Green tea has nothing on kombucha, a fizzy, fermented elixir with many devotees and supposedly transcendent powers. Molly Young cultures her own "zoogleal mat" and sips at her own risk ...


Type "kombucha tea" into Google and you’ll learn all sorts of things. How-to tutorials mix with glowing testimonials: the drink allegedly cures diabetes, asthma, arthritis, menstrual cramps, constipation and cancer. It also enables better skin, weight loss and thicker hair. Some say it's mentioned in the Bible; others claim it's what helps Tibetan monks live to 100 years old. Lindsay Lohan was spotted clutching a bottle on her way out of rehab.

With minor variations, all kombucha smells tangy and looks like effervescent tea, with strands of culture floating at the bottom of a bottle. The taste is bracing, sour, sweet and fizzy, like something served in goblets and called "elixir" in fairy tales. It is punchier and weirder than any other supermarket beverage, with a strong vinegar element.

Most people find kombucha first repugnant and then compelling, like whiskey. Though some remain repulsed: “If you want an honest account of the flavor,” writes one critic on a beverage-review website, “it had a really bitter prune like flavor that remind me [sic] of the scent of vomit.”

Well, de gustibus non est disputandum. If you expect kombucha to be all play and no work, you won’t like it. But it sure beats wheatgrass.

The history of kombucha is as murky as the liquid. The drink seems to have originated in East Asia and worked its way west, igniting a brief craze in late 19th-century Russia and later winning favour with American hippies. Until recently the tea was strictly a homemade product. The FDA released a statement in 1995 warning that kombucha isn’t officially approved as a medical treatment, adding that home-brewers should be careful to make the recipe under sanitary conditions. (Grandmothers and their therapeutic raspberry jam must abide by the same rules.)

What started as a holistic trend in California morphed into a DIY fad among college kids. “The hipsters were the early adopters," observes Alice Gregory, a senior at Bard College. "Now everyone drinks it. My first kombucha was like the reawakening of a memory," she tells me. "You feel like you’ve had it before and you don’t know why.” 

It's true: there's something familiar buried inside the strangeness of the drink. As with beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, pickles, soy sauce and vinegar, kombucha is produced by a process of fermentation, which allows micro-organisms to act on foods. Kombucha's rotten tang rings a similar bell. As the drink caught on, it “became a status thing at Bard to buy your kombucha versus make it," Gregory says.

Consumers can choose from a handful of kombucha brands in a few dozen flavours. Yet it shouldn't be long before the homemade version sees a resurgence, given its steep price (around $3.99 per bottle; recipients of federal food stamps get around $3 daily). The recipe is simple: a cup or two of sugar, a few quarts of black tea and bacteria from another kombucha sample (a bottle of store-bought stuff does the trick). As the mixture ferments, it forms a gelatinous disc called a “zoogleal mat” (pictured below), which resembles a pancake or a mushroom. This is why the drink is also known as “mushroom tea”, although it bears no relation to fungus.

KomboloidAfter a week-long period of fermentation, the zoogleal mat will begin to produce a small amount of drinkable liquid each day, containing organic acids, active enzymes, amino acids and antioxidants. (The yeast processes sugar into acids and vitamins.) More sweetened tea should be added to keep the process going.

The result tastes like rotten cider and looks like alien life. Wispy tentacles settle at the bottom of a bottle. Once the culture gets started, it lasts indefinitely.

Seek out kombucha at the grocery store and you’ll come across a gleaming row of GT’s Organic Raw Kombucha bottles. Brewed in “a loving and peaceful facility in sunny southern California”, GT’s Kombucha is the leading brand in America. The FAQ section of the GT’s website explains that their culture is grown in a “warm, dark room––not unlike a womb”. Because the beverage “can absorb the energy of the people who tend to it,” GT’s employees are “positive, healthful, and respectful of the work.” Their kombucha, in turn, imbues diligent drinkers with "increased energy levels and decreased appetite...improved digestion, healthier skin and hair, and even a stronger immune system."

Sandor Ellix Katz, a Brown University graduate, activist and author, is known as the guru of fermentation. When I ask Katz about kombucha, he expresses some reservations. “I love kombucha,” he says, “but I have seen more exaggerated claims made on its behalf than I have seen for any other food.” The major health benefits, he believes, come from the live-cultures in the tea, which are like those in yogurt or sauerkraut. “If you’re going to pick one of these live-culture foods to ingest regularly, why choose the one based on tea and sugar rather than the others, which are based on more wholesome ingredients?” he asks. “Kombucha has been overemphasized.”

He has a point. Out of the 632,000 internet search results for kombucha, not a single reliable study crops up. A CDC report even linked an Iowa woman's death from an acute metabolic disorder to kombucha, which may cause elevated levels of lactic acid when consumed in large quantities. There have also been reported cases of anthrax transmitted through a shared batch of kombucha, as well as lead poisoning--the acid in the tea leached the glaze of its container.

Health effects of food products rarely attract much official research, Katz explains. “Formal studies confirming the effects of drugs on the body cost millions of dollars, paid for by the pharmaceutical companies that stand to profit from the eventual manufacture of the drugs. With foods in the public domain, who is going to sponsor such research?” 

Still, in a market brimming with vitamin-enhanced sodas, probiotic yogurt and civet poop coffee, it’s fair to say that kombucha has a shot at mainstream success. In June 2007 the Wall Street Journal reported that kombucha sales were at $34m annually. This is peanuts compared to other beverage categories (Coca-Cola enjoyed nearly $6 billion in net income in 2007), but Katz predicts a steady rise. “Brands of kombucha are already being marketed nationally and appearing on the menus of fancy cafes and in weird cocktail combos,” he says. “It’s interesting to observe a do-it-yourself phenomenon transform into a consumer fad.”

And from a consumer fad, perhaps, back to a DIY enterprise. It is nice to see that the drink’s popularity has prompted a return to the kitchen, like antioxidant bath-tub gin. Sipping the stuff from a mason jar has its own cachet. The potion is the anti-Starbucks latte: cheap, homemade and much harder to forget.

Picture Credit:
Mike Garten (via Flickr), Molly Young

(Molly Young is a writer based in New York. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was on DIY wine.)