At the North Fork Specialty Kitchen in Cutchogue, Brianna and Joseph Hernandez have been continuing a tradition that dates to 220 B.C. — fermenting tea.
Known as kombucha, this slightly sweet and vinegary beverage originated in Northeast China and has since become known around the world for its alleged healing properties. The carbonated drink is full of antioxidants and probiotics, which can aid in digestion and improve immune function. It’s these health benefits that encouraged Joseph to walk to his local grocery store and pick up his first bottle of kombucha in 2014. There were limited flavors at that time, so he gave a green bottle of algae-flavored tea a try.
“I remember it was kind of gnarly,” he recalled. “At the same time, I liked it, because I knew it was healthy.”
“It tasted like feet,” Brianna added, who later took a sip of the algae-flavored tea. “I knew we could make better kombucha.”
Fresh out of college and wanting to start a business together, the two decided to start creating their own flavors of kombucha. In 2015, they signed up for a class in Brooklyn, where they learned the ins and outs of making the fermented beverage.
“We tasted an awesome flavor there called Spruce Lee,” Brianna said. “It almost tasted like a root-beer-cream-soda flavor, and it showed us that we could make any flavor of kombucha.”
In 2015, the couple made their first few batches — including a cranberry pomegranate and a pineapple ginger that would become their flagship flavors.
Today, the Hernandez’s are proud owners of The Ferm. During their busiest months, they produce about 100 gallons of kombucha a week — attending local farmers markets and selling their products wholesale to small businesses like Sang Lees Farm Stand, Ammirati’s, and Feelin O2 Good. In addition to producing Kombucha, they sell other fermented farm goods like sauerkraut and Kimchi around the North Fork.
“We love it out here,” Brianna said. “We’re super passionate about local foods, and really like eating seasonally.”
In addition to selling their flagship flavors, the couple produces a rotating flavor each month that’s made with locally sourced ingredients. Using excess produce from farm stands, they create kombucha that aligns with what is seasonally harvested on the North Fork. In the past, they’ve made flavors like blueberry lavender, partnering with Briermere Farms and Lavender By the Bay. They’ve even made flavors using local grapes. “Sometimes we’ll get contacted by local vineyards when they’re harvesting,” said Brianna Hernandez, who has made a concord grape and a white grape chardonnay kombucha in past years.
This September, kombucha fans can look out for an apple vanilla flavor, which will be made with local apples from Woodside Orchards and Madagascar vanilla. For October, the couple is planning on creating an apple cinnamon kombucha.
“We’re also going to try to do a pumpkin — like a sweet cheese pumpkin with a little bit of spice,” Brianna said.
To make their kombucha, they make a cold brew by putting tea, water, and a little bit of starter into large steel vessels — the same quality that they use in space stations — and let it sit for 48 hours. Kombucha starter is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, also known as SCOBY. Once the tea is cold brewed, they add sugar to the mixture, which is broken down by the jellyfish-looking SCOBY. This gives the kombucha that tangy, carbonated taste.
“Our starter is seven and a half years old,” Brianna said. “We have a consistent taste really because of how old it is.”
After 2 – 2 ½ weeks of fermentation, the Hernandez’s put it through a secondary fermentation in kegs to create the fruity flavors that make their kombucha unique.
“We pour it out into five-gallon batches,” she explained. “It’s really a labor of love.”
Currently, the couple relies on farmers markets and social media to sell their products and meet their customers.
“You’ll see on Instagram, we don’t really have a lot of followers, but we know almost every single one,” said Brianna.
With just under 1500 followers on Instagram, they’ve built up a small but loyal fan base. The couple says their vision for the future of the business is to expand into a physical location.
“We would like to get our own little cute shop here in the North Fork, have our own little bar and serve little tapas with our ferments,” Joseph explained.
“We’d only have like seven or eight things on the menu. But they’d be world class.”