Kombucha, kvass and kefir: Fermented drinks help add complexity and sophistication to alcohol-free beverages

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

New London Light. Pic: Salcombe Distilling Co.
New London Light. Pic: Salcombe Distilling Co.

Related tags Fermented drinks Fermented foods NABLAB Uk alcohol-free

Fermented beverages are stepping into the alcohol-free category to help provide the complexities and flavors often lost when alcohol is removed.

While demand for low and no alcohol drinks is growing, taking out the alcohol risks leaving nothing more than a glorified soft drink. Fermented beverages, however, are proving to have a role in delivering the flavor profile consumers are looking for: as well as having a technical role in the production process. 

Blending botanical extracts and kombucha 

In the UK, New London Light is Salcombe Distilling Co’s non-alcoholic brand: with a portfolio aiming to ‘challenge the process and bring innovative flavor combinations, creating an unparalleled standard in taste for an era of drinking without alcohol’.

It launched its first aperitif, First Light, in 2000: which won a gold medal from the Beverage Testing Institute and was the winner of the Mindful Drinking category in the People’s Choice Spirits Awards.

This year it has launched two new expressions: Midnight Sun and Aegean Sky. These drinks have been inspired by coastal locations, using botanicals and fruits from the Nordic coastline and Mediterranean coast respectively, alongside kombucha.

To create the aperitifs, the first step is to make a ‘botanical steep’. A selection of hand-sourced botanicals, often foraged for locally, are steeped in neutral grain spirit and water which macerates for 48 hours at about 40% ABV. The use of alcohol to extract and carry flavour is an important part of the process.

Next, using a combination of craft and innovation, the ‘botanical steep’ is distilled in a rotary vacuum still; a process that removes the alcohol without removing the flavor. This creates a highly concentrated core flavour distillate, which acts as the backbone of each non-alcoholic aperitif.

new london light inset

New London Light ‘Midnight Sun’ takes inspiration from the rugged Nordic coastline and is a layered and elegant non-alcoholic aperitif combining wild coastal berries, fresh kelp and pine from the majestic landscapes of the Nordic region.

It is distilled and crafted using 7 botanicals to create the core flavor distillate including elderberries, seaberries, kelp and samphire and a further 7 natural flavors including lingonberries and pine, selected to showcase the taste of the wild Nordic coastlines and nod towards the pillars of modern Nordic cuisine.

‘Aegean Sky’ captures the essence of the vibrant Mediterranean coast. It is distilled and crafted using 6 botanicals to create the core flavour distillate including kumquat, bergamot, olive and rosemary, blended with a further 6 natural flavours including blood orange and rosehip, all combined to showcase the Mediterranean coastlines of the Aegean Sea and together create an unexpected flavour combination reminiscent of the region’s finest citrus and olive groves.

This core distillate is then blended with a selection of natural botanical extracts and distillates and stabilized with the unusual use of kombucha.

The distillery uses a concentrated kombucha which is fermented for a minimum of six months and so has a much higher level of complex acids that the kombucha found on store shelves (around four times as much). The volume of this concentrated kombucha needed is not high: accounting for around 1.5% of the total volume.

Kombucha has a dual role: both as a contributor to flavor and as a stabilizer.

“The kombucha adds some complex acidity and sweetness which helps balance other botanicals with a slightly fermented flavor, as well as aiding the body and mouthfeel. It also adds a subtle dry tannic note to the finish,”​ the distillery told us.

The high levels of acidity in Kombucha helps stabilise both ‘Midnight Sun’ and ‘Aegean Sky’ by regulating the pH levels, which contributes to the overall shelf life of the products.

A melting pot for fermentation techniques

Muri – a range of NoLo wine alternatives – has been created after in-depth experimentation with different fermentation techniques. 

The brand launched in Copenhagen last year, followed by a UK launch with two products: a white wine alternative, Passing Clouds, and a red wine alternative, Nuala. Both have an ABV of <0.5%.

The brand was founded by Murray Paterson along with business partner Samantha Hunt, both formerly of Empirical where Murray was a distiller in Copenhagen.

The ‘art forms’ of fermentation and blending – as used by expert wine and cider makers – are at the heart of Muri’s creations, Paterson told us.

​​Copenhagen is a melting pot for fermentation techniques and I really wanted to apply these to the non-alcohol space to open up gateways to new flavors and possibilities,” ​​he said.

​​I took inspiration from my time working in cider, and how master cidermakers blend different varietals together to build structure and complexity. ​​These are qualities often lacking in the non-alcohol space so I began wondering whether we could successfully use low ABV fermentations in the same way.”

Muri was developed by focusing on a trio of layered fermentation techniques.

The low-alcohol yeast Pichia kluyveri fine-tunes the ingredients and helps develop tropical notes, while water kefir grains balance the blends and give sweetness.

Kvass – traditionally made using stale bread – has been adapted to give mouthfeel and depth to the blends, and kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) lends a touch of acidity.

“We have an idea in our minds about the overall flavour picture and we use each fermentation as a piece in the jigsaw,”​​ Paterson explained.

“For example, depending on the base substrate, we will often use a water kefir for sweetness, a kvass for mouthfeel and body, pichia fermentations for acidity, fermented teas for tannins.”

The result, says Paterson, are two blends​ that are ‘full of character and flavor which – unusually for low-alcohol beverages – further blossom in the glass, making them an exciting and delicious alternative to wine that can be enjoyed without compromise’.

muri inset

As a white wine or champagne alternative, Passing Clouds can be paired with spicy and seafood dishes, or white-rinded cheese, and served in a Champagne flute.

White currants are fermented with Pichia kluyveri yeast to form the base, before being blended with quince kefir and jasmine tea. It is finished with a touch of geranium and woodruff kvass.

Muala, meanwhile, can be matched with dishes ranging from charcuterie to cheese to ceviche. Blackcurrant pomace is fermented with Pichia kluyveri yeast, then blended with supernatant oak kombucha, chamomile kefir and keemun tea. The blend is finished with a hint of pine and fig-leaf kvass.

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