Vendor Spotlight: Wunder-Pilz Kombucha
We asked Bill Nadalini of Wunder-Pilz a few questions about their delicious kombucha and can-bucha, Oye! If you were at our 5th Anniversary Bash, you may have had the chance to try their delicious fermented tea. Read on to learn more about how this beloved local company came to be and how environmental concerns have shaped their business practices over the years.
in: What is the “wunderpilz”?
WP: Wunder-Pilz is an Austin-based kombucha company founded in early 2010. Its name is from a German word for kombucha, wunderpilz. Wunderpilz literally translates to ‘miracle mushroom’ although technically it’s a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (s.c.o.b.y). Yeast is of the fungus kingdom but not every fungus is a mushroom. To make it more confusing, Pilsner is a type of beer, and some breweries spell their Pils offerings phonetically, so sometimes folks think we’re selling beer.
in: How did you get inspired to make Kombucha? Why all kegs, no bottles?
WP: I started making kombucha a few weeks after I tried my first bottle. Most commercially available ones tasted under-fermented to me, with lots of residual sugars. Being a former home brewer with some good beers and terrible nightmare-inducing wines under my belt, I had the tools and drive to tinker, and naturally I wondered what kombucha would taste like if the tea was fermented to my idea of completion. Once I started, it just kind of snowballed from there, and I started handing it out to friends. After a year or two, I met someone who had a food trailer and started selling some in small 12 oz beer bottles. I started using kegs because I already had some laying around, and my recycling bin was quickly becoming a small mountain of glass that I didn’t want to perpetually add to. Also I didn’t want to create that problem for other folks. By only selling in stainless kegs and empty larger glass containers folks fill themselves the first time, I could help folks have a reason to reuse instead of selling pre-filled single use glass bottles. Later I learned that while the City of Austin picks up glass in our recycling bins, they don’t have a plant to process all of it. So, sadly, out there on the edge of town somewhere is a true glass mountain.
in: How did you develop your seasonal varieties of your core four flavors throughout the year?
WP: From the beginning I started by making four all organic flavors or varieties. Some folks think you can only use black tea, but white tea and green tea are from the same plant, they’re just dried and roasted differently and picked at different times. Once I knew the ‘black tea only’ thing was a myth, I played with all sorts of teas and herbs and came up with blends that produced a nice finished product while leveraging the innate energetic qualities of the plants too. We brew and ferment each flavor separately with its own mix of plants and herbs. Most commercial producers ferment one type or blend of tea and flavor it a bunch of different ways for their varieties. So there’s Energy, Heart, Strength and Calm. All fun to order by the glass. Those are the same four we still produce. All but one had no fruit juice, keeping in line with my affinity for dryer, fully fermented beverages. Seasonally we started adding hand picked and juiced prickly pear to our lemon gingery ‘energy’. We add tart cherry and sometimes pomegranate to the hibiscus, yaupon variety ‘heart’. We pick and roast the yaupon holly ourselves. ‘Strength’ is made with eight plants and herbs, and ‘calm’ is a twig tea base that we ferment with Mugwort and Skull Cap, both strong nervous system relaxants and mild muscle relaxers. Mugwort also helps with dream recall. Calm should be avoided by pregnant women, as both Skullcap and Mugwort are considered emmenagogues.
in: Tell me about the process for developing your delicious new can-bucha flavors! What makes canning kombucha different from bottling?
WP: While I stayed away from single serving glass because of logistical and environmental concerns, the ease of a single serving container from a consumer side always had me thinking of a way to tackle it that would negate the inherent problems with single use glass. Aluminium cans are a great alternative. As they’re the most valuable recycled consumer material, ensuring their reuse, most cans are already 80% recycled content, and they cool fast. Aluminium can also be recycled and reused indefinitely. Boxite (the ore that it comes from) mining on the other hand is a nasty business. In the end it came down to the high rate of recycled material already present in the marketplace and the weight and cooling factors. Everything is a trade-off. I sent samples of the first flavor to one of the two major can manufactures in the country, and they tested the integrity of the plasticized can liner with our product in their lab. The liner keeps the kombucha from contacting aluminium directly, as the only safe metal to store a low pH product like kombucha in is stainless steel. We got a rating the same as beer gets, 6 months shelf life – and with that we were off!
We named the new product differently, as it’s not a true kombucha in that we strip the yeast out of the cans but leave the bacterial probiotic alive. This keeps the cans from going alcoholic and over-carbonating on their own. We called the new product Oye, a spanish word that is a casual form of the verb oir (to listen). It’s kind of like ‘yo’ or ‘check this out’ or ‘listen up!’, which to us was fun and appropriate for a can-bucha. We just released our second variety which is called Coco Kempii, named after the critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys Kempii) sea turtle native to the Gulf Coast. It’s an all organic yerba mate, lime, cacao mix sweetened with a small amount of organic coconut sugar. The first flavor is called Sun Bear and is all organic with lemon and fresh pressed ginger and sweetened with local honey!