About thirteen years ago, Michael Shulkin, then-owner of Boulder’s Tonic Oxygen Bar (now called Tonic Alchemy Lounge), offered his friend Ish Baker — known to most simply as Ish — a gift. At the time, Ish, a chef with over twenty years of restaurant experience, was dishing out vegan burgers to Boulder locals when Shulkin offered him a thumbnail-sized piece of bacterial culture that would ultimately change the course of his life. It was a jun culture, a variant of kombucha, and with some meticulous TLC, as jun culture requires, Ish began brewing one-gallon batches at a time. “I’d bring it to potlucks and share it with friends,” he explains. “Then word kind of got out.”
As the years went on, interest in the fizzy drink Ish was brewing increased. At one point, he even opened a kind of “underground restaurant/speakeasy” via a small service window in the laboratory of the Mandala Integrative Medicine Clinic in Boulder. But it wasn’t until recently that Ish began brewing larger batches, expanding his products into more businesses and aiming for retail shelves with Ish's Brew.
Jun and kombucha have the same mouthwatering, signature fermented tartness, the sweet flavors of berries, citrus and herbs and the delightful bubbles reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drinks. The health benefits are similar, too, and both begin with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). But there is one major difference: Kombucha cultures feed on sugar and are usually brewed with black tea, while jun feeds on honey — raw Colorado honey, in Ish’s case — and is typically brewed with green tea.
“When you start a batch of kombucha, you have a pancake-y-looking culture which sinks down into sweet tea, and then a new culture forms. With jun, the culture always floats,” Ish explains. “It doesn’t grow a new baby the way kombucha does, so you have to be very careful with your jun culture to make sure you’re continuously putting it into a fresh sweet tea since you’re always reusing the same one. Basically, if you neglect your jun culture or feed it sugar, it will actually start to look like a kombucha SCOBY.”
Ish believes that “the jun culture is the original culture” because the alleged places where kombucha originated as far back as 220 B.C. (high-altitude regions like Northern Russia and Tibet) didn’t have sugar cane growing. They did, however, likely have accessible honey, fruit and other root sugars. “I can't imagine that [the people there] had so much cane sugar that they were dying to ferment it. But you can raise bees pretty much anywhere.”
Because the process of brewing both jun and kombucha involves the fermentation of yeast, there’s an alcoholic component, but Ish says the production of alcohol is much stronger in jun. “Most of my jun is what you would consider a hard beverage,” he explains. Jun also often contains a small amount of caffeine, but Ish has crafted caffeine-free brews over the years as part of his deep experimentation with jun, herbalism and a combination of the two. “I have dozens of different recipes for different purposes,” he says. “Some blends are more stimulating for people who like a good caffeine kick; some are good for brain activation; some are good for your immune system.” Ish’s Tranquility brew, for example, is a caffeine-free blend that’s crafted for people with anxiety and depression.
Another special jun dubbed Honey in the Heart (it was formulated to be an aphrodisiac) was brewed specifically for RiNo’s Honey Elixir Bar. That partnership led to a collaboration with VisionQuest Brewing a little over a year ago, which opened up more possibilities, such as brewing jun in oak wine barrels and developing new flavor profiles. VisionQuest Brewing recently acquired a canning line, and now Ish plans to produce even bigger batches of jun in cans for retail. A Denver location for a not-yet-announced project with a potential 2022 launch is also in the works.
Ish’s Brew is available by the glass at Honey Elixir Bar and Boulder’s Tonic Alchemy Lounge, as well as VisionQuest Brewery in Boulder, where you can purchase it by the can, growler or keg. Visit ishsbrew.com for more information.
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