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Boochmania Pours Kombucha That Isn't Just for White Hippies

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a kombucha maker pours a fresh glass from the brewer's tap
Denisse Padilla, co-owner of Boochman Kombucha in Berkeley, pours up a fresh batch of pineapple hops. (Alan Chazaro)

Kombucha, in its original form, is a mix of hot tea (“cha”) and dried kelp (“kombu”) from northern Japan, where the drink is still popularly consumed. Yet when we think of kombucha in California, we often envision the trope of an affluent, white, tech-working yogi.

Maybe there’s some truth to that stereotype. A 2020 article about the lack of diversely-represented kombucha brands found that of the four brands that dominate the $1.8 billion global kombucha industry — and account for 85 percent of sales in the U.S. — “all but [one] are 100 percent white-owned.”

So yes, commercial kombucha is undeniably white American–centric. 

But the tradition of fermentation is heavily rooted in food practices and beliefs that far predate modern capitalism and neo-hippies. Fermented ingredients — ranging from indigenous Central American elixirs like tepache and pulque to ancient concoctions from across Asia like kimchi and miso — have always been healthy for our bellies.

“Simply, fermentation is the oldest technique that we know in the kitchen,” says Numan Karabiyik, a 32-year-old Turkish immigrant who co-owns San Francisco’s Boochmania. “It’s a trend now that people want to get into, but it has been a conservation technique for food materials that has always sustained people [because] it can extend shelf life and increase the nutrient value for food products.”

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Boochmania is at the forefront of a small movement driven by diverse makers in the Bay Area who are making those health benefits clearer — and more flavorful — than ever to a whole new audience of kombucha lovers.

The Turkish siblings who are crafting kombucha in San Francisco at Boochmania
The Karabiyik siblings, from left to right: Mustafa, Betul and Numan. (Alan Chazaro)

An Ancient Technique

With a menu of fermented Mediterranean plates and fresh kombucha on tap, Boochmania opened at the end of 2022. The quaint space, which is neatly tucked along the corner of 3rd and Harrison Streets on an uphill slope, is Karabiyik’s flagship family-owned business. With the help of his older brother Mustafa and younger sister Betul (who arrived in the United States just one year ago), he keeps his fermented dreams afloat.

an array of Polaroid photographs showing Turkish family members at Boochman Kombucha in Berkeley
An array of photographs showing family members and friends at Boochman Kombucha, Berkeley. (Alan Chazaro)

Karabiyik began his culinary training in Izmir, Turkey, a port city that boasts the third largest population in the country. The city’s blend of Asian and Mediterranean influences helped shape his understanding of fermentation as a common, ancient practice, as did his internship at a contemporary Japanese restaurant called Zuma. There, Karabiyik picked up techniques for fermenting foods like miso and Japanese bread. “It amazed me how Japanese and Mediterranean cultures repurposed almost everything they used,” he tells me.

Combining these newly acquired techniques with his familiarity with Turkish foods — including yogurts, syrups, breads, wines and pickled vegetables, which all involve fermentation — he grew fascinated with the yeasty sublayer of gastronomy.

It wasn’t until Karabiyik relocated to the Bay Area and did an internship at San Francisco’s Benu, that he learned how to make kombucha. The high-end, Michelin-starred restaurant served the beverage as a palate cleanser as part of its $375 prix fixe menu.

“[The process of fermenting foods and beverages] is extremely labor intensive and involves monetary resources that most immigrants don’t have,” says Karabiyik. “Many high-end restaurants in Europe and around the world have their own fermentation station or have an entire team dealing with that so the other workers can cook and do other things. If you do it wrong, your whole product can end up in the garbage.”

There aren’t many immigrants, he tells me, who can afford to delve into kombucha making. But that didn’t stop him from brewing his own batches in his spare time after that initial introduction at Benu.

Mexican and Turkish Touches

Before Boochmania, Karabiyik and his brother entered the local kombucha game by way of Berkeley, opening Boochman Kombucha in 2019 with Denisse Padilla, a Mexican American single mother who grew up in nearby Pinole. At the time, Padilla had been looking to launch a food business and met the Karabiyik brothers while she and Mustafa were working at the International Education Center of Diablo Valley Community College for international students.

