Drinking the Farm
On a warm, sunny July morning I find myself standing next to a table overflowing with fresh herbs at the Boise Farmer's Market. As I slowly make my way down the row I lean in to smell the vibrant aromas each herb emits. To my right is Mike Sommer, owner and brew master of Purple Sage Brewing Company in Middleton. He is energetically expounding upon the quality of each herb that grows at his family's well-known, organic Purple Sage Farms. It only takes a moment listening to Sommer to realize that his articulate and accelerated speech pertaining to all things kombucha is fueled by true passion and this is what makes his version of this ancient, fermented herb tea so unique and downright interesting.
Growing up on Purple Sage Farms, which was founded by his parents (who are fifth generation Idahoans) and whose mission was to introduce people to healthy, fresh and flavorful food, gave Sommer an advantage when it comes to knowing and appreciating sustainable, organic farming. After graduating from college in 2009 with a degree in microbiology, Sommer returned home to the farm to help his dad, Tim Sommer, manage the business and expand their product line. After assessing the farm's robust, specialty greens and plentiful herbs, along with the vegetables grown during the shoulder season (kale, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli), it became clear to Sommer where there was room for the development of a value-added product which he says, "is an essential part of a farm's sustainability. . . preserving fresh produce and being able to sell it during the off season." And given his plentiful, freshly grown assets, that answer seemed to be growing right before his eyes – the creation of what he calls the "pinnacle of the farm" – kombucha tea.
Ancient in its roots, kombucha has been referred to as "the Tea of Immortality." The first recorded mention of it was in China in the year 221 BC; it then spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world via the caravan routes of trade. A living culture of bacteria and yeast that digest the sugars in teas to acids, kombucha was found to be a refreshing, beverage that went well with a meal, aided in digestion and offered, some say, many healing properties.
Unlike many kombucha teas on the market today, Sommer uses only organic herbs like holy and opal basils, lemongrass, stinging nettle and mint, all grown in Purple Sage's greenhouses where they're harvested and dried mid-summer when still packed with the most nutrients. That's just the beginning. One of the most unique steps in the brewing and fermentation process is that Sommer keeps his tea leaves whole offering a larger surface area that minimizes oxidation of the nutrients. He also creates a more "potent" blend by using a larger quantity of herbs that steep for "a very long time," during fermentation aiding in the addition of more robust flavors and nutrients which his loyal customers from the Treasure to Wood River valleys have come to love and seek out.
"I set out to create a more live/raw kombucha product that offers the most microbiological activity in every bottle and I only ever use one kind of organic herb per batch," say Sommer. "Brewing this way allows customers to explore all of the flavors that a single herb offers, experiencing its acidity, aroma and sweetness. It's really like drinking basil in a bottle."
There's even an organic story behind the elegantly sketched kombucha bottle labels. Sommer's sister's boyfriend, an engineer at Hewlett Packard, also happens to be an artist who helped capture the simplicity and beauty of each herb that graces every 750 ml bottle of $18 organic kombucha. And in keeping with Sommer's "pay it forward" attitude, he only sells his teas in reused wine bottles that are cleaned, sold and distributed locally by Ūsful Glassworks, a 100% Green business taking discarded glass and turning them into beautiful products. Ūsful Glassworks is yet another community-builder in the Treasure Valley participating in the sustainable system that further supports Sommer's vision for creating "farm-to-bottle organic, healthful beverages."
Sommer's kombucha is available under the Purple Sage Brewery Company label at the Boise Co-Op, Idaho's Bounty, Saturdays via Purple Sage Farms' booth at the Boise Farmer's Market (April – October), and coming soon to other southern Idaho grocery stores.