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20 February 2020

Turning Over a New Leaf

After spending the first half of his life in the corporate world, and hating everything about it, Derek Hillen decided he wanted to do something more positive with the second half. But what? The answer came to him in the middle of the Pacific.


Derek Hillen began his journey to our shores a little over five years ago, when he and his wife, Ariel, and his two little girls set off from Seattle on their sailboat on a journey of discovery across the Pacific, touching all the islands they could until, in his words, they bumped into New Zealand.

“New Zealand was an unscheduled stop, and we fell in love with the country. We sailed down the coast and stopped in Nelson, and thought, is there any point in going any further? So we stayed and put the girls into school. They were about seven and nine years old at the time. My wife then got accepted into Wellpark College, up in Auckland, to study naturopathic nutrition, so we moved up to here and eventually sold the boat.”

“New Zealand was an unscheduled stop, and we fell in love with the country. We sailed down the coast and stopped in Nelson, and thought, is there any point in going any further? So we stayed and put the girls into school. They were about seven and nine years old at the time. My wife then got accepted into Wellpark College, up in Auckland, to study naturopathic nutrition, so we moved up to here and eventually sold the boat.”

Some months earlier, in the middle of the Pacific, Derek had had a moment of inspiration. He was about to turn 50 and decided that he wanted to do something better with the second half of his life than he had done with the first half. “I decided I wanted to make people happy. Yeah, that’s a good goal,” he says. “So, how can I do that? Boom… learn how to brew beer.”

As soon as they settled in Auckland, he signed up for a correspondence course in beer making with the Siebel Institute – America’s oldest beer school, located in Chicago. It was a challenging, four-month, eight-hours-a-day course, but he came through it. Armed with a certificate and his newfound knowledge, he went out and bought some beer-making equipment and started brewing beer. And it turned out he was really good at it.

“At first, it was meant to be just for myself, but when I do things I tend to jump in with both feet, so I started brewing lots of beer. I was making so much that I was giving it away. And I’ll tell you one thing, if you want to make new friends in New Zealand, free beer is the way to go!”

Brewing up a storm

At the same time as Derek was embarking on his brewing journey, Ariel graduated with a diploma in nutrition. Through her studies, she had become more and more anti-alcohol, finally saying to him that if he wanted to brew, why didn’t he brew something that was good for people? She had a point, and he began to look into alternatives.

“I called a friend of mine, a bona fide hippy who lives in a shack on a hill above Golden Bay, and he said to me, ‘hey, bro, you should brew this stuff, it’s called kombucha’. I’d heard of it, but didn’t know what it was,” admits Derek. “So, he sends me a ‘scoby’ (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which is the starter you need to make kombucha. Well, this stinky thing in a jar arrived and I started messing around with it. Unfortunately, I killed it, so he sent me another, and once I’d figured it all out, we were off to the races.”

Making kombucha is a similar, but simpler, process than brewing beer. If you can make good beer, it’s easy to make great kombucha, he says. The big difference is kombucha is a living thing; beer is not.

Kombucha originated in China over 2000 years ago. No one knows its exact origin – it’s a chicken and egg thing, says Derek – because, to make kombucha, you have to have kombucha. He surmises that it probably happened by accident. Why did it become popular? Because it was noticed that people who drank kombucha lived longer – it’s a simple as that.

“Kombucha is full of natural probiotics – essentially good gut bacteria – and antioxidants,” he explains. “The mechanism is that there is a constant battle going on in your stomach between good and bad bacteria, so it’s good to regularly replenish the good bacteria from natural sources – fermented foods, sauerkraut, yogurt and kombucha. It brings your digestive system back into balance, which means you can absorb food more efficiently and boost your immune system. The result is you get sick less often and tend to live longer.”

Simple, natural ingredients

Derek’s kombucha, New Leaf, is made from four simple ingredients: filtered tap water; organic tea leaves that he imports directly from growers and grower co-ops in China, Japan, Sri Lanka and India; organic cane sugar; and the original organic culture he was given by his old mate in Golden Bay. The process he employs to make his kombucha is equally as simple. The tea leaves are steeped in the hot, filtered water (80-90 degrees) for 15 minutes. With all the goodness from the tea absorbed, the water is poured into a brew bucket that already contains the sugar and the scoby, and is then taken into the fermentation room, which is kept at exactly 23 degrees (essential), to keep the yeast happy and alive. The mixture then goes through an open-air fermentation process, with just a cloth covering the bucket. After one or two weeks, the kombucha is ready put into kegs, after saving 10 percent in each bucket, which acts as the starter for the next batch. Simple.

“We are a plastic-free brewery,” says Derek, proudly. “We only brew in metal, and only serve in glass. None of our kombucha contains caffeine, and by keeping our sugar content low, alcohol levels are virtually undetectable, about 0.4 percent, so they have no effect on the body.”

Taking things a step further, Derek’s vision was not only to produce great-tasting organic kombucha, but also to create a unique space where people can enjoy drinking it. And so the New Leaf Kombucha Taproom came into being. Located just off 37 Crummer Road in Grey Lynn, it is a delightful and tranquil space where people can go to buy their kombucha by the bottle, or simply hang out and sample one, or all five, of the kombucha flavours he has on tap – each one derived from the different organic teas he has hand-picked and imported from around the world.

“We’ve always liked Grey Lynn, and have always wanted to do something here. The building that our taproom sits in used to be the Paneton Bakery – the largest French baker in NZ – before they outgrew this location and moved to St Heliers. We saw the potential; it’s just on the edge of Ponsonby with all its yoga studios and healthy vegetarian restaurants, which fits in exactly with our target demographic,” he says. “There’s also a big movement among the younger people away from alcohol, and so to service this segment, we stay open late on a Friday and Saturday night, because we are one of the only non-alcoholic bars in the country.”

That’s not to say kombucha can’t be used in conjunction with alcohol – it makes a great companion to gin or vodka, according to Tessa, who is Derek’s taproom manager.

Not only does Derek sell kombucha, but he also makes up all-in-one kombucha kits that contain all the ingredients (except water), plus recipes to make your own kombucha. “My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he says, with a smile. “Yes, I’ll probably lose a few customers, but I think it allows people to become more engaged and educated about what we’re trying to do – and that’s a good thing.”

New Leaf Kombucha Taproom can be found at 37 Crummer Road, Grey Lynn. It’s open every day, with late nights on Friday and Saturday. Visit the New Leaf Kombucha website here.

Diego the Parrot

Diego is Derek’s best mate. He’s an African Grey, the smartest of all parrots, having the same intellectual ability as a four-year-old child, he says. Diego is a year old, and he joins Derek in the taproom every day. “He’s a member of the family and has become a real part of the business. He loves kombucha – he likes the bubbles the best. He also likes beer,” laughs Derek.



Beware the fakers

Not all kombucha is created equal. In fact, not all kombucha is actually kombucha. With corporate interests now jumping on the bandwagon, Derek has some advice for consumers. “Anyone who reads this article, and wants genuine kombucha, should be buying from NZ producers, as thus far, they all brew genuine kombucha. However, some of what’s on the shelves, labelled kombucha, is not kombucha – they’re just soft drinks with some probiotics squirted into them and marketed as kombucha. They’re not,” he warns. “There’s an acronym in IT:  GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. The same applies for kombucha.”


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