Shadiyah's drink is going mainstream.
On You, Some Say,
Like a Fungus
Ancient Elixir's New Fans
Swear by Its Properties,
But It's an Acquired Taste
By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
June 23, 2007; Page A1
There's a new beverage on the market that's lightly carbonated, comes in a variety of fruity flavors and is said to be energizing and healthy.
Here's the recipe: Spike sugary tea with a pancake-like colony of yeasts and bacteria that ferments the drink and then duplicates itself in each batch.
That might not be everyone's idea of delicious, but Kombucha tea is becoming a fad among the health-food and yoga set. With total annual sales of about $34 million, Kombucha tea is still a small player compared to vitamin waters and sports drinks. But new versions of the tea are rolling out. The founders of Red Bull and Tazo tea, and a cohort of small companies now sell it. Whole Foods Markets carries seven different brands.
A selection of Kombucha teas
The popularity of bottled Kombucha is surprising because most first timers think it tastes awful. The flavor lies somewhere between vinegar and apple cider, but is perhaps best described as tasting like fruit juice that gets old in the back of the refrigerator and begins to ferment. And the taste isn't the only thing about Kombucha that's bracing. There is the smell, which some people describe as yeasty and others as garbage-like. And the way the drink looks: The tendrils of live Kombucha culture floating in some versions of the drink can be off-putting. "Very often we get calls from people who think the product has gone bad," says G.T. Dave of Millennium Products, which owns both the Synergy and GT's Organic Raw Kombucha brands. "The flavor definitely catches people off guard."
Makers use accents like mango, strawberry, pear and ginger, which is particularly popular, to try to mask the vinegar and yeast overtones. Still, even many Kombucha devotees -- many of whom say they have learned to love the beverage -- recall their first sip as being somewhat traumatic. Joe Parello, a 37-year-old semi-pro football player who also owns a delivery service in Pittsfield, Mass., now drinks Kombucha almost every day. But the first time he tasted it? "I thought it stunk," he says. He hasn't shared it with his teammates because "most football players are not really alternative conscious," Mr. Parello says.
Kombucha makers say the tea was first popularized in Qin Dynasty China, around 220 B.C., where it was believed to boost immunity. It became a staple of Russian folk medicine by the Middle Ages. Some Americans got their first taste of it in the 1970s, when it was a small part of the nascent organic-food scene, brewed in a handful of hippie kitchens, though not sold commercially.
It is made by brewing strong black tea, adding sugar and spiking the mixture with a Kombucha, a rubbery, flat, solid mass of yeasts and bacteria that contains fungi and other organisms. (The Kombucha is often referred to as a mushroom, but technically it isn't -- it just looks somewhat like one.) When made at home, the container is typically covered with cheesecloth and stored in a warm, dark place for a week or two.
The tea acidifies and ferments as the Kombucha reproduces itself, creating a "baby" culture, just like yogurt or sourdough does, that can be used to brew the next batch. Through the fermenting process, the tea develops a light effervescence and a variety of acids and enzymes, which aficionados say provides the drink with its health-giving properties. Doctors say that the advertised health benefits have never been scientifically proven.
Interest in Kombucha remained low until the early '90s, when Betsy Pryor, a medical writer in Los Angeles, was given a Kombucha culture in a meditation group. She brewed the tea for herself and found "all of the sudden my mind cleared and I felt reborn," she says. A flurry of press coverage helped Ms. Pryor's company, Laurel Farms, sell between 600 and 1000 Kombuchas a month, for $50 a piece. Many buyers went on to cultivate and share or sell their own "babies," further popularizing the drink.
In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report linking Kombucha to a woman who died in Iowa, and another who was severely sickened; both women had been regular drinkers of tea brewed from the same parent mushroom. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a letter reporting an outbreak of anthrax in Iran that was caused when spores accidentally landed on a batch of Kombucha brewing in unsanitary conditions in a barn.
The CDC report "destroyed our company," says Ms. Pryor, who says she had to refund consumers $70,000 that year; since then, orders have dropped "to a fraction of what they were." She says her Kombucha is safe, adding that the Iowa mushrooms didn't come from her company.
Kombucha is making a comeback now as beverage companies including Coca-Cola and Pepsi are acquiring or introducing vitamin waters, smoothies and energy-drink brands that claim to do everything from detoxify the system to protect against cancer.
Red Bull's chief executive, Dietrich Mateschitz, noticed the drink's following in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, says Nicolas Warchalowski, managing director for Carpe Diem Beverages U.S.A. Mr. Mateschitz launched Carpe Diem, a brand that includes a Kombucha drink, in Europe in 1998. After a successful market test for the past year and a half in southern California, Carpe Diem will be launched nationally this month.
Mr. Dave, founder of Synergy and GT's Organic Raw Kombucha, was 13 years old when his mother began drinking Kombucha in 1993. Crediting her recovery from cancer in part to her Kombucha consumption, the then-teenager started a small company that went national last year. Though his products are expensive relative to other brands -- between $3 and $4 for a 16-ounce bottle -- they are the market leader in the category.
Makers bottling Kombucha for retail say their products are safe because they are produced in strict sanitary conditions.
But taste is still a challenge. Katalyst Kombucha, a regional brand sold mostly in health-food stores in New England, has a sweeter, less-vinegary taste than several other national brands. The product is fermented down to a less-acidic PH, sweetened generously, and then, for the Ginger Devotion flavor, hit with lots of Hawaiian ginger juice, which almost completely masks the yeasty acidity of most Kombucha drinks. Co-owner Will Savitri says the company worked hard to produce a good-tasting product because he finds many types of Kombucha "pretty gross."
Mr. Savitri says the company, based in Greenfield, Mass., also plays Mongolian chants and Tibetan music for its 200 actively fermenting Kombuchas, which grow to the diameter of the 10- and 20-gallon fermentation vessels they float atop. This technique stems from research Mr. Savitri says he has conducted that indicates that music can transmit positive energy into water. "The goal is that the human body takes on that energy. It is said to be healing," Mr. Savitri says.
Casey Vaverka, a 34-year-old who works at a yoga studio in Portland, Ore., says she loved the taste Kombucha from the beginning and drinks it daily. Her boyfriend doesn't share her fondness, though. He "thinks it tastes hideous," she says.