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Tapping Into the Kombucha Craze

Local brewers get creative with the ancient tradition of fermenting tea

By Jessi Cape, Fri., April 5, 2013

Kimberly Lanski (l) and John-Paxton Gremillion of Buddha's Brew
Kimberly Lanski (l) and John-Paxton Gremillion of Buddha's Brew
Photo by John Anderson

With sugary beverages making national headlines and health gurus forever touting a new magic potion, it's no surprise that yet another drink trend has taken Austin by storm. But this time, it's an ancient-elixir turned-rising-star – kombucha – and it's just as good as its champions claim.

Estimates approximate the origin of kombucha, a fermented tea, to around 2,000 years ago, though the potion's original shaman is hard to pin down. Many attribute the drink to the Qin Dynasty of China, while others believe a Korean doctor, Mr. Kombu, presented Japanese Emperor Inyoko with his homebrew; this kombucha is not to be confused with a popular Japanese seaweed drink. Still other legends reference Genghis Khan and his traveling armies as inventors. Historical evidence supports kombucha's presence in 19th century Russia and Eastern Europe, and in the years following, it survived wartime rations on the way to Western culture and beyond. America's Deep South tradition of sweet tea takes on a completely new meaning when brewed with bacterial cultures that create beneficial enzymes and probiotics.

Health benefits are not officially qualified beyond the indisputable positive effects of digestion-aiding probiotics, but testimonies to the power of kombucha range from improvement in skin to cancer-curing miracle drink. Bottle labels and brand websites frequently describe these brews as detoxifying, and cite valuable enzymes, electrolytes, vitamins, and energy as chief benefits reaped by kombucha drinking. Though the drink has not yet reached mass-market status, save for a few national brands, the appeal of an energy-sustaining health drink that excites the palate as much as the immune system has also gained the support of athletes, including runners, yogis, and many in the CrossFit community.

Both a tasty drink and a healthy one, kombucha is a blend of bacteria and yeast that reacts with sugars to ferment the remaining ingredients. The naturally effervescent beverage's flavor profile consists of a strong vinegar presence balanced with natural sweeteners that vary by the brewer. Just as with any family or trade secret, most kombucha recipes are guarded treasures. Generally, however, the ingredients include a SCOBY ("symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast"), water, sugar, tea (starter and fresh), and an endless list of possible add-ins such as herbs, fruit juice, or honey. Types of tea include oolong, white, green, black, and herbal; a few national bottlers also offer batches containing chia seeds for added nutritional and textural value.

Pancake-shaped with a face only a mother (or kombucha drinker) could love, the SCOBY is the organism at the root of kombucha tea. Not fungi, the living culture itself is known as a mushroom and appears spongy in various shades of neutral as it floats atop the liquid. The breeding colony requires a quiet environment of stillness located outside direct sunlight while it feeds off sugars and alters the chemical composition. Similar to the wondrous Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar, strange-looking stringy pieces in the tea are normal, even desirable. These are not the type of floaties left after sharing a drink with a toddler; rather, these fragments are immune-boosting flavor bombs gifted by the mother SCOBY.

During its on-average 10-day fermentation process, kombucha must be stored at room temperature, only in glass (metal depletes the efficacy of the SCOBY), and sealed tight; the targeted alcohol content is about the same as nonalcoholic beer or orange juice: approximately 0.5%. Degrees of tartness and flavor combinations reflect the personality of the brewer; given the delicate nature of fermentation, meticulous care is required to establish any sort of taste consistency.

Kombucha boasts a résumé blooming with praise from dedicated followers. Avail­abil­ity across Austin grows by the day from corner stores to farmers' markets to grocery chains. The bar scene has even taken note, with craft kombucha cocktails popping up on drink menus. Cheer Up Charlie's (1104 E. Sixth; 524-1111), for example, serves kombucha cocktails made with whiskey, gin, or vodka. (Talk about a party in your mouth!)

For true believers ready to take their love to the next level, social media offers a range of connections to get the home brewer started. When the mother culture procreates, small SCOBYs are born and many caregivers offer their offspring to burgeoning brewers. Think along the lines of Amish friendship bread, created from gifted sourdough starters. If social media awareness is any indication of growing popularity, kombucha is definitely gaining notoriety: A recent skim came up with more than 1,400 Instagram pictures tagged with #scoby, hundreds of Google+ circles talking about kombucha, and Twitter crackling with brewer lingo. And it's not just new media buzzing: Classified ads regularly offer free starter SCOBYs, and bulletin boards highlighting fermentation clubs abound in coffee shops around the country.

Home brewers are multiplying as quickly as the cultures they seek to breed, but the nature of the regulations game means the batches produced at home may not be sold commercially. (When alcohol content exceeds specified levels, kombucha tea may qualify as a beer and be required to follow guidelines as such.) Safety concerns mirror that of any concoction built with living organisms, such as live-culture yogurt or pill-form acidophilus, and reports of products pulled for elevated alcohol contents made the news several years ago. When considering the origin story, however, it is worth remembering this superhero drink has thousands of brew years in its repertoire, often in less-than-ideal kitchen scenarios. The very nature of its intentional fermentation lends kombucha a lengthy timeline of freshness often surpassing its regulatory "best by" date. Certainly, the trace alcohol content and lack of pasteurization indicate a working knowledge of the tea ought to accompany any nontraditional consumption, but this dedicated kombucha drinker abides by the belief that kombucha ages like wine. Vintage kombucha tea, anyone?

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