Oak Barrel Kombucha Brewing

Guest Post by
Bryan Deane Bertsch
of Deane’s Kombucha

This is a guest post by brewmaster Bryan Deane Bertsch of Deane’s Kombucha. Bryan brews in charred oak barrels and shares his experiences using this type of brewing vessel.  You can find Deane’s Kombucha, a “full strength” Kombucha, in Minnesota. ~ Hannah
Bryan Deane Bertsch 5 Gallon Oak Barrel
Brewmaster Bryan Bertsch and his Oak Barrels

My wife and I began drinking kombucha about 8 years ago. I am a Taoist meditation instructor and energy healer, so what we do for our bodies is very important. At the time we were dabbling with a raw food diet, and one day my wife brought home this very interesting, tasty beverage called Kombucha. Neither of us had heard of it at the time. I took an immediate interest in kombucha. I was especially fascinated that it was a living, raw beverage.

In 2004, I was at a Spring Healer’s Retreat at Crow Wing Lodge in northern Minnesota. I was enjoying a kombucha when a colleague stopped over. As I began to share with him all the benefits of kombucha, he was quick to share with me that kombucha can be brewed at home, and that a friend of ours in the Twin Cities is an active brewer.

I was curious. I had never tried brewing anything at the time, but was called to give this a try. Kombucha was quickly becoming an important staple in my diet. To this day it gives me a great energy boost (without a crash), helps my digestion and makes me feel relaxed. Plus it’s a great treat – something I always look forward to.

I have had success brewing kombucha in a few different brewing vessels. I had read about the ‘continuous brew’ method of production, and wanted to go that route. My first vessel was a 2.5 gallon ceramic crock with a spigot. In all my years of brewing kombucha, this was a monumental step for me and the evolution of Deane’s Kombucha. Not because it was a ceramic crock, but rather because it had a spigot.

Using a vessel with a spigot simplifies the whole process. For someone with a wife and three kids, and who brewed at home for 5 years every week, this was important. Bottling was still time consuming, but so much easier with the spigot.

Ironically, I did not find out until years later that I really wasn’t doing a ‘continuous brew’ per se. More of a hybrid version of continuous brew and batch brewing. In a true continuous brew, you make your first batch, allow it to ferment, then draw Kombucha out of the spigot for consumption, and add tea and sugar as you go. The spigot is essential to this process so that you won’t disturb the rest of the Kombucha that is still fermenting.

5 Gallon Oak Barrel Spigot
Spigots make bottling your Kombucha a breeze

However, what I was really doing was batch brewing. I fermented my Kombucha in the brewer,then bottled it using the spigot which really simplifies the whole process,and finally poured my tea and sugar on top and began the cycle again. It was similar to continuous brew in that I rarely handled the SCOBY or starter, and just left what was in there for the new batch (which for me is a lot more than the 10% starter liquid a lot of recipes call for).. No filtering, no mess, no fuss.

My second brewing vessel was a 5.5 gallon glass “vodka infusion” jar with a spigot. My kombucha settled in nicely with the glass, even with the extra light. I didn’t go out of my way to keep direct sunlight from the kombucha, but it also wasn’t sitting near a window. My kombucha did fine in the glass, but I do think a dark space is preferred. I continued with the same batch brewing method, was still making kombucha just for friends and family, but started to have inklings to going commercial. And right about that time I heard about oak barrel brewing.

I ordered a custom made 5 gallon oak barrel. Rather than place the barrel on its side, as is typical for wine or beer in an oak barrel, this one was made to stand up and down. A hole is cut at the top, and a plastic spigot inserted towards the bottom. Again, keeping the process simple.

I was a bit concerned about how the toasted oak would affect kombucha flavor, and decided to bottle my first batch as “Original,” rather than add any fruit flavorings. Before I even bottled the kombucha I drank some straight out of the barrel. The taste was divine! I could not have been more pleased.

The kombucha took to oak very well. Definitely its favorite home so far. And why not? It’s dark, the oak is breathable, and it’s ALL NATURAL. It makes sense, really. In addition, the bacteria and yeast can penetrate the inside layer of the oak, helping to seal it with itself. This, I believe, maximizes the benefits of kombucha, packing it with extra enzymes and probiotics.

I was brewing more and more, sharing with friends and family, and decided to upgrade to a 30 gallon oak barrel. This, of course, takes up more space. . I was still using the 2.5 gallon ceramic, the 5.5 gallon glass and the 5 gallon oak at the time. So I was able to taste the three versions side by side for several months. All three worked well, but I kept noticing the softness of the oak batches. Plus the charred inside added a wonderful complex flavor, with hints of vanilla and earth. Oak also led to a much more consistent brew. I attribute that to the fact that as it saturates the wood over time, the bacteria and yeast can really feel at home.  When I went commercial in 2010 there was no doubt I would continue using oak. I decided to keep with 30 gallon barrels rather than ramp up to 60 gallon barrels. Moving around 30 gallon barrels is heavy enough – plus cleaning is easier.

Monica Mann, the other brew master at Deane’s Kombucha, also brews at home using a ceramic crock. She shares the same lineage of SCOBY as mine, follows a similar recipe, and yet is unable to match the taste that we create at Deane’s. She is convinced it is the oak. I agree.

Deane's Kombucha Flavors
Deane’s Kombucha has a dry, crispness and lovely effervesence, similar to a fine champagne.

I continue to do a blend of continuous brew and batch brewing, limiting my handling of the SCOBY and starter. But, of course, general maintenance is always in order. After several batches, I simply filter out the starter through cheese cloth via the spigot, which gets rid of the excess dead yeast. I then remove the SCOBY and separate if necessary, and flush out the barrel. So far I have not had to soak the barrels or do any deep cleaning to remove any excess yeast or whatnot, but that may change. When I get an off-taste, it usually just means too much yeast at the bottom of the barrel, which is fixed by filtering. Then, it’s back to brewing.

For anyone committed to brewing kombucha, I highly recommend using charred oak barrels. It is a bit of an investment up front, but the taste can’t be beat, the bacteria and yeast love the oak, and maintenance is simple.

Bryan Deane Bertsch is an interfaith minister, Taoist meditation coach/energy healer and owner/brewmaster of Deane’s Kombucha in St. Paul, MN. Deane’s is fully licensed to manufacture traditional, ‘full strength’ kombucha. He still has his 5 gallon oak barrel in use at home, serving as a SCOBY hotel, not to mention it serves as a great conversation starter in the kitchen. Reach him at bryan [at] deaneskombucha [dot] com or via www.deaneskombucha.com.

Do you brew in oak barrels?  What has your experience been like?  Comment below!

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Responses to Oak Barrel Kombucha Brewing

  1. Yes, when I started brewing I realized oak was the only way to go. I just need to get everything rolling well so I can switch over & save up some $ to make the purchase. Also I have to find a supplier for the right kind of oak barrel. Have a KT buddy in KC & she has access to a brewer supply… Think I will try there today. Thanks for the post!

  2. I was wondering how difficult you find cleaning the barrels? I was looking to get a small 2.5 gal but am worried will be tough. How often do you clean them?

    • Oak Barrels, like other CB vessels, are cleaned once every 3-6 months depending on flavor and how often it is used. When you notice your brew turns too tart, too quickly, that’s the sign it is time to go in and clean everything out. To clean it, simply remove the cultures and liquid. Give it a good rinse with water & 1 cup of vinegar – don’t let it dry out! Then trim the culture and refill the vessel with SCOBY, starter & sweet tea. All of the steps of the CB process are covered in the Complete Handbook and our video series – EZ Upkeep Vids.

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