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The kombucha cult, or how I got hooked on making my own

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By Kristen Hinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 10:56 AM

At the end of an indulgent weekend in the New York exurbs last summer, our friends marched my husband and me into a health food store for an elixir they promised would counteract the previous 48 hours of feasting. "One bottle is plenty," warned my friend. "Share it, and maybe even save some of it for tomorrow."

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Naturally (if you know us), Tim and I proceeded to guzzle the 16-ounce bottle of fizzy deliciousness within the first half-hour of our drive back to the District. Twenty-four hours and a few trips apiece to the loo later, we had learned Rule No. 1 when it comes to kombucha: Build up your tolerance.

The "booch," as many quaffers call it, is a curiosity. A little freaky, a lot addictive. Here's how it works: A mother culture, a.k.a. a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY, is placed in a vat of sweet tea and left to ferment for a week or more. During fermentation, the mother culture devours the sugar, producing lactic and acetic acids as well as a baby SCOBY. When the tea tastes pleasantly tart, both SCOBYs are removed and the beverage is bottled and stored at room temperature for several days to carbonate. Devotees claim the booch increases energy, improves skin and hair, greases the digestive tract and boosts immunities.

According to the folklore, the Chinese were drinking kombucha more than two millennia ago. Centuries later, Europeans took to the bottle. In the early 1990s, a kombucha craze hit the United States, particularly among the HIV-positive population. These days it's the fix of Hollywood starlets. The field once was dominated by two brands, GT's and Synergy, from California-based Millennium Products, but in the past two years competitors have entered a growing retail market that industry sources guesstimate at anywhere from $50 million to $500 million.

My first pull on that bottle back in July apparently was a lucky break. Just three weeks earlier, kombucha deliveries had stopped after the TTB, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, alerted grocers that kombucha makers could be flouting U.S. law. Because the drink is unpasteurized, fermentation continues after bottling; if a bottle sits on a shelf too long, the alcohol content can rise above the taxable rate of 0.5 percent.

Online, I saw that some apopletic kombucha lovers suddenly cut off from their hooch were blaming Alcoholics Anonymous for tipping off the TTB. Others were bad-mouthing Lindsay Lohan, whom TMZ had photographed holding a bottle of kombucha around the time when her court-mandated alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet had gone off.

Pretty amusing.

For us, though, life would continue. As much we enjoyed the drink, at $4 a bottle kombucha didn't exactly smack of habit-forming.

Then Tim reminded me that on said trip to see our New York friends, he had watched our host's husband set a batch of homemade kombucha to brew.

Bingo.

I got on Craigslist and found a woman in Northwest Washington selling a pair of SCOBYs and starter liquid for $5. "This is totally normal, right?" I thought, buzzing her intercom one Sunday and wondering if I was about to make the papers in a way that didn't pay.

Inside, the home-brewer's husband and toddler came to say hello as she presented the SCOBYs and explained the brewing process, telling me how kombucha had cleared up their respective digestion problems.


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