Having stepped out of the classroom, former science teacher Debbie Wild tells Sarah Freeman why she is now mastering the art of brewing an ancient Chinese drink.
As head of science at Cundall Manor School, Debbie Wild was used to explaining tricky formulas. However, having guided successive generations of students through their GCSEs, she reckoned that it was time to step out of the classroom and pursue her other passion - brewing.
It explains why now most days she can be found in a corner of Rudgate Brewery in Tockwith perfecting the science behind a new non-alcoholic drink, whose core ingredients are green tea and Yorkshire water.
“I’ve always loved visiting whisky distilleries and I have always been interested in the art of brewing,” says the mother of three. “After 20 years of teaching I just thought that the time was right to try something new, something that would take me out of my comfort zone.
“The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to turn my hobby into a career, but I knew that even with my background in science there would be a lot to learn, so three years ago I enrolled on a Masters degree in brewing and science at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
“My original aim was to set up a micro-gin business, but when my sister, who has spent a lot of time living in South East Asia introduced me to a fantastic non-alcoholic drink, overnight my plans changed.”
The drink was kombucha. Thought to have originated in China in 221 BC, it quickly became known as the ‘Tea of Immortality’ and claims to be packed with a whole raft of health benefits.
According to a 2000 review, it can help to reduce cholesterol, relieve asthma and headaches and reduce high blood pressure and ease the symptoms of gout and arthritis.
While popular in both Asia and North America, kombucha is not widely known in the UK. At least not until now. However, having been tipped as one of the trends to watch for 2018, kombucha could yet prove to be this year’s answer to coconut water.
“By the time I was nearing the end of my MSc I realised that the gin market had become pretty saturated,” says Debbie. “One of the great things about gin, is that it is simple and quick to distil, but that has meant that everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and there are so many different varieties that it is hard to stand out.
“I wanted to do something a little different and when my sister told me about kombucha, I knew instantly that was the direction I wanted to take. It still allows me to use my knowledge of brewing and getting all the elements right has taken a lot of trial and error, but it feels like we are introducing people to something new and exciting.”
Lower in sugar than traditional soft drinks, Debbie is hoping that her Kinoko Kombucha range will capitalise on the rise in ‘mindful drinking’ and provide an alternative to a large glass of wine.
“A lot of people are now looking to reduce their alcohol intake or give up drinking completely,” she says. “The problem is that finding something which is equally as refreshing as a glass of wine is not easy. The alternatives are often either incredibly sweet or taste of nothing much at all.
“The great thing about kombucha is that not only is it suitable for all ages, but it really fills that gap for a non-alcoholic drink that is more exciting than a glass of water, but which isn’t high in sugars and calories.
“Alongside the original kombucha, we now have one flavoured with coconut and another with lime and mint, which almost tastes like a mojito cocktail only without the rum. “At Christmas we had a few people round who weren’t able or didn’t want to drink and because it has a bit of a fizz in it, we could serve it as an alternative to Prosecco.”
While Debbie is keeping her exact recipe secret, the green tea used in the entire range, which uses all natural flavourings, is filtered through Yorkshire water and the fermentation process can take up to two weeks.
“The fermentation happens through the addition of what’s called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” she says. “It means that you have to monitor it regularly, you can’t just shut the lid and walk away.
“The introduction of the sugar levy, whereby drinks producers are taxed for adding sugar, is having a big impact on the industry. However, a lot of people are simply swapping the sugars for sweeteners.
“I have never been a fan of artificial colours, preservatives or sweeteners and right from the start I was determined that our kombucha should only use natural flavourings.”
According to current forecasts, kombucha’s share of the non-alcoholic drinks market will grow by an estimated 25 per cent each year and by 2020 will be worth $1.8bn.
“The reaction so far has been incredible,” says Debbie. “My sister loved it and some representatives from one of the American brands kindly came over to meet us and again they were really impressed with what we are doing over here.
“The trick now is for us to raise awareness of the brand. “Even in the few months that we have been brewing, the momentum does seem to be building, but we want people to go into a pub, see it in the fridge and think, ‘Great, they stock kombucha, I’ll have one of those’.”
It’s been more than two years since Debbie taught her last science lesson, but she is, she says, still learning.
“I really loved teaching and stepping into the known was a little scary, but it has also been incredibly exciting. Brewing is really where my heart lay. The last few years have flown by and while it’s been a steep learning curve, I’ve loved every minute of it.”