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Kombucha Tea Cures All. Or Does It?

Kombucha cultivates during Eric Child's kombucha-making class at Brooklyn Kitchen on Feb. 18, 2010. (Photo by Alexandra Waldhorn/CNS)

Last summer, 29-year-old Rana Chang was craving a bottle of kombucha, a type of tea brewed from fermented yeast and bacteria cultures. But Chang, then an unemployed lawyer, couldn’t justify spending the $4 asking price at her local health food store in San Francisco. “I was feeling poor — and thirsty,” she says.

So Chang took her thirst and turned it into a business. She and a friend, Asad Modarai, launched House Kombucha (pronounced kom-BOO-cha). Just six months later, they’re brewing the effervescent, murky pink liquid in a commercial kitchen and distributing it to restaurants and bars around the city. As of late February, they were selling 18 cases (12 bottles each) a week and adding an average of two businesses per week.

“It’s the new coffee, tea and wine — all in the same product,” says Chang.

Never mind that the product often tastes, well, putrescent. Kombucha is touted to be a cure-in-a-cup that will fix all ills, including cancer, AIDS, bad eyesight, acne and erectile dysfunction. The list goes on, and the supporting science is slim.

Effective or not, people want it. Some large corporations, like Coca-Cola, are getting into the market. It owns 40 percent of Honest Tea, which introduced a kombucha drink in January. But many purists — and people on tight budgets — are opting to either brew at home or buy locally from small businesses like Chang’s. “Every day, more people are joining the bandwagon,” she says.

A glass of kombucha sits on the counter at Brooklyn Kitchen on Feb. 18, 2010. (Photo by Alexandra Waldhorn/CNS)

Part of kombucha’s appeal may be its ancient history. It began as a fad 2,000 years ago during the Chinese Tsin dynasty. Called the drink of immortality, the elixir spread around the world, from China to Russia, Japan, Germany and eventually to the U.S., where it first gained popularity in New Age circles in the early 1990s.

That’s when Chang first encountered it. A family friend had given her mother a white gelatinous blob, called a scoby. The scoby, a disk-shaped colony of bacteria and yeast, forms the essential ingredient of kombucha. Chang’s mother plopped hers into a large glass bowl filled with Lipton’s black tea, sugar and vinegar and left it to ferment in a cabinet high above the stove for about eight days. A vinegary stench soon emanated throughout the house.

“It was very mysterious and gross,” Chang says. “But my mom forced it down every day and claimed that it was good for her.”

Last year, Chang encountered kombucha again in a health food store. Unlike her mother’s vinegar-laden swill, “it tasted delicious,” she says. “But it was expensive and addictive.”

The taste may have improved since the 1990s, but kombucha’s tangy, hard apple cider essence is not for everyone. Sometimes a leftover lump of the soused bacterial culture or a slimy culture lingers at the bottom of a bottle. But as the drink evolves, brewers have learned to add a variety of flavors appealing to more customers. At House Kombucha, Chang mixes in rose petals, jasmine tips and crushed pears.

“It’s developing as a more mainstream drink,” says veteran kombucha brewer Eddy Kasper of the Happy Herbalist in North Carolina, noting the nearly 20 different brand names now found on store shelves. But as the drink’s popularity grows, he worries that large-scale production will diminish its purity and freshness.

That’s one reason kombucha brewers are eager to pass along their wisdom. On a recent winter evening, Eric Childs, known as Kombuchaman of Kombucha Brooklyn, was outlining brewing techniques and working to refine the palates of new kombucha drinkers.

“Think about white peaches and flowers,” Childs said to the 18 students gathered at the Brooklyn Kitchen, a store and site for cooking classes. As they sipped from glass cups, this kombucha left no embittered faces.

Eric Childs drops a scoby into the jar of tea and sugar during his kombucha class at Brooklyn Kitchen on Feb. 18, 2010. (Photo by Alexandra Waldhorn/CNS)

Childs then passed around a plate holding two wobbly, unearthly-looking scobies on a plate.  Everyone touched the rubbery surfaces. “It’ll make your hands soft,” he said, “and you can cut it up and give it to your pets.”

One veteran home brewer, Abby Deneau, 29, in Lansing, Mich., started drinking kombucha two years ago. Her version usually tastes a little tangy, a little sweet and sour, and “a little like an alcoholic beverage,” she says. But for her, the flavor matters less than the potential health benefits.

The FDA has not evaluated any scientific evidence on kombucha, but it’s aware that people are marketing it, mostly online, as a panacea for the worst health nightmares. “Kombucha has not been approved by FDA for any therapeutic use,” says FDA press officer Rita Chappelle. “Therefore, a product being promoted to treat or cure a disease would be an unapproved new drug under federal law and subject to enforcement action by FDA.”

The lack of scientific support doesn’t stop Deneau. “If there’s a possibility that it can prevent cancer, I’m sure going try it,” she says. So far, the two gallons a month that she brews have helped ease hangovers and digestive problems, she says.

Some kombucha drinkers don’t care about the purported health benefits. Home brewer Michael Weaver, 25, who lives in San Francisco, hasn’t noticed any specific health improvements since he started drinking kombucha two years ago, but he does say the carbonated drink makes him feel slightly better. “I think that’s probably just the placebo effect,” he says, “and that it’s mildly caffeinated.” (The caffeine comes from the black tea. Levels vary from batch to batch.)

But even if kombucha can work miracles cure, there’s such a thing as too much.

“I don’t really believe that kombucha is a bottle of Tylenol,” Childs says, “but it has the ability to do awesome things to you.”  Childs, who tried kombucha four years ago, says his first bottle helped his heartburn symptoms.

But with his exuberance for a cure, he guzzled almost a gallon a day. “I had a kombucha overdose,” he says. “I was attacked by kombucha yeast.” Today, he recommends students drink only a few small glasses a day.

“Take it in moderation,” Childs warns. “It’s a live drink.”

February 7, 2010