August 10, 2006
story and photos by LUKE T. JOHNSON
Isaac darted into Wildberries. He was looking for some nourishment — something about downing a pitcher of Kilt Lifter in the afternoon that'll wear a man down. He needed some energy if he was going to make any kind of showing at his friends' Fourth of July barbecue. He stood in front of the cooler in the back of the market, tufts of blond hair poking out from under his black Sacramento Kings cap, and stared at a rainbow of healthy juices and new age tonics. He grabbed one — paid almost four dollars for it — and proceeded to the party.
Lounging on the back patio, with hip-hop beats bumpin' amid wafts of exotic shish kabobs and deeply marinated chicken breasts, Isaac gingerly sipped his beverage. The bottle, sturdy and conservative, was wrapped in a glossy label packed with words like "rejuvenate," "restore" and "revitalize" next to stories of miraculous medical recoveries, all attributed to the liquid inside. It was called Synergy, a flavored blend of G.T.'s Kombucha tea. Isaac twisted the cap back onto the bottle and cradled it in his hands, quietly contemplating the bits of raw culture strands floating inside the bottle.
"Can I ask you something?" Mary, the jovial barbecue hostess, said to Isaac, pointing at the bottle. "Do you actually like the taste of that stuff? Because I heard it tastes nasty."
Isaac paused, unsure how to answer.
Gregg Devaney knows tea. He is the designated tea-buyer for the Arcata Co-op. Wiry and lean, he spends most mornings stocking shelves and chatting with customers in the Co-op tea aisle. He learned of Kombucha, a fermented tea drink, from his ex-wife about two years ago.
"I heard somebody say it was a big fad in China in the '70s, so I thought I'd give it a try," he says.
Like many other Kombucha-philes in Humboldt County, Devaney brews his own. His operation — based out of his pumpkin-colored, picket-fenced Sunny Brae home — yields about two gallons every two weeks or so. That's just about enough to sustain his daily habit: "about 12 ounces, three times a day."
"It gives you an interesting energy, I can't put my finger on it," he says, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses. "It's almost like a drug. It definitely affects how you're looking at things."
Devaney is relatively casual with the Kombucha he brews. After he steeps 10 teabags worth of tea in two gallons of sugar water he lets it cool overnight. In the morning, he adds the cooled tea to a pair of glass jars holding a "mother" Kombucha culture with a little bit of the previous cycle's brew as a sort of starter fluid (Kombucha must be brewed in glass because it reacts unpredictably with materials like metal and plastic). He shrouds the jars in a cloth, wraps a rubber band around each of them and places them in the corner of his bedroom next to his piano and a picture of his daughters.
"And then I don't pay attention to it," he says. Compared to the intimate, almost parental, relationship others share with their homebrews, Devaney may seem like a deadbeat Kombucha dad. Perhaps that's because his real kids do not get along with their father's "horrible" homebrew.
"My kids hate it," he says. "The 9-year-old thinks it's 100 percent disgusting. My 11-year-old is a little more open-minded: She thinks it's about 90 percent disgusting."
Left: Devaney's Kombucha cultures.
Devaney opens the tea cupboard in his cluttered kitchen, revealing a cornucopia of free tea samples and unsellable crushed boxes of tea — employment perks. He doesn't put much thought into the flavors of Kombucha that he brews — he just throws in whatever tea he has in excess any given week. He pulls a half-empty two-gallon glass jar of Yerba Mate-flavored Kombucha out of the refrigerator. Having just finished its brewing cycle a day or two earlier, the fluid is honey-brown with tints of green and bits of mother culture floating near the bottom like sediment. He pours a small glass and downs it in rhythm.
Devaney likes his Kombucha tasting strong. He lets his brews ferment a little longer than the suggested eight to 10 days to achieve a sour, tangier taste. To keep track of his brewing cycles, he refers to the 12 strips of butcher paper decorated with glitter and magic markers that adorn the side of his fridge — a homemade calendar straight out of arts and crafts hour. He marks each new cycle with a thick black 'K'. Each K is 12 or 13 magic marker squares apart.
Kombucha purists may be appalled at how Devaney deals with mother cultures that grow too big for the jar (a mother just about doubles in size with each successive brew; the newly formed "baby" culture is called a zooglea). While he does give some overgrown mothers away to interested friends and Co-op customers to start their own homebrews, he flings others into the field across the street from his house, leaving them to writhe in the hot sun like so many Floridian mothers-in-law. But he carries a conscience.
"I wouldn't feel good about throwing it in the garbage, so I throw it into nature and let nature deal with it," he says.
