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It's Alive and Growing

Bellying up at the kombucha bar



The row of jewel-colored shots lined up on the bar in front of me reminds me of sour candies when I first see and smell them. My array of infused beverages includes lavender lemon, turmeric ginger, tangy blueberry and a Mary flavor with hints of hot peppers, garlic, thyme and fenugreek. It's accompanied by locally sourced kimchee, crackers and olives.

About three months ago, Jeri Vigil and Keil Cronin opened Humboldt's first commercial kombucha business, aptly named "It's Alive" (1612 Old Arcata Road). Vigil, a lavishly tattooed, energetic mom of three daughters, pours me a handled pint jar of Russian kvass made with beets grown in Humboldt County, one of several fermented probiotic drinks the shop is selling on tap. The resemblance of the bar and product packaging to traditional bars and alcoholic drinks is intentional. It's Alive will soon be offering four packs and larger bottles for enthusiasts to bring to a party or order while they're out on the town. Cronin, who moved here from Kansas with dreams of opening a brewery, tells me he wants to be able to hang out at a late night rock show in Arcata, holding a bottle along with his pals. "We like to have an unpretentious approach to health."

Vigil, an herbalist and graduate of the Northwest School of Botanical Studies, is quick to tell me what the drinks have done for her, but reticent about what others will experience. She mentions studies that have linked digestive health with mental health, and talks about the secondary nervous system in the human digestive system, which brings to mind the phrase "gut feeling." Ultimately, though, she refuses to make any medical or scientific claims. I turn to Kristen Rasmussen, a registered dietitian and lecturer with the University of California, Berkeley department of nutritional science and toxicology for more information about the impact of fermented beverages on the human body. She says that fermentation is an ancient science developed prior to refrigeration to help foods last. Rasmussen adds that "in addition to taste and food preservation, fermentation comes with a host of health benefits that I think we've always known on a 'wive's tale' or tradition front, but are increasingly proven through modern science." She explains that fermentation generates additional nutrients, can remove anti-nutrients that prevent nutrient absorption and toxins, and supports digestive health and immune function. "There are many miraculous claims of course," she says, "but these are generally not justified." (For a look at health risks from mishandled kombucha, see "Kombucha Culture," Aug. 10, 2006.)

The sample drinks taste different from what I buy elsewhere in bottles or taste from friends' home concoctions. The flavors are brighter, a little less vinegary and lightly tart. I'm partial to the dry berry and spicy flavors myself, but there's always apple and a lemon-based flavor on tap. The shop will soon have a root-based kvass on tap regularly, as well as water kefir — yet another strain of culture that provides an alternative to dairy-based kefir drinks.

Cronin says he's inspired by the patience and attentiveness required to make the drinks. "You make this, you put it aside — for maybe a few days or up to two years — and with patience, you get your reward." Vigil adds, "And then you share it!" Which is exactly what fermentation-enthusiasts in the area are doing, with an annual conference in Mendocino County and a quickly expanding club in Humboldt.

"We've set everything up with a full prep kitchen and our brewery license, so we can have freedom in our art form," Cronin says.

Vigil laughs and says, "The industry didn't know what to do with us. Finally we said 'just put us under breweries!'" The pair completed their kitchen bit by bit using mostly salvaged materials and home-built equipment. A few months after opening, they proudly inform me that their beverages are being sold locally at bars, restaurants and markets. They are also planning workshops for the local fermenter's club, which has about 50 members. The tasting room is currently open from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and prices range from $3 to $5 per pint, with growlers ranging from $10 to $18. Customers are encouraged to bring their own mason jars or growlers for the time being, though logo-bedecked ones are coming soon. If you can't make it to Bayside, try a glass on tap at Siren's Song Tavern in Old Town Eureka.

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