SANTA FE, N.M. — By now you’ve heard of, and may have even tried, kombucha as an alcoholic alternative to beer with healthy attributes. Well, “there’s a new jun in town,” so to speak, as the newly opened Leaf & Hive sets out to advance “the evolution of drinking” with its honeybrew products made from honey and their own herbal blend of green tea that’s been inoculated with authentic jun.
“Jun is way more popular in California and Oregon,” said Andrew Lucas, who along with his brother Fred opened what they call their “brew lab” on Mercantile Road last week. “Not too many people out here know about it.”
For those new to the fermented tea scene, here are the basics: Kombucha is made from black tea and sugar; jun is green tea with honey. Jun is sometimes called “the champagne of kombucha.”
But Jun has a separate culture – or “scoby,” otherwise known as symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast – for the fermentation process.
An air of mystery has always surrounded jun, which is pronounced as written, rhyming with “sun.’
Believed by some to have originated in northern China and Tibet thousands of years ago, little is known of the history of the jun culture. What is known is that similar to kombucha, jun is swiftly growing as a popular probiotic drink capable of providing a buzz appreciated by the recreational drinker.
Fred Lucas says that through a double-fermenting process, a glass of their original flower- or ginger-flavored honeybrews contains between 5 percent and 7 percent alcohol by volume. They also plan to introduce some seasonal brews and are experimenting with a mushroom stout. They tout themselves as the definition of artisanal brewing, letting their passion and creativity be their guide.
With a background in nutrition consulting and natural food production, Fred has been brewing beverages from jun for about eight years. Andrew joined in a few years ago, and, like a lot of amateur brewers, they were concocting the effervescent tonic from their home, which was then in Bakersfield, Calif.
At one point, they came to a crossroads. Do they brew it to be marketed as a health tonic or an alcoholic beverage?
After a single fermentation, their batches produced a beverage that came out to be about 1.5 percent or 2 percent alcohol by volume, “which is like no man’s land for a drink,” Andrew said. “It was either try to get it under one-half of a percent or try to get the alcohol up.”
They chose the latter. A second round of fermentation and some modifications to the recipe, and “we started bottling it guerrilla style,” Andrew said.
The brothers refined their process and moved to Santa Fe – a second home to them, they say, as their father was a designer of Southwestern-style jewelry and made frequent trips to New Mexico.
They brought some of their honeybrew to a party and through mutual friends met Chris Gonzales, also a California native, whose family moved to Los Alamos when he was in high school.
“We realized that he had experience that we didn’t have and skills that translated really well to what we were doing,” Andrew said of Gonzales, who had a decade’s worth of brewing experience at Santa Fe Brewing. “He was really integral in scaling the production process.”
“It was having things specifically made and repurposing things,” Gonzales said of his role in helping getting things started.
Asked how making beverages from jun differs from brewing beer and kumbucha, Gonzales said it mostly comes down to ingredients.
“Jun is a completely different culture than kombucha. And we use honey, while kombucha is made with refined sugar,” he said.
Both jun and kombucha brews are billed as healthy beverages.
“It’ll get your gut straight,” Andrew said, highlighting the probiotic qualities.
It also provides a better buzz, they say, for those who drink for the intoxicating effect.
“It’s a different, more unique kind of buzz. It’s light and uplifting. Not so heavy,” like a beer buzz, he said.
And if you drink enough of it, “the next day, there’s not so much of a hangover,” Gonzales added. “Probably because of all the healthy stuff in it.”
Leaf & Hive had a soft opening at their place on Jan. 12. It’s located at 1208 Mercantile Road, about two blocks from Meow Wolf.
Aided by the popularity of that group’s “The House of Eternal Return” interactive art installation, that part of town has sprouted several brewing establishments. Duel Brewing, Second Street Brewery’s Rufina taproom, and Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery (the former Club Alegria) have all popped up around a part of town some people are starting to call the “Siler Rufina Nexus,” named for the intersection of those two streets.
“That’s where Curtis comes in,” Andrew said of Curtis Carney, another member of the Leaf & Hive operation. He’s been working to develop the Leaf & Hive’s programming.
“We’re trying to build up the arts and music, and he’s really helped us with that,” Andrew said.
A three-piece jazz band played at the soft opening. Andrew said they hope to attract a wide variety of musical genres to the brew lab.
“Whoever we can fit on stage,” he said.
They’re also talking about hosting pre-parties in advance of shows at Meow Wolf and art exhibits.
Gonzales said they don’t consider Duel, Second Street and Tumbleroot drinking establishments to be competition.
“We all know each other. Everybody is a little different, so we’re not really stepping on any toes,” he said.
Right now, Leaf & Hive is just serving its products at the Mercantile Street location. Andrew said a next step will be to bottle it and keg it to increase distribution.
“That’s still a little bit down the road,” Andrew said.
In addition to their own honeybrews, Leaf & Hive also serves New Mexico craft beers. They currently have Santa Fe Brewing’s 7K IPA, Sandia Hard Cider and Bosque Brewing’s Elephants on Parade on tap.
Leaf & Hive is open from 3 to 10 p.m. daily.