Kombucha... isn't that what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles say? Not quite. Kombucha is actually a kind of tangy, fairly acidic tea, fermented by a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria (the mother culture). Some people (mistakenly) call it "mushroom tea" because the mother cultures that form atop the tea resemble a flat mushroomy substance. But it's not a fungus. The mysterious squid-like pancake and the fermenting tea brewing beneath it has been called a host of names over the centuries, from the "remedy for immortality" to "moldy cow piss."
Kombucha use supposedly dates back to 221 B.C. during the Qin Dynasty in China. According to lore, the "Manchurian tea" made its way into Russia and down into Tibet in the ensuing centuries. In 414 A.D., a Korean physician named Dr. Kombu gave the drink to a Japanese emperor as a healing tonic. It came to be known at the Tsche of Kombu (or Kombu-cha).
Since then, the tea has made a number of cameos throughout history. In the 1950s, Soviet cancer researchers traveled to the region of Perm in the central western Ural Mountains, an area with a water supply known to be contaminated with such highly toxic and carcinogenic substances as mercury, lead and asbestos. The researchers were baffled by the excellent health (and lack of cancer) the region's residents exhibited. After learning that almost every household in the region had its own batch of Kombucha brewing (or, as it's known in Russia, "tea kvass"), the researchers concluded that the drink was most likely responsible for the region's resistance to disease.
Clearly it is Kombucha's curative properties that have propelled it into the vogue realm of New Age health craze. It has been claimed to cure everything from hangovers to AIDS— even flatulence and baldness. Kombucha enthusiasts say the drink is a natural source of energy. They say the folic and lactic acid produced in the fermentation process helps digestion by washing impurities from the body. They also point to the surplus of B vitamins in Kombucha, which help enhance the immune system and bolster metabolism.
But most of these medical claims are merely anecdotal, and very few are backed up by scientific research. Most medical analyses of Kombucha, in fact, have found it to be considerably more dangerous than it is beneficial. Drinking too much Kombucha (more than four ounces a day) has been associated with allergic reactions, jaundice, nausea and head and neck pain. One oft-quoted case in Iowa fingered Kombucha as the probable cause behind the otherwise unexplained death of a middle-aged woman in 1995.
Dr. Connie Basch, a family practitioner and obstetrician at Full Circle Center for Integrative Medicine in Arcata who specializes in herbal, nutritional and holistic medicine, says that Kombucha has been a deep concern of hers for some time, especially the homebrewed kind. She says that contamination from disease-causing bacteria is not only a possibility when brewing Kombucha, it is very difficult to avoid.
"It's always bothered me on an intuitive level that people were culturing things in their kitchens," she says. When culturing bacteria in the lab Basch says she has had trouble with contamination even under those controlled conditions. "It just seems to me like a very difficult thing to control unless you're a very sophisticated microbiologist, and I just doubt that people who are doing this are," she says with an incredulous chuckle and shake of the head.
Basch has her own horror stories of people she has encountered who have not fared so well in their Kombucha consumption. A colleague of hers, for example, developed hives from an allergic reaction to a batch of homebrew. One of Basch's patients had an especially gruesome reaction to some Kombucha that was most likely contaminated with what Basch diagnosed as Group A Strep.
This woman had been brewing Kombucha, feeding it to her young child and taking it herself. The child came to Basch with "a horrendous diaper rash" and later developed ulcers in his nose. The woman came in with "a horrible vaginitis" and went on to develop a bad ulcerative skin infection on her fingers and toes. It was all the same bacteria, which struck Basch as odd.
"It's weird — I've never seen as bad [a case] of Strep-vaginitis before. She had basically pus in her vagina, there was no yeast detectable. It looked like bacteria under the microscope, and what grew out was a very strong culture of Strep. And then she was getting pus under her [finger] nails, called a paronychia. So I cultured some of that pus and the same bug grew out. She had a bad ulcer on her toe, and I haven't cultured that, but I think it's the same germ."
Basch says she was unable to confirm if the infection came from the Kombucha because the tea was discarded before she could take a sample. But she says the fact that both mother and child were overrun by the same bug with the same sorts of symptoms is very unusual. "If they had both been eating potato salad at a church picnic or some other likely food, I would have blamed it on that," she says. "But there were no other likely sources in their history than [Kombucha]."
Basch says she has never tried Kombucha "because it's frightening." While some documented evidence does point to the anti-oxidant potential of the drink, she says there are plenty of far safer ways to get the same benefits, such as from blueberries, kale and other darkly and brightly colored vegetables and fruits. So why do people continue to drink Kombucha?
