Biting into a sweet, juicy mango on a hot day in India—that’s the feeling that drinking BKE Kombucha’s mango version evokes, even for those who didn’t grow up spending their summers in Asia. But for Dr Saleena Subaiya, co-founder of BKE, nostalgic memories like these helped craft the flavor profiles of her and Dr Lawrence Purpura’s delicate brew. Together, the business (and life) partners bottle their pure, undiluted love—for fermenting and health—into an elegant drink that’s unlike any other on the market.
Subaiya and Purpura met at a conference for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s sort of like an outbreak squad,” Subaiya tells us. “It’s called the Epidemic Intelligence Service, so we get to participate in outbreak responses across the globe.” Unbeknownst to them, the pair shared more than a passion for curing diseases. After deciding to room together on a whim, they found they also shared a love for brewing. It happened on the first day. While moving in, Subaiya says she walked in, saying “Hi Lawrence, we should brew kombucha.” And as she said it, she noticed he was already unpacking his own. “So that was our first conversation, and then we were secretly in love with each other for God know’s how long,” she laughs.
The duo, who eventually married, became increasingly inspired by the process of fermentation. For Subaiya, it was ingrained within her culture, as Indian cuisine often relies on fermented and pickled food. For Purpura, brewing was a natural extension of his love for science. “I’m just a microbiology nerd. I always love this type of stuff,” he tells us. “I got into fermentation through home brewing. I had my home-brewed beers, that got me into yogurt-making, which got me into cheesemaking.” Kombucha was the next step.
They perfected a recipe to enjoy with friends and family, and it was received with open arms. After serving their brews at a friend’s cacao ceremony, “people started asking us if they could take kombucha home,” continues Purpura. When the wellness event became recurring and demand for the product grew, the couple knew it was time to expand production beyond their Bushwick apartment.
Almost five years later, in 2018, they officially launched BKE, featuring a brewery, tap house and a line of small batch kombucha. Other fermented brews can hit the tastebuds aggressively with carbonation and sour notes, but BKE is light. Take any of their iterations and at first sip, a variety of natural flavors dance together, while black Assam tea (chosen after Subaiya spent time immersed in the thriving culture of tea plantations in India, where Assam originates) rounds out the drink. Their beautifully balanced flavors are a result of their healthcare and heritage-inspired fermentation.
“I view the SCOBYs [symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast used in fermentation] as these living creatures, and I can’t make them do anything. I can only control their environments,” Purpura explains. “It’s the same way I would approach a variable in medicine or public health risks. These variables—like temperature, oxygen, saturation, carbon dioxide—are all things we can manipulate to help give the SCOBYs a better environment for them to do what they do best: make a delicious product.”
“And then on the other side of it, I keep coming back to honesty,” Subaiya adds. “We really need to move the dial in how we market and commodify wellness. You should never make someone feel like they need to spend $6 on something for their health. Being able to say what are the things that are going to make you healthy and how does this product fit into that—that’s something that is really important for us as a brand.”
Honest ingredients and transparent packaging add to BKE’s authentic taste. The mango iteration, on top of recalling days in India, is dear to both the founders, as it’s the national fruit of both of their countries: India and the Philippines (Purpura is half Filipino). Other varieties, like pear and chrysanthemum, are homages to their Asian roots and kombucha’s origins. “Chrysanthemum tea dates back to one of the oldest teas ever made and kombucha dates back to China,” Subaiya continues. The drinks’ sweet taste is a reflection of the pair’s quality ingredients and sourcing.
Taste was the selling point for retailers and restaurants across New York. After launching, Subaiya recalls, “I would go, on my days off from the emergency department, restaurant to restaurant, cafe to cafe and ask, ‘Do you want to try our kombucha?'” They did, and soon BKE amassed a clientele of about 70. By 2020, they landed a spot on Momofuko Ko’s tasting menu. But when the pandemic hit the city, production halted and the doctors were called to action.
“Immediately we were working three full-time jobs,” says Purpura. “The three being the brewery, clinically working and taking care of patients and because of our outbreak background, thinking ‘How can we help our hospitals? How can we help New York City?'” Subaiya continues. While the frontline workers had sunk money and investments into BKE right before restaurants began closing (and as BKE was on the cusp of closing itself), production reignited when the couple’s friends hand-delivered cases to customers, continuing the love for wellness and fermentation—topics of particular importance due to the pandemic and Subaiya’s own condition.
“I was diagnosed with long-COVID in January,” she explains. “One of the things that I’ve done to help myself is to completely revamp what I’m eating, incorporating fermented foods into my diet including our kombucha, which has been really helpful. While it’s not a cure, I notice a difference in my symptoms when I’m paying attention to what I am putting in my body and how I am moving through the world.” Even now, she remains hopeful both as a medical professional and a business owner, because of the promises kombucha brings. “We’re at a really exciting crossroads because we’re at the verge of discovery,” she says. “We know already that things that promote gut health are things that are really good for our immune system, and kombucha’s a new product. That makes me really excited.”
Whether it’s the elegant taste, wellness benefits or the promise of sensorial experiences that draws people in to BKE Kombucha, it’s the brand’s commitment to blending health, heritage and honesty that keeps them returning for more.
Images courtesy of BKE Kombucha