Why San Diego Is a Destination for Better-for-You Brews

Hard kombucha is just one of your options.

San Diego craft beer culture is second to none and yet, we can’t help but notice new trends creeping onto tap lists and beverage menus, the most intriguing being the so-called “mindful”, or wellness brews like hard kombucha, hard Jun, and hard yerba mate.

You’ve likely heard of hard kombucha by now, a fizzy, sweet-and-sour drink that’s fermented with black or green tea, sugar, and an active culture of yeast and bacteria. Unlike virgin kombucha (which often has a negligible amount of alcohol due to fermentation), hard kombucha is fermented longer, which allows more of the sugar to convert into alcohol for a higher ABV.

In a similar category are hard Jun kombuchas. Emma Hughes, Customer Experience Manager at JuneShine Hard Kombucha in Scripps Ranch explains, “Traditional kombucha is brewed with black tea and sugar, while Jun kombucha is brewed with green tea and honey. There are no other differences between the two, by definition. But as far as taste, Jun kombucha has a reputation as ‘the champagne of kombuchas’ because it’s much smoother and far less acidic than kombucha with a base of black tea and sugar.”

The latest entry to the mindful hard beverage scene in San Diego is the world’s first hard yerba mate. Chief Operations Officer Josh Makler of Barrio Logan’s Kové Hard Yerba Mate gave us the lowdown on the tea-like beverage that’s slowly becoming a staple in mainstream grocers. “Yerba mate comes from naturally caffeinated leaves of a species of holly tree that grows in South American rainforests...the culture of mate is strong, hailing from Indigenous communities in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. It is known as a symbol of friendship and the traditions have been passed down for generations.”

Whatever beverage you choose, keep in mind that despite any purported health benefits, it’s still an alcoholic drink. As Bambucha Kombucha CEO Michael ZonFrilli points out, “From a “better for you” perspective, kombucha is gluten-free, usually organic, and has lower sugar and calories than most alcoholic beverages. Consumers are going crazy for hard seltzers for similar reasons, but those drinks don’t offer the bonus of functional health benefits found naturally in raw kombucha, and rarely use whole food ingredients. Being an alcoholic beverage, we are not stating that drinking hard kombucha will make you healthier, but it is possibly a healthier choice in moderation.”

Given so many options, what’s the best way to dip your toe into the mindful beverage world? It’s easy; head to a tasting room and talk to a boochtender—they’re happy to guide you towards something you’ll enjoy. We’ve got six solid places to start right here:

hard yerba mate can
Kové Hard Yerba Mate

Barrio Logan
Kové Hard Yerba Mate serves up the world’s first hard version of the popular South American tea-like brew in their beautiful outdoor venue, sharing space with Thorn Brewing (KHYM uses Thorn’s brewing equipment), at the Acre of Awesome. Classified as a hard tea seltzer, sweet yerba mate tea undergoes a single fermentation by yeast rather than kombucha’s bacteria/yeast combo, which, according to Josh Makler, makes hard yerba mate “a more approachable, crushable hard tea seltzer alternative that you can enjoy without the acidity of hard kombuchas, and the fake flavoring of hard seltzers''. At a moderate 5% ABV, Kové’s version is organic, vegan, and gluten-free, and comes in four flavors (so far); Mojito, Lemonade Iced Tea, Mango Colada, and Passion Berry, plus the occasional limited edition available only at the tap room. They occasionally have n/a versions at the taproom as well.
How to book: Seating is on a first-come basis. You can also purchase KHYM in cans online or at locations throughout San Diego County.

kombucha can
Nova Easy Kombucha

Ocean Beach
Owner and founder of Nova Easy Kombucha, Tiago Carniero, never expected to end up brewing hard kombucha in Southern California, but after opening a successful brewery in Brazil in 1999, he and his brother set their sights northward to San Diego. First launching Novo Brazil Brewing in Chula Vista, they followed up with Nova Easy Kombucha, a tasting room for both beer and booch in the heart of hippieville, Ocean Beach. Bursting with ripe tropical flavors, herbs and spices, the runaway house favorite is Sexy Pina Colada, a light, frothy take on the classic beach cocktail, or Sexy Mojito, with plenty of fragrant mint to balance the tangy lime; both push into the 8% ABV range. Other flavors are equally enticing, like Watermelon Mint, Cactus Fruit, Agave and Jalapeño and this season’s limited edition Peachy Lychee evoke visions of surf, palm trees, and endless summers. There’s always a few non-alcoholic (n/a) varieties to try, as well as new n/a performance kombuchas boosted with guarana and electrolytes.
How to book: Seating is on a first-come basis. You can also purchase NEK in cans online or at locations throughout San Diego County.

