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Entrepreneurs, Los Alamos scientist seek fusion of another sort

David Fox, left, a biochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, shows jars of “SCOBY” — a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — to Rena Glasscock, center, and Ayla Bystrom-Williams, part of the group behind HoneyMoon Brewery and its plans to develop a kombucha beer. Fox, a home brewer himself, is helping out on the project. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

David Fox, left, a biochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, shows jars of “SCOBY” — a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — to Rena Glasscock, center, and Ayla Bystrom-Williams, part of the group behind HoneyMoon Brewery and its plans to develop a kombucha beer. Fox, a home brewer himself, is helping out on the project. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — With help from a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, three young Santa Fe entrepreneurs are trying to brew a better beer – one that combines the professed health effects of kombucha fermented tea with the enjoyment derived from drinking an ice-cold adult beverage.

“It’s going to be a new class of beers,” said David Fox, a biochemist at LANL. “It’s still being defined, but what I think you’ll see in the end is a unique classification of beers … one you’re really going to like.”

Los Alamos – where the atomic bomb was born 70 years ago – is better known for nuclear fusion. But what Fox and the others are working on is a fusion of an ancient elixir with one of the world’s oldest and most popular alcoholic refreshments.

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Oh, there are a few kombucha beers out there already, but the fledging Honeymoon Brewery is looking to take it to another level.

“What they don’t have that we have is we’ve approached it from a research perspective,” said Ayla Bystrom-Williams, who, with the help of former Santa Fe Prep classmate James Hill and another Prep grad, Rena Glasscock, formed HoneyMoon Brewery. “I think that goes a long way because kombucha is such a massively expanding health beverage industry, but there’s a lot more need for information about it and what the benefits are.”

“But we’re hoping, with David’s help, to quantify it and document what we’re offering,” added Hill. “We really want to focus on providing an alcoholic drink that still has probiotics. There’s a very good chance that we’ll be the only ones who can substantiate that claim.”

Fox and HoneyMoon Brewery were brought together through a New Mexico Small Business Association program that pairs new or developing businesses with technical experts at either the Los Alamos or Sandia national labs.

Fox was interested in what Honeymoon Brewery was trying to accomplish and NMSBA provided $20,000 to cover his involvement. Not only does he have expertise in organic chemistry, but also he’s been a home brewer for about 15 years – since taking on postgraduate studies in Salt Lake City.

“I understand the basic tenets of brewing; this just takes a different form,” he said. “As an organic chemist by trade, I’m very familiar with metabolic pathways, so I wanted to be able to give them more of a quantitative idea of the process that is occurring beyond what is already known in the literature, using capabilities and resources that are available to me at the lab.”

LANL’s David Fox works next to a bottle of lager made from kombucha produced by HoneyMoon Brewery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

LANL’s David Fox works next to a bottle of lager made from kombucha produced by HoneyMoon Brewery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Parallel tracks

Taking it to another level also means bringing their brew up to a higher of alcohol content than what’s normally found in kombucha drinks.

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Kombucha, generally consumed as a tea, is a fermented beverage that contains small amounts of alcohol. Some may recall that, in 2010, Whole Foods pulled its kombucha teas off the shelves after it was discovered they contained elevated levels of alcohol of greater than 0.5 percent. Government regulations require products containing more than that to bear a warning label.

Honeymoon Brewery is hoping to produce a product with an alcohol content in the 5 to 7 percent range.

But that’s where it gets tricky – and quite scientific.

Kombucha is fermented using a “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” or SCOBY.

“I’m trying to adapt the SCOBY to different environments than what it typically grows in during the kombucha tea process, meaning normally it’s being used with tea and sugar in the initial step,” explained Fox, who works outside LANL security gates at the New Mexico Consortium Laboratory. “I want to see if I can first have it more involved in the primary fermentation step associated with the beer brewing process, meaning can it handle the wort that is typically associated with beer brewing after you mash the grain?”

Meanwhile, Bystrom-Williams, Glasscock and Hill are experimenting at their home brewery in San Marcos south of Santa Fe.

“What we’ve mainly been doing at the house is sticking to black tea leaves, and pitching yeast and sugar into it, trying to raise the alcohol content,” said Hill, who serves as the company’s chief technology officer.

Fox said he and the San Marcos group are taking parallel tracks that will eventually fuse into a final process. HoneyMoon hopes to have its product in stores, and a half dozen Santa Fe bars and restaurants, by next year.

“There are a few different routes we’re going to take that I’m sure will clarify a lot more in the following months. We just have to quantify a few different paths first in order to establish that,” Fox said.

