For years the cinder block building looming on Washington Ave. at the top of Fox Street housed the Sahara Club, where addicts gathered to admit to powerlessness and offer mutual support behind a striking camel and sand-dune mural. Times being what they are, the club needed more space. The new tenant, Root Wild Kombucha has painted over the camel and nudged the alcohol content up a bit — it’s around 1% in their house drink. At Sahara, abstention aimed to control the chaotic inner forces alcohol unleashed. At Root Wild, fizzy probiotic tea encourages the inner ferment of our visceral microbiome.
Rather than drinking to unleash the id, kombucha controls the gut — supposedly improving digestion among other health effects. At least that is the traditional appeal of America’s bohemian DIY kombucha subculture. But Root Wild takes Kombucha in a very drinky direction. They have used lovely pine, stained with tea apparently, to create a warm tasting room atmosphere within the blocky space. They offer kombucha flights in little goblets cradled in wooden trays. The prices are beer-like. In fact, they serve beer for the same price.
Most importantly, Root Wild brings a brewmaster-y obsessiveness to details of taste, aroma and color. Their menu lets you know what has been farmed and what foraged. The resulting kombuchas are pretty great, with a mellow fizz and subtle varieties of tarts and sours, in shades of gold and red.
A Kombucha made with beach rose, its fruit plucked here in Maine, has a delicate perfumy scent and a just-bitter peachy flavor. The purple shiso variety has an herby sweetness — the second-best use of parilla leaves in town (after Yobo’s incredible banchan). Rhubarb is the most vegetal kombucha on tap, and the ginger with pine the sharpest and most refreshing. The terrific hopped kombucha has a cloudy look and lemony aroma, and more fruit sweetness than hoppy-bitter. Blueberry kombucha leads with a tart hit of fruit, while the strawberry version has a lingering fruit-sweet finish.
Keeping up the building’s tradition of community support, Root Wild has partnered with the A&C Grocery next door for snacks. The grocery’s “luncheonette” has installed a side window for orders — a setup like the one between Oxbow and Duckfat’s frites shop on the other end of Washington. Even better, A&C will hop over and deliver to your table with an iPad to charge your card.
A&C’s egg sandwich, served with either ham or tomato on a soft English muffin, is world class, the eggs folded omelet-style over gooey cheese. A three-cheese grilled sandwich — pressed thin, funky and chewy with dark crust — pairs nicely with fizzy light kombucha. The cheeseburger is expertly done with sharp pickle and a tangy sauce. The Italian suffers from a bit too much soft roll.
A&C’s proprietor takes community seriously — hanging at the Root Wild bar, or helping stack wood at his other neighbor Forage. Root Wild hopes to make kombucha central to communal drinking in this former house of shared sobriety. But can the rest of us bear human connection without enlisting alcohol’s capacity to suspend inhibition and defense? To hedge their bets, Root Wild serves beer (with 5-7 times the alcohol). Can kombucha cocktails be far behind?
Probably not. Kombucha itself smacks of solipsistic self-cultivation rather than risky connection. It is a fermented-beverage version of marijuana’s trendy non-psychoactive CBD, which allows one to skip past the stoned impulse to conversate and just chill right into slumber. The dream of microbial tinkerers is to improve the self through bacterial manipulation of the gut rather than difficult work on the soul. They tout recent science suggesting our inner germlife affects anxiety, mood and temperament. But bacteria offer a dismal route to virtue. Indeed white nationalists have begun to tout their microbes and related beverage preferences as evidence of biopolitical superiority. Perhaps the Sahara Club had it right: we have hit bottom, and it is time to make amends.
Root Wild Kombucha | 135 Washington Ave | Mon noon–6 pm; Thu noon–7 pm; Fri-Sat noon–8 pm; Sun 10–6 pm | $5 a glass
A&C Grocery | 131 Washington Ave | 207-329-4314 | 9 am-7 pm | Sandwiches $6-10