When Timothy Johnson thinks of a curly wolf, he envisions an ornery old man nursing his whiskey at the bar. Curly Wolf Kombucha comes in 12-ounce beer bottles printed with modern logos sans any promise of healthful well-being. One look at Curly Wolf Kombucha makes it clear that this isn’t the miracle-touting elixir that many brands claim their kombucha to be. This is just a well-crafted, tasty beverage—one that just happens to have a few extra health benefits.
Kombucha is fermented tea. To make it, caffeinated green or black teas are steeped in filtered water, lightly sweetened with organic evaporated cane juice, and given a culture (SCOBY, for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The yeast carbonates the beverage by consuming the liquid sugars. Although it can be consumed after as little as 10 days, kombucha is at its healthiest and most flavorful after about three weeks of fermentation. Johnson, Curly Wolf Kombucha’s founder and all-around hat wearer, began brewing kombucha in 2011 after a voluntary kombucha recall by every company in the business. Accustomed to enjoying the tangy carbonated beverage every day, Johnson found himself missing the taste and energy that kombucha provided him. His only option was to brew it himself.
After three years of brewing kombucha in his small Los Angeles apartment, Johnson began to hone his craft. As friends and customers repeatedly told him how much they enjoyed his home-brewed kombucha, Johnson’s confidence in the endeavor continued to build. By this time, Tucson had grown and transformed from the quiet city it was when Johnson left in 2010. “Coming back and seeing the drastic change was so inspiring,” he said. Tucson’s transformation, along with old friends who were gradually moving back to begin their own creative endeavors, galvanized Johnson to return to his hometown and start Curly Wolf Kombucha.
“It’s a craft, not a supplement,” Johnson said of the oak barrel-aged kombucha. His ultimate goal is to convince people that kombucha is a delicious beverage that happens to aid digestion and energy levels. He does this by creating flavors such as the Old Fashioned, which is made with tart cherry juice, expressed orange peel and bitters, and fermented in a Whiskey Del Bac oak barrel. “It’s perfect for dropping a little whiskey in,” he added.
“[The kombucha] is an homage to my grandfather, who’s kind of like a curly wolf himself,” Johnson explained. Johnson is determined to reflect the flavors of the Sonoran Desert in his craft. “I grew up watching my grandfather pop chiltepins into his mouth with breakfast,” he said. “I’m trying to use more local ingredients and more inspiration from growing up in a Mexican household in the Sonoran region.” Local citrus and peppers from Pivot Produce and Iskashitaa Refugee Network, Mexican piloncillo (brown sugar), and locally roasted coffee beans give Curly Wolf Kombucha a distinctly Tucson taste.
Find Curly Wolf Kombucha at 15 local markets, including 5 Points Market, Food Conspiracy Co-op, and Rincon Market. “I still have a lot of work to do in Tucson,” Johnson said. He hopes to get his kombucha into stores on Tucson’s north and east sides. For now, he continues to create flavors that embody the taste of his upbringing and the Sonoran Desert. ✜
Shelby Thompson is the online editor of Edible Baja Arizona.