kombucha
Photo Courtesy of Bambucha Kombucha

Vista
Bambucha Kombucha doesn’t have their own tasting room, but their chef-crafted, artisanal hard kombucha is worth seeking out at area tap rooms and restaurants. Inspired flavors are developed by chefs, offering global culinary tastes using 100% organic, whole food ingredients from local farms and specialty produce companies, such whole root ginger and turmeric jet-fresh from Fiji and rosewater that’s shipped directly from a producer in Morocco. Prior to flavoring their brews, Bambucha ethically sources fair-trade teas from around the world, and usually minimally processed, organic cane sugar to feed their cultures. Three juicy hard flavors include blueberry vanilla, tropical guava, and Hawaiian hibiscus, along with five n/a choices.
How to book: Find Bambucha Kombucha at these restaurants and tasting rooms: Belching Beaver,Surf Center Bar, San Elijo Vine & Tap, Crack Shack, The Hop Stop, and Tony’s Sports Bar and Grill. You can also purchase BK in cans at locations throughout San Diego County.

Boochcraft
Photo courtesy of Boochcraft

Del Mar
Founded by three friends from San Diego who wanted to make healthier alcoholic beverages, Boochcraft, the largest and best-known hard kombucha producer in the city, takes a “farm to tank” approach, sourcing ingredients directly from local small-scale farms whenever possible and juicing whole fruits in-house. Their first taproom, in the stunning Del Mar Highlands Brewers Deck, features six core flavors, rotating seasonals, their heirloom series, and limited-release “Liquid-Art-Lab'' combos that push boundaries with flavors like Blueberry Juniper and Mayan Spiced Coffee. Each product has a unique or problem-solving sourcing story, like Watermelon Chili, which is made from too large to carry watermelons that would otherwise go to waste.
How to book: Seating is on a first-come basis. You can also purchase BOHK in cans and bottles online or at locations throughout the United States.

local roots
Photo courtesy of Local Roots

Vista
Local Roots’ tap room, known as The Boochyard, has 16 rotating flavors of sparkling hard kombucha on tap, making it the perfect stop when you’re not quite sure what you want. A core lineup riffs on popular old school and modern cocktails, like Booch on the Beach, Cali Mule and Strawberry Mojito, plus a couple of hopped up choices, such as Citra Hops Pear and Hoppy Habanero. Everything is raw, organic, vegan, and gluten-free and available in cans, crowlers, and growlers to-go as well.
How to book: Seating at The Boochyard is on a first-come basis. You can also purchase LR in cans online for delivery or pickup, or at locations throughout San Diego County.

friends drinking JuneShine
Photo courtesy of JuneShine

Scripps Ranch
JuneShine’s light, refreshing hard Jun kombucha is a perfect entry-level choice in the wellness beverage arena, with a smooth, less acidic base made from green tea and honey, flavored with seasonal fruits and herbs. Their popular fruity combos come from what’s freshest in the local marketplace, as well as the creative genius of the brewers.

“Inspiration is everything!” Emma Hughes said. She explained that, “Recently, our team has been inspired by our favorite, iconic cocktails—including Grapefruit Paloma, Iced Tea Lemonade, and Spicy Pineapple Marg. All of our small-batch specialities available in our SoCal tasting rooms are heavily influenced by seasonality—like our summer Strawberry Fields and fall peach flavors.”

The huge tasting room in the former Ballast Point production facility is family and pet-friendly and open seven days a week. A second San Diego tasting room in The Jackson, a new multi-use facility in North Park, was temporarily sidelined during the pandemic shutdown and plans to open later this year.
How to book: Seating is on a first-come basis. You can also purchase JuneShine in cans online for delivery, or at locations throughout the United States.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.