Lenny Boy Brewing in Charlotte, N.C., has a facility unlike any brewery I’ve ever seen: Oak barrels lie adjacent to a panoply of cloth-covered steel tanks akin to miniature missile silos, and the room, which smells slightly of vinegar, is filled to the brim with a collection of knick-knacks and devices—beakers, basters, small mason jars also covered in cloth and filled with mysterious elixirs—that give the place the feel of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
But the setting makes sense: Here, a beer and brewing method unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before is coming to life like Frankenstein’s monster, spurned by the “fermentation relationship” of Lenny Boy owner Townes Mozer and his head brewer, John Watkins.
“We had a little wort from our brown ale left over, and me and John were messing around and pitched in some of our kombucha culture to see what would happen,” said Mozer, who caught the “fermentation bug” in college and has continually brewed kombucha, wine, beer and mead in the eight years since.
What happened in their experiment is that the kombucha culture “went wild,” turning what was technically un-hopped malt tea into an über-tart sour beer using a microbial combination of symbiotic bacteria and yeasts. After trying the mouth-puckering product, Mozer and Watkins came up with the idea of blending the beverage with fresh, conventional brown ale to round it out with sweetness, then barrel-fermented brown ale, also fermented with kombucha culture, for added nuance.
The result: a beverage reminiscent of a Belgian oud bruin that tastes of raspberry and a slight, vanilla oakiness, with an edge of nuttiness and vinegar-like acidity.
“You have a lot of different profiles going on,” said head of quality control Jason Bock of the Burn Down for What sour brown ale.
Kombucha beer is certainly not new, but the kombucha beer that Lenny Boy churns out is particularly unique because of the brewery’s method. The definition of kombucha beer is nebulous—most are either high-alcohol versions of the fermented tea or blends of kombucha and beer—and can encompass many different products. But none I’ve heard of actually take un-boiled, un-hopped wort and directly use kombucha culture to ferment it.
The Burn Down for What sour and its cousin, the Tart De La Wit (brewed using the same method, but without the barrel-aging step) are therefore also special because kombucha culture, like the traditional Belgian coolship method of making sours and wild beer, pulls microbes such as Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria from the local environment to ferment the beer, and, inevitably, imparts a taste of place, or terroir.
Lenny Boy also produces kombucha (the product that Lenny Boy began with) and traditional beer, as well as other kombucha beers—like Kentucky creeper, a brew fermented without grain from native muscadine grapes, watermelon and elderberries, and Holy Moly, an ale made from sweet potatoes, fall spices and molasses—more akin to the typical “kombucha beer” line.
“The kombucha craze and the sour beer phase are kind of parallel in some ways,” said Mozer, whose brewery is currently maxed out at production.
“They’re both things that, when somebody doesn’t know what it is, they’re scared to take the first sip,” he continued. “But then they take the first one, and then the second, and then the third, and they realize: ‘I like this.’”
The increase of interest in both his sours and kombuchas, he said, has been “exponential.”
Lenny Boy is now looking to expand to a 10-barrel brewing system in a location roughly six times the size of its current one, and hopes to begin bottling or canning its sours by early 2016.
BEERS TO TRY
Photo by Bo McMillan
Kentucky Creeper, a gluten-free kombucha beer that tastes somewhere between a sweet rose and a sour, with refreshing notes of watermelon and the distinctive bite of Muscadine grapes; Tart De la Wit, a sour witbeir that balances the heavy texture, richness and veiled sweetness of a standard wit bier with heightened effervescence and pucker; the Burn Down for What sour (taste previously described); and the Summer’s End Rye IPA, which contains notes of starfruit and passionfruit that overlay a faint hint of black pepper from the rye.