At the time it opened, Boochman drew attention for being the first kombucha taproom in the Bay Area. But the founders’ cultural influences and backgrounds largely went overlooked and underappreciated. And once the pandemic hit and supply shortages cut into their production, the taproom had to scale back on its most inventive kombucha flavors — including the ones that most clearly reflected the owners’ cultures.

chamomile kombucha fermenting in a large jar
Chamomile kombucha fermenting in a large jar at Boochmania in SF. (Alan Chazaro)

“We used to have a tamarindo flavor, which was really popular, but tamarind import stopped during COVID,” Padilla says while preparing a batch at the Berkeley location, where all of the kombucha sold at both sister businesses is produced.

With immigrant parents from the state of Chihuahua, Padilla is no stranger to Mexican classics, citing tamarindo, agua de jamaica and mangonadas as drinks she grew up with. Other Boochman flavors, like red prickly pear — or “tuna,” as it’s known in Mexico — offer subtle odes to childhood memories of her father.

“That’s hella Mexican,” she says. “It was my dad’s favorite fruit.”

The flavor didn’t sell with enough frequency, so it was discontinued — along with the bay leaf and beet kombuchas. Still, there are distinct multicultural undertones in the shop’s kombucha, as well as in the small plates at the new San Francisco location (which Padilla is not formally involved with).

Boochman and Boochmania both serve variations of pineapple and strawberry hops kombucha, which Padilla says is inspired by agua de pina and agua de fresa. They also use a Turkish tea as the base for their kombucha, as a way to “combine our cultures,” she says.

“Turkey is quite famous for tea consumption,” Karabiyik tells me. “Turkish tea is a great base — it’s light.”

At one point, Karabiyik also used Marash, a spicy Turkish pepper, to flavor one of his kombuchas. But he says it became too difficult to find it in the United States with the proper USDA organic certification. That hasn’t stopped him from infusing other Mexican and Mediterranean tastes. Current flavors that draw from the kombucha makers’ backgrounds include currant, clove and spicy mango. They’re some of the company’s best sellers, Karabiyik says.

More Than Just Kombucha

After starting from a micro scale at local farmers markets and small business incubators like Kitchen 812 and Certified Kitchens — where they began with a humble 15-gallon capacity per week — Padilla and the Karabiyiks have grown their business to two brick-and-mortar locations on both sides of the Bay Bridge, producing an estimated 500 gallons of kombucha per week, while also serving foods like lentil miso burgers with housemade lacto-fermented blueberry dressing over organic quinoa and seasonal veggies.

fermented foods, including kombucha and hummus, spread out on a table
Fermented foods at Boochmania in SF range from bread to hummus to kombucha. (Alan Chazaro)

They’re not finished, though. Beyond perfecting how to harness living colonies of bacteria and yeast to make fizzy kombucha drinks and delicious meals, the immigrant-owned businesses are expanding to include a wider range of “zero waste” products. In an effort to recycle all of their discarded materials into reusable items, they’ve started to make candles, bath salts and soaps. One candle uses leftover rose petals from the kombucha-making process while another uses pineapple discards, and both can be re-used as miniature planters afterwards.

In addition, Karabiyik is researching how to make other fermented beverages from around the world, including chicha morada, a Peruvian staple made from Andean purple corn.

“I try to learn from other cultures and relate it to the fermented culture,” he says. “Now it’s a big thing and celebrities are investing in that to make money. But looking at our cultures, we already have an understanding of that.”

After first falling in love with kombucha on tap at Berkeley Bowl about a decade ago, Padilla is also constantly seeking ways to infuse different influences into the craft. While working at farmers markets around the region, she often surveys her customers of diverse backgrounds on what flavors they most enjoy and what ingredients they would like to see as future seasonal releases.

Along with other local businesses like House Kombucha — an Asian woman–owned operation originally based in San Leandro, whose kombucha flavors also appeal to a diverse palate — Boochman Kombucha is hoping to widen the gateway into celebrating not just kombucha, but fermented and sustainably upcycled products in general.

Whenever these makers come across a new, fresh idea (currently, their “Unicorn Tail” is an original mix of horsetail tea, blue spirulina and stevia leaf) in ways that remix their various homelands, Padilla wonders: “How did no one think of this?”

two Turkish customers celebrating kombucha and food in San Francisco
Two Turkish customers celebrating kombucha and food at Boochmania, SF. (Alan Chazaro)

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Boochmania (685 Harrison St., San Francisco) is open Tue. through Sat. from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Boochman Kombucha (915 University Ave., Berkeley) is open Tue. through Fri. from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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