by Katherine Sacks/MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
Belgian beer importer Don Feinberg first sipped his wife’s fermented tea, kombucha, several years ago and a light bulb lit in his mind.
The taste – tart and slightly sour – reminded him of something he knew quite well. Turning the bottle over to investigate the label further, his suspicions were confirmed as he realized the yeast strain in the kombucha was Brettanomyces, the same live yeast found in the lambic beers he had been enjoying for years.
More than a year and a half later, Lambrucha, the lambic-kombucha combo Don created, has hit Chicago area bars and shops. Lambrucha is already making waves at Fulton Market’s wine shop Perman Wines and restaurant Avec, and Andersonville’s famous Hopleaf Tavern.
“This would be a beer I would think that you would eat some cheese with,” said Michael Roper, proprietor of Hopleaf. “But it’s also very good just by itself. It’s a hot weather beer.”
Creating Lambrucha was a challenge. Combining two live yeast products wasn’t an easy process, and Don and his wife, Wendy Littlefield, plan to travel to Belgian in May to continue development on the brew. But the couple also plans to expand Lambrucha sales into Philadelphia by then and nationally by late summer.
Making of kombucha beer
When Don and Wendy decided to create a lambic and kombucha mixture for their distributing company Vanberg & DeWulf, they contacted their friend and leading Belgian beer authority, Ghent-based Roger Mussche, to corroborate. Traveling to Belgium in 2008, the couple met with Mussche to discuss the project, choosing DeTroch Brewery in Wambeek for the bottling process. Don and Roger began to mix kombucha and lambic together to find the right combination, fermenting and tasting their way through one test batch after another.
In July of 2009, they hit the magic formula, combing a year-old lambic with an organic, green tea kombucha. After allowing it to rest for several months in Belgium, the Lambrucha was bottled and shipped to the U.S.
“There was quite a bit of science in the combining,” said Littlefield. “The lambic is aged for more than a year, and then particular vats are hand selected to be blended with kombucha.”
The couple moved from Cooperstown, New York, to the Chicago area last summer to be near their son, a pre-med student at Northwestern University, and they premiered the beer in Chicago as “kind of appreciation for our new home.”
Lambic beers alone, can be very difficult to make, said Mussche, because of the wild yeast used in production. Wild in yeast, as in people, means hard to control.
“It’s very nice to say everything is wild, and spontaneous, and organic,” said Mussche. “But if you have one beer spoiler, it can destroy everything.”
Fans of the combination of kombucha and lambic are quick to point to possible health benefits.
“There actually is sort of another movement to go back to more subtle, more complex, more elegant beers,” said Michael McAvena, beverage director of Fulton Market’s Publican restaurant. “So a beer that is around 3 percent alcohol and is potentially healthy was super exciting.”
Kombucha, a tonic consumed for centuries, is believed to promote digestion, aid in blood circulation, and have anti-oxidant, cleansing properties, as well as other benefits. While none of these claims have been scientifically proven and the FDA does not regulate kombucha, drinkers of the tea report they find the drink to be beneficial.
“Kombucha has a nice range of B vitamins, and C vitamins,” said Chicago area health and wellness counselor Joelle Rabion. “And in most beers there are a lot of acids, but one of the benefits of kombucha is that it creates an alkaline state.”
A whole new flavor combination
At 3.5 percent alcohol, Lambrucha is a low alcohol beer that combines the sour flavors of traditional lambic brews with the tart, citric flavor of kombucha.
“I think it’s a really interesting take, it’s hard to come up with a whole new take on beer,” said Roper of Hopleaf, which sold out of their first order of three cases in just a few days.
“This is different in that most Belgian sours are deep red or dark beers. This is quite light,” Roper said. “I don’t think it’s part of any definable style, I think they’ve invented a style.”
“It has a tart, citric flavor, almost lemony and with apples,” said Roper. “It’s very refreshing, spritzy and it finishes kind of bone dry.”
The Lambrucha is also popular at the Publican restaurant, according to McAvena, who sold out of his two cases in 10 days.
“It’s very refreshing, something you can imagine sitting outside and drinking in super large quantities,” said McAvena.