The Mighty Booch: Cascara Kombucha At Scandinavian Embassy In Amsterdam

Photo by Trond Tjonneland.

Photo by Trond Tjonneland.

In the same way that conditions of a microclimate must be just right for liquid to ferment into a palatable brew, it was a set of Goldilocksian circumstances that led one cafe in Amsterdam to start serving cascara kombucha—a fermented harmony of (usually discarded) coffee cherry husks and a literal clash of cultures.

First, there was the host environment: Scandinavian Embassy, a coffee bar and daytime eatery with a humble yet audacious, classic yet envelope-pushing approach to Nordic fare. Second, there was the foreign body: an American on a stint in the Dutch capital, where, thanks to an imported Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) starter from Prohibition Kombucha in Minneapolis, cafe regular Justin Evidon could keep up his probiotic tea habit in a relatively kombucha-dry western Europe.

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This past December, the conditions were prime. Scandinavian Embassy had become Evidon’s neighborhood coffee shop. They made sure he always tried their choicest roasts. He shared his homemade teas with the staff, many of them new kombucha initiates. A symbiosis of swigging was born. Soon after, cafe co-owner Nicolas Castagno wondered if Evidon’s elixir could somehow showcase the cascara they sourced from the Gesha trees of Los Lajones farm in Panama.

No time was wasted.

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Evidon’s first brew, a cascara infusion mixed with kombucha tea, tasted off. A second brew, of the cascara infusion with sugar, turned out over-fermented. A hypothesis? Cascara’s sugar content was high enough that the coffee cherry alone could feed the SCOBY. Evidon brewed again, this time without sugar or any other additive. It worked. Before returning to the US in March, Evidon had filled several five-liter kegs with pure cascara kombucha for Scandinavian Embassy. The conclusion? Castagno enthused: “The key to its acidity was in [cascara’s] original sugars!”

“Kascucha”, as the cafe affectionately calls its new beverage, is a global rarity. Still, Castagno and his business partner, Rikard Andersson, hesitate to call themselves pioneers. Not having heard of competitors does not mean none exist, they reason diplomatically. Plus, there are semantic doubts. “I don’t know if technically it is a ‘kombucha’ because kombucha is tea,” Castagno admits, having recently been upbraided online by kombucha purists.

First to market or not, Scandinavian Embassy has been happily pairing Kascucha with heavy, fatty meat dishes—and is also thinking of offering it as a breakfast dessert.

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Chasing down their Scandi version of Eggs Benedict on rye with a Hollandaisesque sauce made of sheep yogurt and caviar on a recent visit, my cup was twice filled with a Colombia Cerro Azul coffee. But serve Kascucha by itself they did not. Castagno released a tap of the faintly effervescent tawniness into wineglasses. He then placed my glass in the corner of an onyx tile that his colleague, Daniella Nyström, had decorated with knotted magnolia petals. The blooms were foraged and, like various other in-house ingredients, pickled in white vinegar.

“We’ve got more flowers for you to try,” added Andersson, nodding to the garlic-flavored ramson florets Nyström then removed from a jar of preserved cucumbers.

“Try a little bit of the flowers beforehand because this is really high in acidity,” Castagno said, preparing me for my first Kascucha. He explained how the sour petals would make the kombucha “a little bit softer.” He was right.

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Scandinavian Embassy describes Kascucha as tasting predominantly of “floral, honey, and sweet tobacco typical of cascara,” along with “traces of lemon and green apple.”

For me, Kascucha was like a Belgian berry beer, but its taste reigned in before hitting any hint of acute-angled acidity. The light carbonation quickly plateaued into subtle tanginess. There were undertones of earth and rust—in a good, summertime swing-set-in-the-suburbs kind of way. The taste quickly dissipated from my mouth and the drink, from my glass, left me bright-eyed and just barely buzzy.

Kascucha is nice. Pleasant, but also distinct. Its essence is not so much Proustian, as it is peculiar and, in so being, highly pairable.

With Evidon’s original supply running low, Scandinavian Embassy is now learning to brew its own cascara kombucha. They plan to keep the beverage on the menu for as long as their climate stays favorable and their cultures flourish.

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More fermentation at work: a ginger bug for some probiotic soda.

Here’s a starter recipe for Kascucha à la Scandinavian Embassy:

-Combine a 14:1 ratio of room temperature water and cascara
-Infuse for 12 hours
-Add SCOBY
-Let brew for about a week, tasting periodically to monitor development

Karina Hof is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge