At Portland Metro Live, we pride ourselves on bringing you not only the best fine dining restaurants the metro area has to offer, but also the niche coffee shops, interesting food carts and hip new noodle houses. Today, we offer up an establishment that travels in those same circles.
Opened two-and-a-half years ago in the St. John’s neighborhood, Jean-Pierre Parent’s SOMA Evolutionary Refreshment & Kombucha Speakeasy aims straight for the heart of what Portland is all about. Honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised if the place wound up on a future episode of Portlandia.
That’s So Portland
True to its speakeasy roots, SOMA is located downstairs in a non-descript building that houses other businesses on its main floor. The only thing that alerts you SOMA is there is a diminutive sign sitting just outside the door to the building.
Head downstairs and you’re greeted with a sign asking you to remove your shoes. As Parent explains, “I want a homey, comfortable environment. Also, sanitation – we brew here and I don’t want dirt, dog poop, whatever in here.”
Once your shoes are off, you’ll proceed into a long hallway with six taps along one wall and a curtain at the far end. There’s also a station to make a payment, several refrigerators filled with product and a rack with various growlers and bottles for purchase. On the other side of the curtain is where the magic happens; where the kombucha is brewed.
Upon completion, the kombucha is brought to the room behind the tap wall where a multiple keg system resides. The system itself is an innovation both Parent and his partner Nathan Davis of Wooden Bridge Custom devised.
“This whole endeavor is full of new inventions,” Davis explains. “There isn’t a kombucha speakeasy industry to follow. The plus is that we can come up with our own ways, but the downside is that we have to come up with our ways,” he finishes with a chuckle.
Innovation rests in the imperative that was built around this entire concept. SOMA didn’t start out the way it was today, but instead has evolved over time.
Originally from Ohio, Jean Pierre-Parent wound up in Portland after an unfulfilling stint in Los Angeles and a couple years of world travel. Once here, he started teaching yoga at a local studio.
“I noticed people would come in to classes and they want to be social and connect, but there was no structure for that,” Parent explains. “So I started a kombucha club after class.”
Before long, people were coming to class solely for the kombucha. “That hurt my feelings a little bit,” Parent says with a playful smile.
Next thing he knew, Parent had a small business on his hands. He was bottling the kombucha and selling to individuals and other yoga studios. “It just kind of took off, so I took the reins,” he says.
Innovating on a Concept
Taking the reins meant blazing a path in a brand new industry. When it first opened, SOMA was born out of necessity. “People wanted to know where to fill up their growler during the winter, so I thought I would put a kegerator in the hallway and just get by,” says Parent.
But before he knew it people were hanging around and chatting, so he brought in chairs. Soon the place was completely furnished and the idea for the tap wall came to life.
Still, there were more challenges to overcome as SOMA took shape. After a rush of people, some kegs wound up empty. To alleviate this problem, Davis and Parent devised a way to connect several kegs in a series. They also came up with a way to wash them in a series.
“All of this was brand new,” says Davis. “We come up with an idea together and I usually take care of the how to do it while JP comes up with the aesthetics.”
Such collaboration can be found in the tap wall itself. The backsplash is intentionally rusted, which goes along with the fermented theme. “Rust is sort of like fermentation for metal,” Parent muses.
Each tap is a lesson in kombucha creativity. While it may sound utterly bizarre, the Chaga Mushroom Lemonade Kombucha is amazing. The kombucha is substantial, yet effervescent, with light flavors and a mild finish, despite its imposing name.
Another variation, the Coffee-Boocha combines coffee and kombucha for both the probiotic benefit along with a caffeine jolt. “We’re probably the first people to put kombucha on nitrogen with this Coffee-Boocha,” Parent says.
With his initial concept now closing in on its third year, Parent wants to expand on it, with a project planned for a location on Southeast 38th and Belmont. Unfortunately, the explosive growth in Portland Metro is putting a slight crimp in his timeline.
“The reality is that there is so much building going on in Portland right now that to get a permit for a building project, you are in line behind so many others,” Parent laments. Beyond their southeast location, Parent and Davis look to expand out to Beaverton, and eventually on to other cities.
“I’m from an Ohio farm town,” he says. “I still have family there. It’s really easy for me to get stuck in my Portland yoga bubble and get stuck in that niche. But it’s very important to me to get what we’re doing out to the people who really need it and not the people who are going to Whole Foods anyway asking what kombucha oil they should get.”
Beyond the novelty of getting together and enjoying a self-serve kombucha tap wall, you can purchase individual bottles, books and high-grade colloidal silver at SOMA. “I’ve always been into health,” Parent concludes, “And I want to make these things as accessible to others as I can.”
With Portland as the perfect launching pad, there’s no reason why greater accessibility for these types of products shouldn’t see continued growth over the long term.
SOMA Evolutionary Refreshment & Kombucha Speakeasy is located at 7319 North John Avenue in Portland, Oregon, 97203. They can be reached at (503) 980-4605. For more information on SOMA products and the speakeasy, visit their website at www.symplefoods.com
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.