corner of Greenpoint — at around 4:30 in the morning. He brings a forty-gallon kettle of filtered, UV-zapped water up to a boil, and then divides that water into 40 glass Pyrex bowls. Into those bowls goes high-quality tea — green, ginger, black, mate, — and two cups of sweetener, like maple syrup or sugar, depending on the flavor combo he’s going for. By 8 a.m., the bowls are sitting and brewing, eventually coming to room temperature and transforming into an extremely concentrated tea.
He pours each bowl back in the kettle for a strain, sloshes it all back into the bowls, and adds a strip of SCOBY to each. He covers them with muslin and then stores them in a dark, air-circulated room set at 72° Fahrenheit. For seven days, the bacterium in the SCOBY reach out to the sugar molecules in the tea and absorb any airborne bacteria, growing and spreading and fermenting away.
After a week, Awn removes the strengthened “mother culture,” strains the liquid into jugs, and puts them in the refrigerator to slow the fermentation and allow the remaining solids to drop to the bottom. He then siphons the finished kombucha into bottles, lets them sit for a final 48-hour “conditioning,” and then ships them out all over the country.
Right now, Awn does about three productions a week and ships two hundreds cases of Mombucha a month.
Awn chose to produce kombucha commercially because he was disappointed with the quality of what was already on the market. At its simplest, kombucha can be brewed quickly when the SCOBY has a good amount of sugar to feast upon and a warm environment in which to grow. Some companies add fruit juice or artificial flavors to create the base taste of their product. They brew in 900-gallon kettles more in line with beer brewing, and often in stainless steel, which Awn believes adds a slightly metallic tang to the final product. And they often employ the “vertical method”: the large containers of kombucha are constantly tapped of their liquid and additional sugar tea is added on top so that one SCOBY continues to grow and can brew indefinitely.
Mombucha, though, is made via an “integral brew,” Awn claims — which means that dozens of specific choices make for an honest, high-quality product. He uses only clear-glass fermenters and bottles, believing that they ensure a clean, ingredient-focused final flavor. Those ingredients are sourced locally when possible, and include products like the Grade B New York State maple syrup he often uses as a sweetener. His teas are of high quality and often organic.
The space is temperature- and humidity-controlled, and the air is constantly filtered. The water is filtered and zapped with UV rays. The glass bowls are wide and shallow, allowing for a large surface area and plenty of room for the SCOBY to feast and grow. And he allows the SCOBY only one regeneration — meaning that instead of constantly feeding the culture more sugar to keep it growing, a single strip goes in each gallon bowl, is used for the week, and then removed.
“What you are tasting when you drink Mombucha — the mouth feel, complexity, richness, spherical quality, strength, potency, and yumminess — is solely due to the transformation those ingredients undergo during the two phases of fermentation I employ: aerobic for seven days and anaerobic bottle conditioning for two days,” he claims.
The result is an effervescent, slightly sweet kombucha in flavors like Gingermint, Black Coco, Blood Orange, and Coffee.
The energy of Awn’s Mombucha isn’t limited to downing gallons of the healthful stuff, though. Having inherited from his mother the belief that “the best kombucha is the one you make at home,” he offers in-home “brewtorials” to teach people how to brew themselves. Rather than sell SCOBY, he follows the inherited belief that “he/she who makes money on Kombucha will have money problems all their lives,” and so gives it away to anyone who wants to come pick some up.
“Heeding this, I find a balance,” he says. “I earn money by selling bottles of my handmade craft kombucha, and to the universe I give away the culture; the essence and life force of the drink. My accountant will tell me not to do this, but that’s how my conscience tells me to proceed.”
The life force doesn’t stop there, though.
Awn first opened Magick City in 2013, with high hopes for creating a community space as well as a production room. He spent his first three months transforming the back room into a workable kitchen, cleaning out what had been left behind: “There was a rusty old van parked in the middle of the space, the floor looked like Hurricane Sandy had half chewed it up (which, in fact, it did), and it was flanked with wall-to-wall spices” like cardamom, allspice, and clove left by the former tenant, a spice packer.
He needed some thermal insulation to help keep the kitchen warm, but didn’t want “just a storefront.” Rather, he aspired to a design that would function in many ways: to help store and present his product and to operate as a daily café and a rentable event space. Awn also wanted the space to be “something sculptural, something sacred and mystical, and something futuristic and weird. I wanted it to be hidden from the world most of the time to create a sense of discovery for anyone lucky enough to stumble upon it.”
And something visually focused around hexagons, because…”I like hexagons,” he says simply.
Awn reached out to designer Nancy Kim and, along with welder/builder Safwat Riad, she went to work. Kim created a two-foot-deep ‘back bar’ with translucent, insulated materials welcome sunlight. The counters were built on casters, so they could be rolled and moved to allow for large deliveries. They bought reclaimed wood floors from the recently closed Roseland Ballroom, preserving a bit of local history.
“The design elements work within a sixty-degree hexagonal geometry, allowing for visual cohesion,” Kim says. “This was the most cost-effective way to create a multi-functional and flexible storefront without having to install a more common glass storefront system, which was out of our budget and would require a lengthy permitting process. I hope the space serves as not only a to-go kombucha kiosk but also an educational fixture.”
Already, the space has inspired those within the community. It was finished mere hours before their first event — Nightcap Riot — took over with a combination of theater, music, stand-up comedy, and, of course, a kombucha tutorial and kombucha-based cocktails. They’ve since rented out the space for parties and music events. Since Awn doesn’t brew daily, he rents to Brewla Bars and, most recently, Darren Wong’s Raindrop Cakes, which astounded Brooklynites at Smorgasburg and quickly went into high production.
The melding of community and kombucha is integral for Awn.
“The underlying force behind both Magick City and Mombucha is transformation,” he says. “The tea transforms into a medicinal elixir bringing health and well-being. The physical space changes with each event, bringing enjoyment and enlightenment. Magick City was built to foster creativity and promote health and liberty in ways that few other places in the New York can.”
And Mama Awn, the original kombucha producer in the family? “She’s so proud of me,” he beams. “She’s over the moon.”
Buy Mombucha online or find local retailers at www.mombucha.com.