It’s not surprising that when Art and Robin Hill decided to go into business with each other making kombucha, after a career of working for other people, they went with the name “Panacea”—meaning a cure-all or remedy for all ills. Along with the help of their assistant brewer Andrew Losee, they created a signature kombucha—a gelatinous mass of symbiotic bacteria and yeasts to make a fermented, healthy beverage, which can do anything from calm an upset stomach to affect the way we dream. And it’s all absolutely delicious.
Before I tried Panacea’s ‘booch, I was a skeptic. I was living in New York City when drinking kombucha first became “a thing.” All of my very cool theatre friends were drinking it, so I thought I would try it. I thought it tasted like apple cider vinegar plus weird floaties, so I didn’t care if it made me skinny or my guts healthier; I wouldn’t be drinking it. I felt this way until Panacea’s adorable green Boochbus rolled into my life to change my mind.
The liquid at Panacea is beautifully balanced. The tartness and carbonation are present but restrained, so neither the flavor nor the mouthfeel are too abrasive. Instead of acetic acid (vinegar) driving the flavor of the tea, the brewery uses a collection of herbs, flowers, and fruit. Whenever I’ve had the chance to taste through a few flavors, I’ve loved every one. But the first I tasted is my favorite. Well, until I tasted the second … and the third …
But what makes the ‘booch taste even better is Art and Robin’s story. The Hills have been together since high school, which they attended in upstate New York. Art attended culinary school and Robin earned her degree in education before they moved down to Wilmington in 2003 because tragedy struck and their house burned.
“We were young!” Robin reminisces. “We didn’t have any children at the time; we had just a couple years of marriage under our belt. So we were like, ‘Let’s move to the beach!’ So, we started over here—and we definitely don’t regret it.”
Initially, Art worked for a restaurant conglomerate in Southport, while Robin worked as a teacher. A new baby required a schedule shift for the couple, which sent them back to New York for a bit. They came down to Jacksonville for five years before moving back to Wilmington where Art ran the culinary services for a hospital. In the wake of his 40th birthday, after a long career working in kitchens and food service management, an urgent need to do something more began to manifest.
“I wanted a VW bus my entire life,” he tells, “and I [hadn’t] done it yet and [I realized,] ‘I’m not getting any younger.’ We said we were gonna buy a bus, so we went out and did that!”
Enter the Boochbus.
Art has been a hobbyist homebrewer for a long time. He’s friends with John and Michelle Savard, owners of Wilmington Brewing Company, since the homebrew shop was in its first Kerr Avenue location. But he also worked on the bottling line at Loon Ale in Manchester, NH, while in culinary school. His salary mostly consisted of a case at the end of a shift—effectively acting as gold for a young culinary student. It was at Loon Ale where he got his taste for the craft.
“I just loved it,” Art says. “I was a bottle line dog. I was small enough I could climb in to the mash tun or the boil kettle and just clean everything. It was cool. I got to see what it was like.”
Robin was not quite to drawn to the craft beer idea initially. Although, creating craft liquid was not at all out of the question.
“He experimented with fermentation over those 20 years, all different kinds,” she adds. “I’m not a beer drinker. I never really have been. Although my palate is starting to change. Kombucha is definitely an educator. It primes you for so many different things, so now I’m starting to drink beer—especially sours.”
Initially, as the couple entered talks about starting a business, Robin was skeptical of a brewery. If she was going to be a partner, she wanted to be on board. But she’d been brewing probiotic ferments (see: water keffir), which Art didn’t like so much either. So when she acquired a kombucha culture from a friend and started experimenting, the couple found a balance and a passion was ignited.
They started out working in commissary kitchens in the Cape Fear before landing in what is now their taproom, at 102 Old Eastwood Road. They quickly outgrew the space before moving into a new production facility, but keeping the taproom so folks can sip all flavors and fill a growler to go. Oh, and they can sip on a pint while waiting, too.
Later this spring, they’ll be releasing their first kombucha beer. It’s a 6.5 percent ABV gluten-free, tart, hoppy, farmhouse, brewed with butterfly pea flower. Folks can keep an eye on updated brewery news through their Facebook page—they’ve got plenty of new things rolling out in 2019. Their nonalcoholic kombucha can be found in shops all around town, too, including Whole Foods, Luna Caffe and Waterline Brewing.