Nourishing Cultures is our local kombucha

It’s hard not to think of kombucha-maker Heath Carey as a modern-day mad scientist. He doesn’t sport the wild hair of Albert Einstein, though he does have a short mohawk and a mountains-and-sun landscape shaved into the side of his head. But when he talks about the process of creating kombucha, that’s when you really get the sense he’s not just your classic Missoula foodie. He is, in fact, an obsessive master of experimentation. 

Heath started Nourishing Cultures in 2016, a fermenting business specializing in lacto-fermented veggies and kombucha—a slightly effervescent beverage made from fermenting tea. 

“I did experiments with the kombucha, with sugar and honey and different amounts and different flavors,” he said. “And at one point every space I had available was filled with jars. The kombucha became more vinegar-y and after five months it would start to mold. But it gave me this insight: Here’s where the fermentation process starts, here’s where it ends, and this is the goal post we want to aim for.” 

The storefront on Stockyard Road below the North Hills of Missoula has the quaint feel of bygone shops before supermarkets. There is a small refrigerated case of glass jars, each brimming with kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, and other fermented delights made from locally sourced vegetables. To the left, are the kombucha taps featuring all manner of flavors, which often shift depending on the season. On the particular day I visit, in late November, flavors include apricot, peach, lime, and pineapple. I admit to Heath that I haven’t been a huge fan of kombucha in the past but the smooth balance of sour and sweet in the lime has me rethinking my resistance. By the time Heath has made me a cocktail of apricot, peach and de la creme, I’m a convert.

Heath runs Nourishing Cultures with his partner Alaina Dunne, whom he met at the Clark Fork Market. She was working at the Badlander’s booth selling mixed drinks and his kombucha booth was next to hers. Heath has more recently turned his attention to his other project, a nonprofit he runs called Freedom Gardens, which recently built a greenhouse for the Frenchtown school district. Now, Alaina is the head of the Nourishing Cultures operation—the “microbe rancher” who takes care of the testing and kegging. She’s taken Heath’s wild experiments and honed them, organizing the data and developing a system that provides product consistency. 

Kombucha, which uses a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (commonly called a “mother”) has its origins in China, Russia, and Eastern Europe, but it’s become a popular trend in the U.S. because of the healthy bacteria it provides. 

Heath got into fermentation early. He was fascinated with growing and preserving food when he was a kid in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When his grandmother died the family put her cookbooks in a box and gave them to Heath. It was about 15 years ago that he opened one of the books and found a recipe for pickles. He fermented the pickles in a five-gallon bucket until they tasted delicious, and then he canned them, as the recipe required. But canning them didn’t make them taste good, he said.

“I had this eureka moment where I was like, ‘Holy cow, I just killed the best part of those pickles through the canning process.”

His experiments afterward with fermentation helped inform his approach to making food and drink for Nourishing Cultures.

Most of the kombuchas are perfect for mixed drinks. For instance, the lime can make a good Moscow mule and adding the peach or apricot to orange-cherry mash and bourbon serves as a kind of Old Fashioned. On the horizon are other experimental flavors such as root beer and cola. The spring brings Heath’s favorite flavor of all time: lilac. He still has a keg from last year that he said has built up a perfect light fizz and that will remain in his private reserve.

One of the biggest sources of pride for Heath and Alaina is that they source locally. Almost all of their teas come from local shops including Lake Missoula Tea Company and Montana Tea and Spice. The vegetables come from local farmers.

“It makes you happy when you know you’re doing something that is supporting everyone,” Alaina said. “It brings you joy.” 

Heath agreed. “It’s not about money at the end of the day. At the end of the day, it’s about building a local economy.”