It’s trendy to eat clean. It’s been trendy for a while. From the restaurant industry to subscription meal services, packaged goods, grocery stores, animal agriculture, non-animal agriculture, and more, the pitch to consumers is: eat this, live better and longer.
As a result, natural foods are big business—Amazon owns (for better or worse) Whole Foods, natural food incubators are popping up across the country, influencers are building sizable platforms on the backs of clean eating, fast food chains are bringing in meatless options… the list of examples goes on and on.
But are all the things marketed to us as natural really all that good for us and our planet? Aren’t meatless burgers really just industrialized, highly processed bland-patties? Doesn’t producing almond milk consume a ton of precious resources? And sounds like we’re supporting drug cartels when we buy avocados grown in Mexico?
It’s hard to keep up with all of it. One workaround, however, is to skip the mass-marketed “healthy” stuff and buy from local natural foods purveyors, the ones you might meet at the farmer’s market. Like Chris Maltbie and Connie Maltbie-Shulas, the mother-son duo behind New Jersey’s Pine Coast Culture Company, which makes natural, small-batch kombucha.
“We don’t use flavorings, we don’t use CO2 to carbonate it,” says Chris Maltbie. “We still do everything super small batch. If we’re using fruit, we’re using whole fruit almost all from Jersey farms. We do it the natural way.”
Now, kombucha, a fermented tea, is not a cure-all for whatever ails you. But, generally speaking, it’s good for your gut, boosts your energy, supports your immune system and, importantly, it tastes good (if, arguably, it’s somewhat of an acquired taste). The natural products industry—from kombucha to CBD—has to keep their health claims in check, but Maltbie isn’t interested in making blanket health claims anyway. If drinking Pine Coast, or any kombucha, makes you feel good, keep drinking it—“Our general approach is some kombucha is better than no kombucha, and to dial it in for yourself and your own body,” he says.
Indeed, the benefits of all natural foods, not just kombucha, are individual. And if you do see either Chris or Connie at the Brick or Red Bank farmers’ markets on summer weekends, or in their store in Point Pleasant Beach, you might hear about how their unique kombucha has helped their own health.
Connie’s a cancer survivor and Army veteran, and Chris is an ultramarathoner, and both credit their homebrewed kombucha as a boost to their overall health on their respective journeys. After going through chemo to beat cancer in the early ’90s, Connie got into holistic and organic eating—back “before there was a Whole Foods down the street,” and when “drinking kombucha was really word of mouth.”
Connie brewed kombucha naturally—a process that, more or less, involves making SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), fermenting tea with it a couple times and adding flavor—which produces a mild, smooth, balanced kombucha that’s easy on the stomach. Chris started homebrewing too, and when he started running ultramarathons—anything longer than a traditional 26.2 marathon, up to over 100 miles—he drank it on races, finding valuable calories in it and appreciating its digestive benefits.
“The cool thing with ultras, there’s nowhere for your body to hide,” Maltbie says. “Something like your digestion, from a holistic perspective, if you can feel the difference, you know it’s working. … If you’re out there running 100 miles, you know if you’re digesting for better or worse.”
But most commercial kombuchas have added CO2 in them, which would make them difficult to drink on a race. Too, carbonation changes the pH level in the kombucha, making it more acidic and thus harsher on people’s stomachs who are sensitive to acid. That’s why Pine Coast’s kombucha won’t taste as bubbly; it’s the same basic mild brew Connie and Chris homebrewed for decades before they started selling it commercially in 2017.
Now, that’s not for everyone, Maltbie admits. Some folks simply prefer the highly carbonated versions. And because Pine Coast uses local ingredients for flavoring, each batch is liable to taste differently.
“We embrace the fact that it’s not for everyone,” Maltbie says of their smoother kombucha and varying flavors. “If you go to the store and buy a couple peaches, some will be tangier, some will be sweeter. We try to get great right stuff; batch to batch, we’ll have some variation.”
Maltbie says, “most of our core flavors are very New Jersey-centric,” like cranberry and blueberry, but also locally grown and abundantly floral Hawaiian ginger to create Ginger Sunshine and sarsaparilla root to create a brew that tastes like root beer.
Kombucha’s profile has been growing rapidly for about a decade. Now, there are a range of styles and flavors, as well as hard varieties and those supplemented with things like reishi mushroom for extra supposed health benefits. But the craft kombucha scene still has room to grow; there’s only a handful of brewers like Pine Coast in the state, even if consumers here are starting to embrace the beverage.
“It has grown noticeably every year, the folks who are aware of kombucha in general,” Maltbie says. “Across the country, kombucha has become more and more of a known product category. We’ve even seen a major rise in Google searches of kombucha breweries in general. … There’s still a ways to go. At the farmers’ markets, there are people who have either had kombucha and hated it or they don’t know what it is, but we see those conversions happening in front of us.”
Though as the industry grows here, Pine Coast isn’t necessarily looking to ride that wave to market domination, like it, regrettably, appears is the case for many natural foods companies.
“We really believe in keeping our product small and in a way where we can monitor the product,” says Maltbie. “It was never our aspiration to move to a giant warehouse, cranking out thousands of gallons a day.”
Plus, outrageous growth would also likely end the connection between brewer and customer that Maltbie says they’ve come to cherish.
“It sounds super cliché, but it’s the customers that keep us in it, especially in the hardest moments,” Maltbie says. “Now that we’ve been at it for five years, we’ve seen families grow up, we’ve seen kids that have grown up go into high school, or [people] coming out of serious medical problems, not solely because of our product, but our product is part of their recovery. Those are the things you don’t forget.”
Find where you can buy Pine Coast kombucha at pine-coast.com.