They’ve already got prototypes in the hopper they’re satisfied with, but that’s not good enough. “This is such a new, innovative beverage that we want it to be as good as it can be,” said Glasscock. “Because we’re not willing to put out anything that’s less than perfect.”

What they ultimately come up with may not technically be a beer in the eyes of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, also known as the TTB, which regulates bottlers of beverage alcohol. It could be classified as a beer, wine, or something else.

The HoneyMoon brewers aren’t too concerned with that as they plan to produce a variety of products that could fall under different classifications.

Bystrom-Williams said the TBB has a different set of qualifications for beers or alcoholic beverages and how they are classified. Their product is so new and different from what’s out there, they’re not sure how it will be viewed by the bureau.

“That’s where we anticipate most of our delay in coming out with this product, just because it’s so new and there’s not really a standard procedure,” she said.

Jars of SCOBY, symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, that David Fox, a LANL scientist, is working on to help Honeymoon Brewery develop an alcoholic kombucha drink. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jars of SCOBY, symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, that David Fox, a LANL scientist, is working on to help Honeymoon Brewery develop an alcoholic kombucha drink. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Bystrom-Williams, who has brewed both kombucha and beer separate from each other at home for seven or eight years, said the HoneyMoon group’s goal is for its signature product to be classified as a craft beer. But, even if it’s not, they think consumers will perceive it that way.

“The way most people locally will interact with this beverage is as a carbonated, beer-looking substance that comes out of a tap. I think people will be able to make up their own minds about it,” she said.

The feel-good drink

While kombucha has been around for thousands of years, originating in China, it has been popular in the United States only for about 25 years, emerging with the onslaught of health drinks.

The health benefits of kombucha have not been extensively studied or substantiated by high-quality research studies. But some people swear by it, claiming it works as an energizer, detoxifier and curer of disease.

Whole Foods Market, most notably, has dedicated space in its stores for kombucha products and Bystrom-Williams said HomeMoon Brewery has a preliminary agreement to sell its product at Whole Foods.

Bystrom-Williams said people describe different reactions to drinking kombucha. For her, it’s helped with an upset stomach and otherwise just makes her feel good from the inside out.

“The benefit I felt from drinking kombucha was immediate and clear,” she said, adding that it’s hard to put in words how it makes her feel. “It’s just overwhelmingly a physical sensation. I hate to say anything more than that because it just sounds so hippie-dippy, you know? Like, ‘Woooo! My energy is really clean!'”

While scientific research on kombucha is scarce, Fox says the clinical evidence is compelling.

“I don’t think it’s science fiction as there are clear beneficial properties,” he said. “There are a lot of antioxidants, it’s very rich in B vitamins. Even vitamin A is produced within the culture, and some of the organic acids that are produced help maintain a balanced pH within your stomach and intestines. I think those are pretty established claims.”

Los Alamos scientist David Fox pours samples of a kombucha lager he has produced as part of the development process for HoneyMoon Brewery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Los Alamos scientist David Fox pours samples of a kombucha lager he has produced as part of the development process for HoneyMoon Brewery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A special creation

Like a lot of upstart businesses, HoneyMoon Brewery is looking for financing and is turning to crowdfunding options to help get started. In the coming months, the company plans to announce a presence on Launchleader, a New Mexico-based crowdfunding platform. They say they also plan to be on Indiegogo and Kickstarter.

In the meantime, HoneyMoon plans to market its product locally with the intent of getting public feedback.

“While we’re waiting to get our licensing and regulation, we’re going to start our pilot system – what we call our gypsy brewing plan,” said Glasscock, who is in charge of marketing. “That involves sponsoring events in places like the CCA and through Meow Wolf. We’re also going to host private parties where we give the alcohol away, since we won’t be licensed yet.”

They call it a “gypsy brewing plan” because, other than their home-brewing operation, HoneyMoon doesn’t yet have a plant.

“Our goal with gypsy brewing is not only to keep our market presence while we’re waiting for the license to go through, but also to get an idea of what our local community thinks about this type of beverage,” Bystrom-Williams said. “We think Santa Fe is the right kind of audience to give us feedback on this, because it is very health-oriented, and active and interested in the craft beer industry.”

HoneyMoon Brewery’s proprietors have high hopes for their kombucha product. They think their product can appeal to both craft beer and health food markets.

“We just want to make something that we can stand behind, and make our city and state proud of us, and hopefully give back to the scientific community and the health community,” Hill said. “We really want to create something special.”

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