Shanti Volpe stands beneath a colony of painted foot-long bees crawling along a giant honeycomb in a mural on the side of Honey & the Hive. A familiar sound welcomes her, a soft buzz from the resident bees that frequent the shop’s flower beds. The late owner of the honey shop, Volpe’s friend Sarah McKinney, introduced Volpe to beekeeping. “She was always so excited about sharing stories from the hive,” Volpe says. “And I was just so inspired by her.”
Volpe and her team — which she lovingly refers to as her hive — make jun, a sparkling probiotic beverage, in the basement of her parents’ house in Weaverville, just down the road from the bee mural. “My company was inspired by the honeybees and the way they work together for the greater good,” she says. Whenever Volpe passes the mural on her way back to the junnery and her hive after selling jun at various farmers markets, she takes a moment to admire its bright colors, a reminder of where the bees she fell in love with have taken her.
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Jun is thought to be an ancient beverage, similar to kombucha, made with honey and green tea. Volpe’s company, Shanti Elixirs, adds other natural flavors like blueberry and basil, a combination that won the Drink category of the 2022 Made in NC Awards. Often referred to as the “champagne of kombucha,” jun’s ingredients give it a smooth taste and slightly sweet flavor. With Shanti Elixirs, Volpe has created a successful, women-run small business out of making and educating people about jun and all of its health benefits. As the driving force behind the young company, Volpe first had to educate herself on the beverage before sharing her knowledge with others.
In 2016, Volpe took her first sip of jun at a beekeeping workshop in Asheville. With a budding home apiary, she was eager to learn all she could about — and from — the bees. “I would find myself out in my apiary, sitting there, mesmerized,” Volpe says. “I’d watch them go in and out and work together.”
Volpe removes a SCOBY from a batch of jun that’s made with local honey as well as fruit and herbs harvested throughout western North Carolina. photograph by Tim Robison
The local beekeeper who led the workshop also brewed her own jun, some of which she brought to the presentation for folks to try. “I could not believe the taste,” Volpe says. “And the effect that it had on my body almost immediately was pretty profound.”
Observing how Volpe responded to the jun, the instructor offered to show her the brewing process and gave her a SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The small, disk-shaped culture will replicate itself regularly, much like a sourdough starter. That SCOBY was the first in a collection that would soon reach into the tens of thousands.
Volpe learned that the SCOBY needs honey and green tea to ferment. After a week of the ingredients brewing together, the pH of the mixture drops, and the SCOBY transforms the green tea and honey into useful anti-inflammatory acids that are believed to be beneficial for the mind, gut, and immune system. This process gives the beverage probiotic qualities, those that aid in digestion, Volpe says.
As a lactation consultant and registered nurse at Mission Hospital in Asheville — a job she still works while operating Shanti Elixirs — Volpe has always been fascinated by health and wellness. After learning how to brew jun, she began to make it for friends and family. Shortly thereafter, she brought her first large batch of jun, a ginger variation, to the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain. Whenever she offered people a sample, she would hear a common refrain: What’s jun? Oh, wow, this is great! Where can we get more?
Because jun wasn’t exactly a grocery store staple, access to the beverage, and its health benefits, wasn’t widespread. In 2017, Volpe began going to farmers markets in and around Asheville, sharing her creations with the community and building her hive — a group of women who love working together and really love their jun.
“I was a fan before I even knew about it,” says Colleen Byrd, who tried her first sip of blueberry basil jun at Avenue M, formerly Volpe’s aunt’s restaurant and one of the first places in town to sell the beverage. Now, Byrd works primarily in beverage packaging and is an integral part of the hive. She and the other women who left corporate jobs have found peace and purpose at the junnery, working alongside their queen bee. “There’s not an ingredient, a label, or a bottle that doesn’t get touched by all of us,” Byrd says. “And we’re proud of it.”
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Volpe pours the blueberry basil jun into small compostable cups and passes them around to members of the Buncombe County Beekeepers Club. As part of their monthly meeting, they’ve invited Volpe to talk about her jun. Some familiar faces are in the crowd, like Greg Rogers of Haw Creek Honey, who supplies Volpe with about 60 gallons of honey a month.
The group listens closely as Volpe explains the drink’s elusive history. “It is believed,” she says, a small pair of bronze bee earrings dangling from her ears, “that jun hails from the Himalayas, and that ‘jun’ in Chinese means probiotic, fungus, or bacterium.” She goes on to recount tales of Asian warriors who would take jun with them as they went off into battle. The beverage reportedly gave them all the nutrients they needed to fight when food was scarce.
