The Berlin-based Artist Collective Brought Together By A Shared Love For Fermentation
The history of kombucha, the ‘hip” fermented tea beverage grabbing everyone’s attention, can be traced back as far as 220 B.C. The etymology of kombucha “is reportedly derived from Dr Kombu, a Korean physician who brought the fermented tea to Japan as a curative for Emperor Inkyo” (Forbes). Arriving in Europe in the 20th Century, kombucha rose in popularity after the Second World War, “following a 1960s study in Switzerland comparing its health benefits to those of yoghurt” (Forbes). According to research, kombucha, which is made by fermenting black tea and sugar with a Scoby (which stands for: symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), contains antioxidants, can kill harmful bacteria and may even help fight several diseases. Some proponents have even suggested benefits include preventing “rheumatism, gout, haemorrhoids, nervousness, liver function and fights cancer” (New York Times). Whilst these discoveries have been challenged by the scientific community, working with fermentation at home caught the attention of many during the pandemic. As jars stood fizzing gently in flats across Berlin, a group of creatives gathered in their Marzahn-based artist collective, to consider how to take their passion for home-brewed kombucha beyond the humble kitchen table.
Bouche Berlin launched their first kombucha at the end of 2019, their mission was simple: using innovative brewing techniques, to create an organic product that circumvents the use of industrial concentrates to produce artisanal beverages. Their most recent flavours include hibiscus, melon and bergamot, a citrus plant known for its unique floral and spicy edge.
Aware sat down with the three founders, Felix Rank, Walker Brengel, and Yannic Poepperling, to learn more about the hype surrounding fermentation and the importance of local production.
Aware: How did you come together to establish Bouche Berlin?
Bouche: On a trip to the States for a group show, Walker introduced us to kombucha, which had already established itself in the States. We brought back some cultures (otherwise know as a scoby) to Berlin and Walker immediately began with home-brewing in the studio. We grew increasingly excited about the process and the flavours we could produce by experimenting with yeasts and other infusions.
We spent over a year just concentrating on understanding the process and the basic flavour of our kombucha until we grew out of Walker’s five square meter painting storage, which we converted into our first make-shift brewing room.
Aware: Fermentation is very “in” at the moment, can you tell us why?
Bouche: We believe that several aspects come together. Yes, fermentation is indeed on everyone’s lips at the moment, but it is actually something that surrounds us all the time. Much of the food we consume is fermented in some way.
For one, the factor of locality plays a key role, as it can mean less use of “exotic” basic products, which have to be preserved due to their limited availability. Fermentation is the natural solution to make fresh products available for a longer period. Consumers also have a growing distaste for highly processed industrial foods.
Of course, during the pandemic, many have relied more on their own home cooking. Home-brewed kombucha has become very popular!
Generally, the avant-garde of top gastronomy pass on impulses and concepts, which then spread to a wider audience, just as in art and music. East Asian cuisine, which often incorporates fermented foods and recipes, has become increasingly popularised and widespread in the western world.
Therefore, we would suppose that fermentation has really always been “in”, and would like to think that its increasing “in-ness” can be attributed to the fact that preservatives and artificial additives have become more and more “out”.
Aware: Did any of the founders have experience with fermentation?
Bouche: Walker has been in contact with kombucha since a young age in the States. The three of us, along with the other artists in our studios, have always been very enthusiastic about food and we found a further creative outlet through cooking together. Therefore, we think that what drew us to making kombucha was more the shared passion for creating something together, and approaching not only the production, but the whole business in an artistic and, perhaps, somewhat more conceptual way.
Aware: What has been the most challenging about establishing and running Bouche?
Bouche: Where to start? There have been challenges everywhere!
A big hurdle initially was honing our interpersonal skills. We were always close friends, but starting a company together brought along many opportunities, putting friendship to the test. We have since put in the time and effort to communicate with one another, lay down our joint vision and values, and incorporate others into our project.
A big concern of ours was always to highlight the creative approaches with Bouche. We also lay enormous value on bonding with our gastronomy and retail partners, maintaining a personal relationship with them. At times we feared we could stray away from those values and, perhaps, appear too commercial. As artists, this was very scary. But over time we have grown more confident in managing this. We added two new members to our team, who share our vision and help us grow in the right direction: first Nick (also an artist) and then Claire (a culinary artist).
Aware: What steps are you taking to be a responsible, sustainable company?
Bouche: To be honest, being sustainable is quite hard. Sustainability is a buzzword all brands are using and there is so much greenwashing going on with planting trees and so on, that sometimes angers us.
On the other hand, we do want to be as sustainable as possible. The way we see it, we do what we would expect another company to do. We refrain from touting the words “green” or “sustainable”, because in the end, we could always be doing more. We try to reuse our packaging material as much as we can. Our business to customer delivery in Berlin is done by Archipel, who deliver by bicycle courier. Naturally, we also order all ingredients that we can locally, fair trade, organically and recycle our waste appropriately.
But as a small business, dependent on so many supply chains, what really has to change is the infrastructure of transportation, the way we produce electricity, and a comprehensive, functional cycle of reusing bottles. It is incredibly difficult, for example, for a small business to enter into a reliable and sustainable bottle refund system, as the systems in place are really designed to accommodate vast quantities of bottles, the likes of which only huge companies can handle.
For us internally, we want to create a place where our team likes to come to work and grow with us, which for us is also a part of responsibility and sustainability.
Aware: Tell us about your plans and dreams for the future?
Bouche: Making great kombucha and other fermented beverages and pushing it further. Showing people that kombucha isn‘t just a healthy lifestyle drink, but a category of tasty beverage that stands for itself. We strive to stay creative and flexible, all whilst continuing to grow.
You can purchase Bouche kombucha via their website and at selected stores, cafes and restaurants throughout Berlin. Give it a taste, it’s nectar for the soul.
by Eliza Edwards