What do you get when you put two enthusiastic homebrewers together with scientists from one of the world’s best-known laboratories? If you answered HoneyMoon Brewery’s pioneering hard kombucha, then you’ve likely tasted this adult beverage that blends beer and kombucha. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Crafted by HoneyMoon founder and CEO Ayla Bystom-Williams and founder and brewer James Hill, with a little R&D help from scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, this beer-meets-kombucha beverage comes in five great styles and boasts a bevy of reported health benefits. Kombucha advocates claim that the ancient fermented tea that originated in China can aid digestion and weight loss, boost your energy and immune system, and protect against many diseases.
Bystom-Williams first tasted kombucha while living in Washington state, working at a co-op and making home-brewed beer with her roommates. “I was doing hot yoga then, and on my way home, I’d stop at a pub, but I couldn’t drink the beer because I was too hot. Somebody had told me about kombucha, so instead of going to the pub, I started going to the co-op and drinking kombucha. Back then, kombucha was one to two percent alcohol, and I thought it was the perfect compromise. But then they pulled it from the shelves because of alcohol labeling issues, and I was really disappointed with the new kombucha that replaced it.”
Kombucha appealed to Bystom-Williams for several reasons. “I’m a huge beer lover, and so when I started drinking kombucha, I completely resonated with the taste,” she says. “At the time, I had a lot of digestive issues, and when I started drinking kombucha, I had this enormous relief from some of them. The other thing that happened was I realized if I drink juice, I’m basically drinking sugar water. If I drink beer, I’m basically drinking carbonated sugar water. With kombucha, you’re getting probiotics and you’re also getting antioxidants. What ended up making me a lifelong kombucha lover is that I’m drinking something that’s functional, and not just something that satiates my thirst.”
When Bystom-Williams moved back to Santa Fe in 2012, she connected with Hill, whom she vaguely knew when they were in high school together at Santa Fe Prep. “James and I started brewing beer together — not kombucha, but regular beer,” Bystom-Williams says. “We did beers that were off the beaten path. James started brewing a stout made with dandelions he called Lion’s Tooth.” When she told Hill about her taste for kombucha (before government regulation required an alcohol content below 0.5%), the pair brewed up the idea to craft a “healthy alcohol” that would appeal to craft beer lovers and health-conscious consumers. “People wanted a buzz and still wanted to be healthy, and this seemed perfect,” she says.
The task wasn’t easy, but their ingenuity earned them support along the way, including $20,000 from New Mexico Small Business Assistance in 2015. This made HoneyMoon eligible to receive assistance from Los Alamos National Laboratory through bioengineer David Fox, a homebrewing enthusiast himself. He helped the couple rule out what wouldn’t work, Bystom-Williams says. “Their assistance allowed us to narrow it down into the product that we wanted.” Ultimately, the couple patented their formula, which is inspired by the open-air process used to make Belgian lambics [a type of beer brewed in Belgium since the thirteenth century]. In 2016, HoneyMoon edged out 15,000 applicants to win the Miller Lite Tap the Future competition and its $200,000 prize.
How did they know when they’d perfected their brew? “I actually remember the day that we first tasted it, when James had figured it out,” says Bystom-Williams. “We were brewing in an old ceramics studio in Madrid [New Mexico]. We were kind of at our wit’s end. We kept getting stuck. The product was too sweet. James had just tweaked so many elements, and after the fermentation was complete and we tasted it for the first time, we could tell from the flavor profiles that we had a fermentation that was complete. If it’s not completed, it’s dull. I could feel the effects in my gut. We really felt that we had just nailed it.”
HoneyMoon launched with a gorgeous taproom in Solana Center in late 2018 and started distribution in 2019. With an average ABV [alcohol by volume] of 5% and five fantastic gluten-free styles — including the popular Cereza Negra, made with organic tart cherry, and La Moneda, featuring organic lime, grapefruit and Himalayan salt — HoneyMoon’s hard kombucha is hard to keep in stock. You can find it around town, including at Susan’s Fine Wine & Spirits and Fire & Hops, but this cutting-edge beverage will soon go national, no doubt about it.
“Hard kombucha is one of the fastest growing categories in alcohol right now,” says Bystom-Williams. “We’ve been approached by Coors and Budweiser. We have been told by many, many customers, especially our California customers who come from out of state, that our product is different from other brands. Like a Belgian ale, our product is inoculated with wild yeast so there’s something indigenous in the flavor, like the terroir of wine, and I think it makes our product very unique.”
Lynn Cline is the author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes & Tales from New Mexico. She has written for The New York Times, Bon Appétít and numerous other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly radio show on KSFR 101.1 FM.