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

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."

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.

I exhaled.

After the tutorial, she insisted that I taste her translucent brew, whereupon my lips puckered, my throat closed and I learned Rule No. 2: Although a fine, acidic kombucha is clearly open to interpretation, the drink should not taste like cleaning solution.

Once at home, I became convinced that this highly acidic starter set wouldn't work. As soon as I got into online forums in search of more brewing tips, however, I realized I had to deal with other issues.

For one thing, there were reports of bottles that had over-carbonated and exploded when left untended. Ah! Why had I acquired this thing right before leaving on vacation? My hardwood floors! Should I just stow the starter in the fridge and brew when I got back? Wait. No, somebody says the cold kills the culture. And what's with these handling instructions? Do I need to grab my SCOBYs with wooden tongs? What do you mean I can't taste the kombucha with a metal spoon?

Death was a recurring theme.

Finally, I threw caution to the wind and made the drink the way my Craigslist hook-up had instructed. Ten days later, we came home from our trip, I stuck a stainless-steel teaspoon into the jar for a taste or two, used my bare hands to remove the SCOBYs and bottled the drink. The next morning, I was happy to wake up alive. 'Cause, hey, neurotic beats dead any day. What's more, our kombucha was delicious.

"When I first started, I used to wear plastic gloves, because people had said, 'You can't have anything touch it. The dirt in your fingernails will get in there,'" Diane Rosenblatt, a longtime home-brewer in Passaic, N.J., who shipped SCOBYs across the country until 9/11, told me later. "Then I read that some far-out hippie type said never use plastic; the kombucha wants to interact with you, wants to be on your skin. So I stopped the gloves because that was one more thing to buy and store. I'd also always taken off my rings, but then I thought, 'Oh, right, [the SCOBY] wants to know me.' So now I just pick it up. I rinse my hands off with warm water; I don't even use soap. It's alive, and it adapts itself to your conditions, to the overall feeling in your house, your attitude.

"I have noticed," Rosenblatt added, "that people who are very detail-oriented sometimes have a hard time making it."

You see? Rule No. 3: Relax.

From the get-go, Tim and I have been hooked on the science-experiment aspect of kombucha. While I am fascinated by the slimy feel of the SCOBYs, he won't let his fingers get near them. Some days we watch them float. Other days, they sink. Sometimes the mother and baby coexist at different ends of the container, tethered only by the thinnest strands of culture.

Flavor-wise, it's been hard to go wrong. I've used plain-old Lipton black tea, organic whites and greens, and chais. I even got cocky and tried Earl Grey, which the Internet said was a sure failure. I also infused it with dried cranberries throughout the brewing process, another supposed no-no. As in cooking, I taste, taste, taste and bottle the brews to my liking.

In the meantime, some commercial kombucha has come back onto the market as makers reformulated the drinks to comply with federal alcohol laws. So I've been taste-testing.

Among the nationally distributed brands, Vibranz and Kombucha Wonder Drink, each available in a variety of fruity flavors, are respectable if your taste for kombucha skews sweet; GT's packs a punch that is more tart. A number of brewers told me their formulations might change as they continue tweaking them. Several, including Millennium Products and the upstart Maine Kombucha Co., are seeking winery or brewery licenses in order to keep the drinks unpasteurized and worry less about alcohol content.

Still, unless we're traveling, Tim and I prefer to let the housemade version work its magic on the ol' gastrointestinal tract. And it does, right?

Well, celebrity physician Andrew Weil, the Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society have pointed out that definitive human clinical trials have not been conducted to show whether the drink imparts health benefits. Moreover, they question the integrity of the beverage, given the fact that two Iowa women home-brewing from the same culture had problems in 1995. (One died; the other survived a heart attack.)

Randy Worobo, a microbiologist at Cornell University who studies the good bacteria produced by fermentation and works with kombucha, has a different take.

"The science hasn't yet been established where you can make an absolute claim," he said. "But, scientifically, you can explain the potential benefits for gastrointestinal health. You can see a link."

The good bacteria in kombucha don't themselves populate in the gut, but they do release small proteins that can foster the growth of digestion-aiding bacteria in the gut, he explained.

Worobo also reassured me once and for all that as long as I don't get mold on my culture, I won't kill it - or my husband.

"You've seen mold on bread, right?" Worobo asked. "It looks the same on top of kombucha. See that, and throw it out." To wit, Rule No. 4.

A month or so ago, we were headed back to New York, so I packed a jar of one of my best batches and two beautiful SCOBYs for our friends. Two weeks later they were thrilled at their results: much more potent than what they were used to. And so it was that I learned the ultimate tenet in the curious universe of kombucha: Pass it on.

Recipe

Kombucha

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