- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - In a back room of Washington’s Union Kitchen, Andreas Schneider and his co-workers fill 12-ounce glass bottles with a citrus-colored beverage.

A few weeks ago, the drink in the bottle was merely sweetened tea in a large plastic barrel. That was before it spent time under a floating, gooey, rubbery patty in the shape of a thick pancake.

That patty is called a SCOBY, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The bacteria in the colony are living, similar to bacteria found in yogurts, and the yeast is similar to what brewers and distillers use to ferment their beers or their ingredients.

Over the course of several days, the SCOBY transforms the tea into a low-sugar, carbonated, probiotic-packed beverage, known as kombucha.

Schneider began experimenting with kombucha in 2011 when he started business school at George Washington University. He’d been interested in making kombucha for years, he says, but he never found the spare time.

“To really do it properly, you need to be around all the time and really monitor it, otherwise it gets sour fast and turns weird. Kombucha likes attention,” he says.

Schneider brought his home-brewed batches to class, and in no time, classmates Daniel Lieberman and John Lee took an interest in the drink.

“They came to school to start their own business and so we started putting our heads together, seeing if this might be a good idea - and it was.”

It was a good idea for more reasons than the refreshing taste of Schneider’s kombucha. For starters, no other company was making it in the Washington area. And even though people have been drinking kombucha for thousands of years, consumer awareness of the beverage was low in the nation’s capital, Schneider says.

“We’re trying to make kombucha approachable. It’s been around for a while; it has kind of a funky reputation because it’s fermented,” Schneider says. “You see people being less interested in soda . people want healthier soft drinks; they’re trying to cut sugar out of their diets . and kombucha really is a perfect replacement for soda.”

That year, the three business students founded Capital Kombucha and worked out of a commercial kitchen space in Petworth, turning out four flavors.

Since its launch, Capital Kombucha has expanded its space to Union Kitchen, in Northeast, where it makes 10 flavors that are sold at more than 100 stores from northern Virginia to Philadelphia, including several Whole Foods locations.

As with brewing beer, making kombucha boils down to science - starting with the SCOBY.

“It’s a living drink, and (the bacteria) are living organisms. What you’re doing when you make a batch is, you’re feeding (the bacteria), and they grow and they replicate,” Schneider says.

The SCOBY grows to match the size of the vessel in which it lives. In fact, Schneider jokingly refers to his SCOBY as “a co-founder in the business.”

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