"I don't know," Basch says. "Marketing? Lore? I think people are just trying to do something that's healthy for themselves."
Alia Bhimani carefully rearranges jars of fermenting Kombucha on their shelves like a mother laying an infant down for a nap. She pats each one on the side, silently blessing it, then walks outside to sit on a blanket on her sunny Fieldbrook deck and pick through a bowl of organic cherries. "It responds to human vibration," she says. "We all give off energy as organisms. It wants to align with human beings. When humans connect with the food that they consume, the medicine in the food becomes more powerful."
Bhimani is attractive and enthusiastic, with a welcoming smile and eyes that can tell a story. She talks in detail about the strikingly personal relationship she shares with her Kombucha. Each of the 12 cultures on her shelves has its own name, identified with a white sticker label scrawled with pen, and Bhimani is very aware of the generations of gelatinous mother culture: There's Josephine, her first "momma," who "gave birth" to Juniper and Julian. Constant (who is named after a Joni Mitchell lyric) spawned Lily-Ann. Tracy and Talula are sisters — they came from the same mom. Jenna, named after Bhimani's own grandmother, is a conglomeration of a few different cultures, so she has more than one mom. Then there's Ani (as in DiFranco), Terry, Kali and Michelle, who is the youngest and thinnest and "taking some time to establish herself."
All of Bhimani's Kombuchas have female names, a very intentional decision. "There is something about Kombucha that is incredibly feminine," Bhimani says. Each culture, she says, is a life force capable of reproducing: "They're called mothers because they give birth to new babies each generation." Bhimani noticed that when she placed her jars in different corners of her house, some took longer to ferment than others. But when she placed all of the jars on the same shelf close to each other, their schedules would align and they would finish fermenting at the same time, not unlike women living under the same roof who get on the same menstrual cycle.
Kombucha also has a distinct memory, Bhimani says. If one batch is left to sit too long, producing a more acidic vinegar flavor, that mother will tend to make vinegar again the next time, she says. And if a mother makes a particularly tasty batch, it will "instinctively" produce subsequent high-quality batches. But Bhimani would never say one of her mommas makes better Kombucha than the others.
"Choosing one would be like trying to pick a favorite child from a few sets of quintuplets, and you know how the others would feel if they found out," Bhimani says.
Compared to other Kombucha homebrewers, Bhimani has a pretty substantial operation brewing in her home. But Bhimani is more than just another Kombucha brewer — she's an aspiring businesswoman. She was one of four grand prize winners in the Eureka Reporter's 2006 Economic Fuel Student Business Challenge, a contest designed to stimulate economic development in Humboldt County. Her award is worth $25,000 and she will use that money to begin a local Kombucha-brewing business: Give Nature, Give Nurture. Her business has been slow to develop because of some of the complications inherent in the food and beverage industry. Finding a commercial kitchen space — apparently hard to come by in Humboldt County — is Bhimani's first priority. The Food and Drug Administration requires such sanitation procedures, but Bhimani is already very cautious about keeping her Kombucha cultures immaculate.
Left: Bhimani testing the pH of a culture.
"I'm definitely not taking any short cuts on the sanitation of the cultures," she says. With a degree in environmental biology, Bhimani is very cognizant of the potential for contamination in a live culture of bacteria and yeast, but says she "thankfully" has never brewed a contaminated batch. She takes several precautions when preparing a new batch: She doesn't use tap water, for one thing (unless it's boiled), because it can sometimes contain unknown live organisms. She also immediately lowers the pH of a new batch of Kombucha by adding a good amount of starter fluid (already fermented tea) to the freshly steeped tea before dropping in the mother culture. The lower pH, she says, helps inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria while promoting a healthy environment for the Kombucha colony to reproduce (the pH of Bhimani's typical batch of Kombucha hovers somewhere between 2.7 and 2.9).
Bhimani is excited to share her Kombucha with Humboldt County. Her friends tell her she brews some of the best Kombucha they've ever tasted. She ultimately sees her fledgling business venture as a service project since she is providing a "good nurturing tonic" to people in the community. She believes that, like honey, Kombucha brewed locally to those who consume it is most beneficial to the consumer because, she says, it contains organisms and energy that help people adapt to their local climate and environment.
She pulls two nine-ounce bottles out of the fridge, each filled with an apple cider-colored liquid. They are firm and petite with smooth attractive curves — "the most feminine bottle on the market," Bhimani says. The labels identify this tea as Jasmine/Green, Bhimani's own unique Kombucha blend. Talula, sister of Tracy, produced this brew.
