Ever since it hit mainstream radar, hard kombucha has been heralded as a health nut’s answer to hard seltzer. As someone who has been drinking both for a long time, I take issue with this comparison. While both drinks are light and offer certain health-related advantages to beer or cider, hard kombucha occupies a vast spectrum of flavor, body, and booze factors that spiked seltzer just can’t touch. You might as well compare hard lemonade to white wine.
The difference starts with how it’s made. Unlike hard seltzer, which combines carbonated water with grain alcohol (usually) and a single flavoring, hard kombucha is a living beverage. The fermentation process pulls together not just the mixture of water, tea, sugar and flavoring agents like juice, roots and herbs, but also elements from the air, earth, and (if you believe in such things) the interpersonal energy that surround it. I’ve heard tell of brewers who sing to their culture or leave ancient wisdom texts beside it, in order to enrich the brew. But even if you don’t buy into such woo-woo extremes, the fact remains that hard kombucha, like wine, boasts a unique terroir in its flavor profile. And while we would never bill an alcoholic beverage as being “healthy,” hard kombucha tends to be much lower in calories than beer or cider, as well as naturally gluten-free, and vegan and paleo friendly. Plus, it’s common reported that hard kombucha drinkers suffer no depressant effect after indulging, but rather enjoy a light, buzzy lift from the drink. (I can vouch for this.)
For those who are kombucha curious, I’ve spent the summer sampling every hard kombucha I could get my hands on, as well as quizzing the makers on their brewing process. The result is The Manual’s first comprehensive summary of this delightful high-vibe drink. You’re welcome, world. It was really my pleasure.
GT’s Hard Kombucha
Even if you know nothing about kombucha, you’ve seen these long, cylindrical glass bottles and their telltale label around town — in your grocery store, your gym, possibly even your local gas station. While company founder GT Dave’s emphasis remains squarely on creating a health-promoting product, he threw a bone to his legion of fans with a collection of ultra-light hard kombuchas. You’ll get a cavity before you get a buzz from this brand, but if you’re a kombucha lover getting used to your favorite drink going boozy, this might provide the perfect transition. My personal favorite is the Piña Paradise, made with a fermented pineapple juice known as tepache.
Jiant Hard Kombucha
On the other end of the spectrum, those who detest kombucha typically complain of the brew’s vinegary taste. Fear no more the mouth pucker, my friends — Jiant is here to ease you into the world of hard kombucha. The brand’s unique process of steeping loose leaf botanicals in a base of green tea and honey makes for a clean, smooth beverage without the acidic funk. (Just what you’d expect from a brand born in coastal SoCal.) The result is a light-bodied, low-ABV hard kombucha delicately dominated by an herbaceous bouquet.
If you’re already a fan of spiked sodas or hard lemonade, you should definitely start your hard kombucha journey with KYLA. This brand out of Hood River, Oregon makes classic flavor combinations like lavender lemonade and hibiscus lime, and turns up the sweet factor with a punch of stevia. But don’t confuse the sweetness with skipping steps — each KYLA kombucha flavor is crafted with the help of microbiologists who handpick each culture based on benefits and taste. With a low-key ABV and a slew of party-ready flavors, KYLA is a great-tasting, good-for-your-gut option for filling up your beach party cooler.
AfterGlow Hard Kombucha
From the makers of Vermont’s Aqua ViTea, AfterGlow is the perfect kombucha for all-day summer hangs. Its medium-light body and 5% ABV make it go down easy (but not too easy), and its marriage of sweet, sour, and bitter elements are lip-smacking good. I recommend the Hop flavor, which pairs just the right amount of beery bitterness with a subtle kiss of rose. I was shocked by how tasty this combination was; you will be, too.
This Brooklyn kombucha brewery stands out for its no-nonsense ethical standards as much as its minimalist array of flavors. With three flagship flavors made from Fair Trade black tea and organic sugar, fruit, and herbs, it delivers consistent taste, bubbles, and buzz — in other words, the standby drink every summer cooler requires. I keep reaching back for another can of Lemongrass Lime, which pairs perfectly with spicy summer eats.
Luna Bay Booch
Brewed from a base of yerba mate and whole fruits, with flavor pairings sourced straight from the farmers’ market, Chicago’s Luna Bay is one of the most thoughtful hard kombucha breweries I’ve come across. The brand’s flavors are some of the cleanest around, making each sip a little sensory adventure. (It also makes this hard kombucha a great option as a cocktail base — try the Ginger Lemon kombucha in a Moscow Mule and you’ll see what I mean.) I fell deeply in love with the smoky and earthy-sweet Palo Santo Blueberry, but now I’m hankering for the limited summer edition Huckleberry Basil, produced in collaboration with adventurer Jedidiah Jenkins. Damn, I’m thirsty just thinking about it.
This brand out of Ojai, California produces an ultra-dry kombucha drenched with fruit flavor. My personal favorite is the Grapefruit Sage flavor, wherein each sip begins with a dusty mouthful of the desert herb, only to quench it with a bittersweet wallop of pink grapefruit. It’s a razor’s-edge flavor balance that, on a sweltering August night, is sure to expand your consciousness.
Founder Holly Lyman approaches fermentation as a creative practice, and you can taste it in this unctuous brew. This hard kombucha is unique in being built on a foundation of jun, a softer, subtler cousin of the kombucha ferment that feeds on honey rather than sugar. The flavors are provided by organic herbs and roots homegrown by Holly and her team outside Sedona, Arizona. The result is a light dance of flavors with a heavier, mead-like body. For me, it’s the ideal wind-down kombucha, one that pairs perfectly with a falsa blanket, a lingering sunset, and some Yo La Tengo playing in the background.
Unity Vibration Kombucha Beer
If Wild Tonic is the mead of kombuchas, Unity Vibe (as I affectionately call it) is the 12-year Glenfiddich. It’s the first boozy kombucha I ever tried, and it still packs a wallop with every first sip. With a lower fizz factor and a hearty 8% ABV, this brew is definitely meant to be sipped, not chugged. IPA fans will geek out over the brand’s KPA, which features a gut-punch of hops and juniper berries, while whiskey lovers like me will swoon over their Bourbon Peach flavor. And if you find yourself feeling somehow poetic after a can or two, it’s not just the alcohol — this Ypsilanti, Michigan brewery plays specific music frequencies in its brewing room to enhance the ethereal effects of this magical mystery drink.
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