In 2017, Shanti Volpe began selling her jun at farmers markets. Today, Shanti Elixirs sells eight flavors — including grape, ginger, and award-winning blueberry basil — year-round at more than 300 markets and shops. photograph by Tim Robison
She goes on to describe how each Shanti Elixir flavor is also intended to provide a distinct effect for the drinker: tulsi rose, for example, is a love elixir, and elderberry lemon provides balance. Next up for the beekeepers club is blueberry basil, the creative elixir, meant to provide mental strength and renewal. Before the group takes a sip, Volpe reads a prayer aloud: “May this blend bring vitality to the heart and relaxation to the mind, restoring natural rhythms of sleep, rest, and activity.” The room falls quiet for a moment as everyone enjoys the sweet drink.
At the end of her talk, Volpe fields questions from the audience. “Can you use other herbs to flavor the jun?” one beekeeper asks. “Have you ever made a pawpaw flavor?” another wonders. “What about persimmons?” Volpe smiles. It seems that the creativity is just beginning to flow. — Katie Kane
To order from Shanti Elixirs, or to find where the jun is sold or served near you, visit shantielixirs.com.
Drink — Honorable Mentions
Free Range Brewing’s sumac tonic — a gruit, or herbed ale — is flavored with two varieties of sumac berries. Photography courtesy of FREE RANGE BREWING
Free Range Brewing — Charlotte Sumac Tonic: A Carolina Foraged Gruit
When Sarah Alexander takes an early-morning walk along the shores of Lake Norman, she searches for something that most walkers or joggers wouldn’t think twice about: sumac. This crimson berry with the tang of fresh-squeezed lemon juice “will add the perfect burst of flavor and color to a brew,” she says. Sarah and her husband, Jason, founded Free Range Brewing with Jason’s brother Jeff and his wife, Brittany, in 2015, resolving to use locally grown fruits, vegetables, grains, and herbs in their beers whenever possible. About a year after they opened the Charlotte-based brewery, they began partnering with farmers across the state to forage both staghorn and smooth sumac, the flavor-filled berries that give their best-selling sumac tonic its tart, citrusy taste. The Alexanders rely on the bounty of North Carolina’s fields and forests to source ingredients for a variety of craft beers and seltzers. “We get to have a space where we’re not just drinking beer but also creating an environment where we can cultivate community,” Sarah says. To make their sumac tonic, they use pine flowers to replace hops, as well as local grains. “One of the first things people get excited about is the lovely pinkish-red color, which you don’t typically see in a beer,” Sarah says. “It has hints of cranberry, blackberry, and lemon that make it the perfect summer porch drink.” — Tamiya Anderson
Larry Cooper makes his 502 Oak-Rested Shochu using North Carolina sweet potatoes. He hosts tastings at InStill Distilling Co. in Clayton on Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. photograph by Charles Harris
Brush Creek Beverage Company — Apex 502 Oak-Rested Shochu
Larry Cooper. photograph by Charles Harris
Larry Cooper was standing in the breezeway of his home near Raleigh when he first tried shochu, a spirit primarily made in Japan. Cooper’s friend, who gave him the liquor as a souvenir, tried to convince him that it was vodka. But Cooper knew better — it tasted earthier and sweeter and left a bitter aftertaste. “Many people compare [oak-rested shochu] to whiskey, but it’s got an umami flavor that makes it distinct,” says the 73-year-old, who founded Brush Creek Beverage Company in 2018. The taste left an impression, and Cooper was fascinated. Years later, he began researching shochu. He quickly realized that no one in North Carolina was making it, so he decided to try. It was harder than he expected: Directions for fermenting the drink, traditionally made with rice, sugar cane, and starch, were limited. Cooper’s friend helped him translate a 400-year-old manuscript detailing methods for brewing, and through trial and error, Cooper finally achieved an American version of the distilled liquor. After successfully creating the 502 Shochu, named after the Kentucky area code where Cooper was born and part of the Apex zip code where he currently lives, he decided to age the spirit in a charred oak barrel. The 502 Oak-Rested Shochu has notes of caramel, butterscotch, and vanilla, and “with a higher char level” on the barrel, he says, “more smoky flavors are extracted from the wood and into the brew.” — Tamiya Anderson