LAST JULY, shops that stocked kombucha, a fermented tea touted for its health benefits, pulled the trendy beverage from shelves. The move mystified customers—kombucha’s popularity has soared in recent years, with annual sales estimates ranging from $100 million to $300 million. Why deny folks their funky health juice, especially when they’re willing to pay up to $6 for a 16-ounce bottle? Turns out, some commercial kombuchas exceeded 0.5 percent alcohol per volume, making them boozy enough for the Food and Drug Administration to take notice. But before the FDA could slap on warning labels and an alcohol tax, shopkeepers simply put the kibosh on kombucha.
The drink’s sudden scarcity in shops motivated a spiked-tea-making movement. In Seattle, newbie brewers turn to Chris Joyner, owner of local kombucha brand CommuniTea (communitea—kombucha.com), the first kitchen licensed by the Washington State Department of Agriculture to make kombucha. Along with most makers of nonpasteurized kombucha, Joyner suspended sales this summer due to the concern over alcohol levels. Before the crackdown, he’d set up his stall at Seattle farmers markets, handing samples of his pale yellow kombucha concoction to curious market goers. Faced with the tea’s musky vinegar aroma and floating bacteria cultures, some people’s lips puckered in disgust while other curious shoppers held it up to the light, awed by the floating gunk.
There’s been much debate over the tea’s health claims—devotees say it can do everything from ease indigestion to fight cancer, but it has never been tested in a clinical trial. Local nutritionist and Bastyr University associate professor Jennifer Adler says she’s confident about the tea’s immunity-boosting property and regularly prescribes it to help alleviate her clients’ heartburn. Adler adds that kombucha is a good pick-me-up because of its vitamin B content, and it’s packed with beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes. “It’s better than a cup of coffee and more convenient than sauerkraut,” she says.
Kombucha starts as a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria, or a SCOBY. The SCOBY, which looks like a thawing chicken breast, is added to a mixture of steeped tea and sugar and left to ferment in a warm, dimly lit place. Also known as “mushrooms,” “mothers,” or “cultures,” SCOBYs can be found easily on the Internet or through local brewers like Joyner. Depending on the SCOBY and the temperature, fermentation usually takes at least a week.
“Check for mold, that’s what I worry about,” says Adler. But as long as kombucha makers keep the environment hygienic there shouldn’t be a problem. Fermentation, Adler points out, has been around a lot longer than sanitation.