On a recent spring day, Jared Englund’s smiling face meets us on the sidewalk outside Lion Heart Kombucha‘s building at NW Lovejoy and 18th. He leads us halfway down an alley to the series of garage-like rooms that hold the workings of the operation. “I wanted to show you guys this,” he says, ducking behind a curtain into one of the rooms. Suddenly the air is 80 degrees, with the distinctive smell of fermenting sugar. 50-gallon vats line the walls of the tiny room. “This is where we ferment the tea,” Jared explains, “and then we blend the kombucha with fresh fruit and flavorings.” He points to a bowl filled with watermelon chunks. “But I haven’t been able to get any watermelon flavor to come out.”
Each vat in this room is filled with green or oolong tea sweetened with sugar, and floating near the surface of each vat is a kombucha culture that looks like a slimy, thick pancake. These are SCOBYs, or Symbiotic Cultures Of Bacteria and Yeast. The bacteria and yeast feed on the sugar and produce a wide range of acids, including acetic acid (the same found in vinegar), and the resulting liquid is the drink known as kombucha, which has been used medicinally in East Asia for centuries and has only been popularized in the United States in the last 20 years or so.
Like a sourdough starter, the exact make-up of every kombucha SCOBY is slightly different, depending on the locally-prevalent yeast strains, type of sweetener, chemicals in the water, even the type of container it’s stored in. Though the biology will change from day to day, Jared says that all SCOBYs contain a few key strains of yeast and bacteria, and will typically support a primary population of 12 types of each. All of that fermenting activity results in a drink full of amino acids, which are central building blocks in our cells. Scientific research has also shown that kombucha has antibiotic properties, detoxifies the system by supporting liver function, and boosts immunity, though the full benefits of drinking kombucha remain to be studied.
We leave the fermenting room and step next door to the shop, a cozy space with just enough room for Jared’s desk, a table for visitors, and a fridge full of kombucha in a spectrum of pinks and golds.
“Here, taste this,” Jared says, pouring samples of red raspberry and sylvan berry as soon as we step inside. I taste. The raspberry kombucha is like a bright, fruity soda, but less sweet and with a tangy edge. This is one of the things differentiating Lion Heart from the pack of kombucha brewers that has sprung up in recent years; using a lesser amount of sugar and fermenting longer than most commercial brands, Lion Heart is able to balance the yeast and bacteria populations in each batch, resulting in almost no sugar or alcohol in the final product. This provides them with a fresh-tasting base to use on its own or as a background for the many different fruit blends.
“The strawberry was our first blend using whole fruit,” he says. “We bought the berries at the farmers market, and that’s really inspired our new direction towards local, ‘real’ flavors.” In their first market season last year, Jared and his partner Amanda listened to their customers’ ideas and took note of the seasonal fruits being grown locally. Their blueberry-ginger blend was inspired by HFM customers one day, who wanted to fill their bottles half with the blueberry and half with the ginger brews that were on tap. Jared is excited to continue building relationships at the farmers market this year, where rotating seasonal flavors will be sold that won’t be available anywhere else.
Unfortunately, though, the growing success of the business means that HFM customers will only get to see Jared and Amanda every other week this year. In between running the store, brewing and bottling frantically to keep up with demand, teaching kombucha classes, and keeping up with little Lev, they’ve had to scale back on their farmers markets to maintain a balance. But returning to HFM was always the plan. “Hollywood customers really love our product,” Jared says appreciatively. “And we were HFM shoppers before we ever sold there.”
As we get ready to leave Jared to the rest of his work day, one more question occurs to me: where did the name Lion Heart come from? “We’re really all about family,” Jared says. “Our son’s name, Lev, is really connected to our family already, and Lev means ‘lion’ in Russian and ‘heart’ in Hebrew.”
Lion Heart Kombucha is available at 1720 NW Lovejoy (entrance on NW 18th), Thursday through Saturday from 11-6, every other Saturday at the Hollywood Farmers Market, at several locally-owned groceries, and on tap at food carts and restaurants across Portland. For starter kits and kombucha classes, check out their website at www.lionheartkombucha.com.