The tea is zesty and fresh as it slips past the lips, tickling with mild carbonation all the way down. It is a little tart — but sweet — and surprisingly refreshing on a sweaty summer day. The fizzy taste of alcohol lingers in the back of the throat for a second but quickly fades into a lightly fermented fruity flavor, almost like a hard cider (Kombucha contains traces of alcohol, but not enough for it to be considered alcoholic). Compared to larger commercial brands of Kombucha, which endure significantly longer fermentation periods resulting in a much stronger taste, Bhimani's brew is quite palatable — a pleasant introduction for a Kombucha virgin.
While Bhimani says Kombucha has improved her digestion and quelled her hypoglycemic symptoms since she started drinking it daily, she is quick to point out that the tea is not a magic potion that does one thing for everybody.
"It just brings things that are out of alignment back into harmony. It's a harmonizing tonic more than anything," she says.
Perhaps the most widely circulated success story attributed to Kombucha can be found on bottles of one of the most popular brands of the beverage, G.T.'s Kombucha. According to the bottle, founder G.T. Dave started the company in 1995 after he witnessed his mother's recovery from breast cancer, a recovery both he and she attribute to Kombucha.
In union with the health benefits he trumpets, Dave says without reservation that if done correctly Kombucha cannot be harmful. But he admits that "doing it correctly" is easier said than done. When he was first getting into Kombucha, brewing it and sharing cultures with friends, he says that almost all of the batches his friends were brewing came back with mold or some other sort of contamination. He says his friends' failures further inspired him to brew it commercially.
"I thought, what a shame: If [homebrewing] is the only way that people can enjoy this amazing gift, then it's not going to go very far."
Dave originally balked at the "pungent and aggressive" taste of Kombucha, but he was convinced to give it another try after his mother's recovery. He started brewing it commercially at his facility in Southern California, and 11 years later his Kombucha is one of the best-selling brands in Humboldt County and the rest of the country. He says much of the commercial success his product has seen is a direct result of a simple change in packaging. Worried that his product looked too much like a Snapple or any other "average" drink, he spent almost a year trying to come up with a new look, something that would give the product "more heart and soul." He eventually settled on the present label, which he says has more of an "Eastern vibe" with a lot of messaging and spiritual symbolism. Sales immediately increased after the label changed, he says.
"It speaks the language of people who are looking for Kombucha," he says about the improved packaging. Dave thinks Humboldt County is a unique sort of community that would be especially keen to something like Kombucha. It was obvious to him the first time he visited: "People in Humboldt County are just more aware. They have more of an open consciousness, they're more in tune with the earth, more in tune with nature," he says, indicating that these are the types of people who tend to click with Kombucha.
Left: Bhimani and her kombucha cultures.
Dave understands how quickly "health-qconscious" people tend to latch onto health fads like pomegranate juice, noni juice and even the Atkins diet, but he believes Kombucha is more of an enduring health choice, like drinking water, doing yoga or "eating your greens."
"There are a lot of snake oils out there, lots of fads and trends . . . there really is no silver bullet, there's no one food you can do and you'll just be fabulous," he says. "Kombucha kind of opens up your third eye, if you will, with your understanding and consciousness of health. It really puts you back in touch with your body and helps you understand that it's so important to keep your diet and your food simple."
If Kombucha does possess these mystical, third eye-opening properties, Dave says that is partly because of the tender, almost human relationship developed in the brewing process. All of the batches he brews — which he says number well into the thousands — are spawns of the original Kombucha culture he received from his parents 11 years ago. He thinks of his operation as a nursery and talks to his teas as they ferment. He even plays music for them to create a positive atmosphere: "They like jazz," he says, but he also plays different Indian hymns and chants, "stuff you might hear in a yoga studio."
"It's very sensitive to the energy around it," he says. "It prefers human contact rather than a sterile, automated, humanless production plant where everything is handled by a machine."
Back at the holiday barbecue, as the sun sank and smoldering firecrackers hazed the sky, Joanna pulled up a chair, joining Isaac and Mary's conversation at the patio table.
"Is that Kombucha?" Joanna asked, motioning toward the almost empty bottle in Isaac's hands. "That's supposed to be really good for you." Joanna said she had never tried the mysterious drink herself, but she knew several people who swore by the stuff. She said a group of women at the school where she works drink it every day and brew it at home. They bring their jars of fermenting tea into the office, she said, and trade Kombucha cultures with each other. They even bribe each other with especially tasty batches. It's like they're addicted.
Isaac unscrewed the cap of the Kombucha bottle again. "I don't know if I really like it," he said. "But I drink it anyway." And he finished it off.
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