The craft food movement in metro Detroit just keeps growing. Ever since state laws were loosened on shelf-stable "cottage" foods less than five years ago, we've seen a profusion of small businesses making a buck selling everything from apple butter to vinegar. One of the most recent entries (started just nine weeks ago) is Neu Kombucha, a version of the tangy and effervescent fermented tea that is growing in popularity across the country.
It's made by Jennifer Neu, 37, and boyfriend Julius Sipkay, 39. Neu tells us she's "part punk-rocker, part hippie," and it was her reservations about the industrial food system that put her on a path to exploring different food traditions. It's an attitude partly inherited from "hippie parents," Neu says, adding that "government-controlled food is kind of freaky to me. It's seems like more of a factory with some of the companies. Rather than trying to help people be well, they only seem out to make a profit." It was only natural that she started working at Royal Oak's Cacao Tree Café, where her love of kombucha, which she has been making for three years, quickly snowballed into something bigger.
"At the Cacao Tree Café, they were making it just for small batches, maybe 10 bottles or 10 cups a week or something like that," she says. "I started taking it over, and we're up to 200 bottles a week now." Right now, it's just the two of them: "Yeah, it's me and my boyfriend. We're getting the system down so it's getting pretty assembly line-like."
Of course, some people get turned off by kombucha, spooked by the eerie "mother" that forms on the surface of the beverage. It's what's known as a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or, more appetizingly, "SCOBY" for short. That jellyfish-looking thing isn't visible in the finished product, which is more like a fizzy soft drink — one with powerful health-giving properties.
Just what makes kombucha a healthful beverage? It's rich in vitamins B and C, as well as amino acids and digestive enzymes. Neu also points out that it has probiotic qualities "similar to the food like a yogurt or sauerkraut or kimchi," in that it helps add to your intestinal flora, increasing the amount of "good" bacteria in your gut, with the end result that "it helps you absorb your food nutrients and helps you digest."
Even though it's good for you, Neu and Sipkay probably wouldn't be selling so much kombucha unless it tasted good. So far, responses have been great.
Neu says, "They were expecting it to be more like the GT's or Synergy that's in the Whole Foods, which is vinegary ... a little more of an acquired taste. Ours is a shorter ferment so it's a little lighter and a little sweeter, so it's more like a soda. They're surprised that it's a little bit different. ... We have four different flavors: Top-selling Super Berry (with goji berry, elderberry, and blueberry) and Pineapple Ginger, as well as Lavender Lemonade and Root Beer."
Neu and Sipkay also try to source whatever they can from within the state of Michigan, and from responsible providers elsewhere. She says, "We get our bottles and caps and labels in Detroit. And then the ingredients are all organic, so I make the flavorings, but the herbs that go into it and the barks and that, I get from Frontier; it's a co-op company. But it's all fair trade and all that kind of thing."
So there you have it: Another small producer is making an ecologically sound product, so you can have something that's good for you that you can consume with a clean conscience, supporting local businesspeople in the process, all in defiance of the industrial food system.
You can purchase Neu Kombucha at Brooklyn Street Local in Detroit, Cacao Tree Café, Inn Season Café and the General Store in Royal Oak, and Try it Raw in Birmingham. Neu and Sipkay also sell it at the Royal Oak Farmers Market Saturday.