Kombucha tea, brewing a better bubbly beverage

Not being a person one who cares much for health claims or three-dollar beverages, it was a year or two after I'd first seen kombucha tea in my favorite produce store's drink case before I tried it. I'd been told by a woman with whose advice, generally, I agreed, that kombucha was the world's most perfect potable.

Brewed with black or green tea, sugar and a giant, slimey "mushroom" (actually not a fungus but "a gelatinous colony of bacteria and yeast") on the countertop until the mixture begins to bubble, fizz and taste distinctly of vinegar, well: it's not exactly the orange pop of my childhood. But, proponents say, as a naturally fermented beverage it is beneficial to health; and with those "live and active cultures" we all know and love from the yogurt advertising of the past decade, it's not a stretch to imagine that it would be good for digestion and a healthy gut.

If your "ick factor" has already hit the red zone, kombucha is not for you. But if you're one of those people who may have cultured his own yogurt, kept a sourdough culture alive or geeked out with a home brew of beer or wine, you'd probably love the stuff. Like any other fermented food or beverage, kombucha goes back (way back). The bible of yeasty bubblies, Sandor Ellix Katz' Wild Fermentation, says kombucha is thought to have originated in China. According to MSNBC, the brew was "introduced to Japan by a Korean physician named Dr. Kombu, who gave the bacteria-laden liquid to a Japanese emperor as a healing tonic." It was said to be "worshipped" because it was believed to bring immortality.

Other than immortality, which given the recorded death of all Japanese emperors in history must not have actually been true, the health benefits associated with kombucha run the gamut from the probable to the barely. It's reported to aid digestion, improve energy, work to detoxify the body, lower cholesterol, grow hair, treat arthritis, alleviate insomnia and combat cancer and even AIDS.

The Mayo Clinic is quick to point out that no human health trials have been published in major medical journals, so no health benefits have been proven to be linked to kombucha.

"Kombucha tea's benefits are based on personal reports, and lab and animal studies... This doesn't mean that kombucha tea can't possibly have health benefits; it just means that at this time there's no direct evidence that it provides the benefits it's reported to have."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that two women were hospitalized (separately) with dangerously high levels of acid after having drunk kombucha daily for two months; one died, while the other recovered. Kombucha was not determined as the definitive cause, but the mushrooms used by both women came from the same "parent" mushroom.

While it is true that many proponents of healthy eating crazes may seem a bit cult-like, most kombucha drinkers I know consider it a facet in a diet that contains a high percentage of so-called "living" foods -- foods whose natural bacteria and yeasts and other naturally occurring organisms haven't been pasteurized away or killed with chemical treatments, including raw honey, raw milk, yogurt, brined pickles, sauerkraut, kim chi, miso, naturally fermented vinegars, and wines and beers brewed using traditional methods and ingredients. Kombucha is considered a raw food and is often consumed by those who subscribe to a raw diet; but it's also becoming more and more mainstream, with a few major brands -- GT's Organic Raw and Synergy -- selling in markets across the U.S., and bigger companies working on kombucha products.

Most media reports on kombucha are keeping the caution signal high, wary of the next big wonder ingredient, the acai berry, for instance, whose sellers have been even more cult-like than most and whose claims have largely been clearly outrageous. (I'll admit being wary of any product that's sold through a multilevel marketing scheme, a common sales channel for acai beverages and other products.) But I had to laugh when I read a thorough analysis of kombucha with this paragraph: "Some proponents also encourage people to remove all chemicals from their diets and eat only fresh fruits and vegetables in order to help the 'detoxification' process. They may also be told... to quit smoking and avoid caffeine, soft drinks, alcohol, hormone-fed meat, fertilized or sprayed foods, preservatives and artificial coloring and flavoring."

Some proponents of healthy, real foods also encourage people to remove all chemicals from their diets and avoid soft drinks, hormone-fed meat, and sprayed foods. This is hardly the mark of a food fanatic; in my opinion, it's just sensible dietary rules. And technically, given kombucha's 1.5% (or so) alcohol content, proponents of kombucha could hardly demand one avoid alcohol (although, it has been suggested as a substitute beverage for recovering alcoholics).

Comparisons between kombucha and acai miss the mark, partly because kombucha has a lot more longevity, and partly because kombucha is so accessible for do-it-yourselfers. A tea bag, a little sweetener (I use honey in my kombucha, though generally sugar is recommended), and some starter culture -- and a spot on your counter for a week -- is all it takes. It's the gateway drug for home brewers, it can be very cheap, and it's kind of a kick to watch sweet tea become an ancient beverage before your very eyes.

After experimenting with commercial bottled varieties, brewing my own, and tasting a variety of my friends' brews, I've developed quite a taste for kombucha. I don't drink huge quantities, but I turn to it every time I'm feeling overwhelmed with rich or preservative-laden food, or I need something other than coffee to energize me in a hurry. It works: it eases the funny feeling in my belly and brightens my mood. I don't recommend that you buy it by the case (as I've seen eager folks do in markets here in Portland, Ore., where we tend toward healthy fanatacism of this sort). But try a little, and if you love it, think about brewing it at home. You'll have to live without the funky retro labels and the in-your-face health claims, but your wallet will thank you, and no multilevel marketing is required.
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