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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

From wine to kombucha: Exploring Davis’ zealous homebrew community

Some students take their talents, passions for brewing beyond the classroom

Northern California has matured into one of the best places in the world for upcoming and established winemakers and brewers. From the Napa Valley vineyards to the many specialized breweries scattered across Northern California, the beverage industry and experience has become an inseparable part of the “NorCal” identity. At UC Davis, students actively partake and expand this culture, maintaining and advancing Northern California’s long-standing reputation as a go-to place for tasting some of the world’s best beverages.

The UC Davis Viticulture and Enology and UC Davis Food Science programs have consistently ranked as some of the best in the world. Wine and beer aficionados flock from all over to experience Davis’ brewing programs and earn one of the most respected degrees in the industry. As these wine and beer enthusiasts become entrenched in the community, many take their talents from the classroom to the garage, implementing their skills and harnessing their passion to vinify and brew original concoctions.

Joe Terre, a 2019 UC Davis alumni who has a Bachelor of Science in viticulture and enology and now works as a cellar hand for Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga, embraced the home wine making community during his second year at Davis through the Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization (DEVO). He plunged in, aspiring to learn the practical ropes of wine making and earn the gratification of making his own product.

“[I] joined DEVO and they provided me with the necessary equipment to get started with this cool hobby,” Terre said. “I started with Keaton Crow who introduced me to DEVO and did it a year prior. I went under his wing for the first year, second year we tag teamed it and then the third year I took the reigns.”

Terre, alongside Crow, hauled a couple barrels into Terre’s garage in Davis and got to work. While trudging through the physical labor required by the home wine making process, Terre gained valuable insight that wasn’t readily accessible in the classroom.

“There’s a learning curve with anything that involves skilled work with your hands, it just takes practice,” Terre said. “You can be the best person at taking a test in viticulture and enology and suck at making homemade wine.”

Terre discussed the skills he picked up while getting his hands dirty, singling out

his improvement in racking — the process of removing all the juice from the solids or, in less appealing terms, the dead yeast cells.

“The first time I learned how to rack wine, I did not do a very good job,” Terre said. “First I got a bunch of crud, and then I got better and better.”

Sticking with the grind in the vineyard and the garage, Terre gradually learned the intangibles demanded by winemaking. Through routine, he became familiar with the consistency and discipline needed to create a high caliber bottle of wine regardless of environmental constraints.

“The biggest thing [to consider] is how much time and commitment it takes to make a quality product,” Terre said. “It takes all year and to be diligent. [You have to] always be checking up on it and can never put it on the back burner.”

For Terre and his team of home winemakers, their commitment paid off when they submitted two Syrah wines to the California State Fair.

“To our surprise they gave one Syrah a double gold and another Syrah gold,” Terre said. “We were really proud as home winemakers to go up against others who were doing this for years on end and probably in better conditions than us.”

Camron Clifton, a 2019 UC Davis alumni with a Bachelor of Science in food science and a brewing assistant at the local 3 Mile Brewing Co. started homebrewing beer after his interest was piqued in his food science classes.

“[I] did some research on it and realized it was a pretty easy thing to get involved with as far as initial barriers to entry, so [me] and a couple buddies split the price of a homebrew set and decided to start trial and erroring our way through it,” Clifton said.

Clifton noted that the homebrew industry has made the practice much easier for beginners like himself, who use malt extract to craft their beers rather than implementing the traditional all grain process.

 “We only used extract because we didn’t want to make that additional investment,” Clifton said. “Making the step from extract to all grain is completely doable and it isn’t that much more pricey, but it is a lot more technical and it requires a little bit more knowledge to make sure everything is going correctly.”

As a food science major, Clifton had access to people who shared in his interest and readily provided support and insight into the hobby.

“They have experience, so that was a really good resource,” Clifton said.

Clifton found the practice to be a great way to solidify his interest in beer brewing and a great introduction into what’s required in the industry itself.

“Beer is made the same way in a once gallon batch as it is in a ten thousand barrell batch — it is the same kind of ingredients,” he said. “It reaffirmed that this is what I wanted to do as a career.”

Clifton also noted that it helped prepare him for undergoing the more tedious facets of brewing.

“Homebrewing is a labor of love, and so there are some things that suck about it,” Clifton said. “But after working in a commercial brewery, it’s not all just the fun parts, there are parts that aren’t as fun. There’s a lot of sanitation and cleaning, which isn’t very sexy but it needs to be done, if you don’t want the beer to taste like vinegar.”

Occasionally, through the many trials and tribulations, Clifton would make a product that impressed him, a reward for all the time and effort poured into the homebrewing process.

“Sometimes we had some beers that were absolutely awful, but when we had beers that were drinkable and it was a success, […] it was like holy s***, I made this.”

There are also less capital and work-intensive home brewing opportunities for ambitious UC Davis students. Noah Yardeny, a third-year pharmaceutical engineering major, set his sights on making his very own kombucha. Yardeny, a resourceful college student, grew tired of paying for the expensive beverage and took matters into his own hands.

“Kombucha is really expensive on the market, more so than coffee for each bottle,” Yardeny said. “Being a college student, I’m trying to be a bit riskier and see if I can do this myself.”

For Yardeny, who practiced homebrewing beer with his father, kombucha was an easy transition and a far simpler endeavor. Making kombucha is a relatively stress and cash free process: it requires only tea, some sugar, a gallon glass tank and scoby, also known as a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast. The scoby is self-sustaining, producing a twin scoby in each kombucha batch which supplies the brewer with a never-ending source of bacterial starter.

“You brew a certain amount of tea and then you add some sugar to it and a scoby, which just eats up the sugars that are in the tea and add the .5% of alcohol content,” Yardeny said. “You add the tea into the glass jar with two cups of scoby starter, which is the old kombucha from the previous batch. It’s quite resilient.” 

As Yardeny was getting started, he found a vibrant online community dedicated to brewing and helping fledgling kombucha brewers get a hang of the practice.

“It’s really social as well, I know all these subreddits giving away their kombucha recipes,” Yardeny said.

As Yardeny continued to explore the world of kombucha, he discovered interesting kombucha facts and practices. Long lineages of kombucha brewers pass down the family tradition.

“There’s all these people that have their great-grandmothers’ scoby passed down and are keeping it as a family scoby,” Yardeny said. 

Yardeny himself got a pleasant surprise when he decided to show off one of his first batches of kombucha to his family.

 “I made this batch and surprised my family with some watermelon kombucha, which was probably my best batch,” Yardeny said. “It was sweet, it was ripe and it was this golden red color when you poured it. It was beautiful. I gave it to my grandparents and they were like this is ‘grib’ (Russian for fungus). They actually used to make homemade kombucha back when they were kids in Russia.”

For Terre, Clifton and Yardeny, homebrewing provided an outlet to explore their passions and make beverages. Their endeavors yielded new skills and knowledge, but more importantly, they all emphasized the love of sharing their work — and for Terre, sharing the quite literal fruits of his labor with friends. 

“You’re learning, you’re making wine, you get to give it to your friends for no cost,” Terre said. “They pat you on the back, and it honestly makes you feel like a thousand bucks.” 

Written By: Andrew Williams — arts@theaggie.org


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