“How can we find the balance to enjoy today?” For Ethan Zuckerman and his wife, Kate, this is a guiding question when it comes to family as well as business. As co-owners of Barefoot Bucha, a kombucha brewery located near Charlottesville, they are passionate advocates for sustainable and holistic living that doesn’t leave a sour aftertaste.
The two-lane highway that leads to the Nelson County brewery is lined in all directions with signs protesting a new natural gas pipeline. In stark contrast to this proposed development, Barefoot Bucha is situated in a loose net of narrow, numbered roads, rolling hills, and pastoral fields with grazing cows. Out here, a lot of value is placed in the land and its resources. Out here, the pace of life is a little slower and all of your senses are more alive.
Indeed, stepping into the Barefoot Bucha brewery, it is the freshly astringent smell of kombucha that first greets you. As the door falls back into its frame, the smell also closes behind you. It’s a smell that any homebrewer will recognize, a yeasty essence that signals life and growth.
Ethan admits, “Kombucha is often known as a thing you have to hold your nose to drink.” In contrast, Barefoot Bucha offers a rotating menu of eight refreshing flavors including Cold Brewcha (made with cold-brewed coffee), the blueberry-infused Bluegrass Bucha, and the delicate Elderflower Sunrise. They have perfected mellow flavors that sparkle and fizz in your mouth, much like a natural soda that’s free of any syrupy sweetness. Ethan stresses, “Our biggest thing is that it tastes really good.” Kate adds, “When we make a new flavor, each one becomes our new favorite.”
When we make a new flavor, each one becomes our new favorite.
Each Barefoot Bucha recipe starts with fresh fruit and herbs, all organic. That organic requirement is equal parts blessing and curse. “As a result, we can’t use the wineberries that are out in the wild,” Ethan explains. Likewise, they no longer source their rose hips from a local herbalist since they want everything to be certified organic and, when possible, fair trade. But the secret ingredient? That would be the stuff that they source straight from the ground, which Ethan describes as “nutrient-rich, delicious Nelson County water.”
Brewing kombucha is an art, and at Barefoot Bucha, Ethan and Kate are the source of its creative inspiration. The process itself is relatively straightforward: brew tea, add a SCOBY, leave it alone for a while, then enjoy. SCOBY is the critical element here: a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. This thick lily pad of live cultures is sometimes called a mushroom because, well, it looks like a pretty gnarly one. Much like a sourdough starter, each SCOBY contains a unique mixture of microbes that help shape the flavor of the kombucha during fermentation.
Barefoot Bucha’s SCOBY has a rich past and is actually the very culture that Ethan started brewing with more than ten years ago. Originally given to him by a friend in California, this SCOBY now floats atop a mixture of tea, flavored with fruits, herbs, and other ingredients, which then ferments for days or weeks. The trick to brewing kombucha is knowing how long to let it ferment so that it’s tangy but not vinegary.
Similar to the explosion of homebrewed and microbrewed beers in the past decade, kombucha is traditionally a hobbyist activity that is slowly transforming into a commercial industry. In fact, people around the world have brewed kombucha for thousands of years and, as Ethan notes, even today, “the kombucha industry is a bunch of rogues.” Working with the Kombucha Brewers International trade association, however, Ethan and Kate have been instrumental in helping define new industry standards. They’ve also collaborated with a fabricator in Waynesboro to design equipment that is specialized to the needs of kombucha brewers. Ethan’s background in applied sustainability has come in handy throughout it all. He reflects, “I appreciate the engineering systems and loops of sustainability: loops of kegs on our side and loops of bottles on the consumer side. There’s a simpleness to it.”
This simplicity also equals sustainability, as the Zuckermans have adopted a unique distribution model for their brews. Instead of single-use bottles, Barefoot Bucha sends kombucha out into the world in recycled Coca-Cola kegs from traditional soda fountains. These then serve as taps in restaurants or markets, where you can enjoy a mug of kombucha with dinner or refill your very own Barefoot Bucha bottle while stocking up on groceries. Ethan and Kate estimate that this method has saved approximately 220,000 bottles in the past five years, based on the number of their refillable bottles in circulation and the volume of kombucha that they’ve sold.
Currently, Barefoot Bucha is available on tap throughout Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. Wherever they go, the Barefoot team puts a significant effort into supporting their retail partners. As Kate explains, “a lot of our success is about these relationships. The further you go, the harder it is to maintain those.” Overeager expansion might also put them in “risk of not enjoying life,” jokes Ethan. Instead, they focus on strengthening the relationships they already have in place and gradually expanding their presence in the region.
For now, “April through October is the busy season, so we’re churning out the kombucha,” says Kate. This year, springtime brings the release of a new seasonal flavor, Black Raspberry, as well as an upcoming partnership with Hardywood Brewery in Richmond. Barefoot Bucha is also preparing for annual events including the Lockn’ Music Festival, Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, and the Fall Fiber Festival at Montpelier, where you can look forward to enjoying fresh pours of their kombucha. But mostly, Ethan and Kate continue to focus on what’s most important to them: brewing the best possible kombucha, finding ways to live and work sustainably, and cultivating everyday joy.
To find out where you can sample some Barefoot kombucha for yourself, visit barefootbucha.com.
Photography by Stephen Graham