Thursday, June 3, 2010

Compromising on Kombucha?

I hate kombucha. There, I said it. Until now I have kept this bit of information to myself, afraid of inviting judgment from peers at my school of natural medicine, who can be seen imbibing kombucha religiously, either a sample of their own home brew safely stored in a large mason jar or a bottle from one of the new age companies that now offer a variety of flavors and colors so that they can even match it to their outfits on any given day of the week. Drinking it daily, they believe, helps promotes healthy gut flora, its fermented state providing probiotics to the gastrointestinal tract, enhancing digestion and supporting detoxification. Meanwhile I carry around my rooibos or hojicha or occasionally hot water with lemon to keep my hands warm and my throat moist, and quietly blend in with the crowd of hippies healers in the halls. But deep down I am troubled by this fermented tea and wonder how it unexpectedly became the popular new superfood on the block.

Like all of creation kombucha begins with a baby, derived from a mother, which must be given the proper diet and environment to mature and grow. The mother in this case looks like a mushroom but is actually a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY. It dwells in a large glass jar, feeds on sugar that is added with black or green tea, and after a few weeks it becomes a mother itself and yields an enzyme-rich brew that contains probiotics, or “good” bacteria. The resulting tea is pungent, with more bite than apple cider vinegar, and its acidity is precisely why it must be kept in glass; any inferior material would leach into the brew. Eventually this mother spawns a baby that can be separated and placed in its own jar to generate a new batch of kombucha in a continuous circle of life.

I was introduced to this mysterious concoction as a first year student at Bastyr. Invited to a classmate’s home to study biochemistry, my host kindly offered me some tea upon arrival. I accepted and she proceeded to extract some liquid from a questionable source that appeared to be a brownish golden tea separated into several layers, one of them surely a thick pancake of mold. “It’s kombucha – it’s very good for you,” she explained, and that seemed to suffice, at least temporarily as I felt silly for my ignorance. I took a sip and winced, placed the cup down and did not pick it up again for the remainder of the evening. When I got up to leave, my friend insisted on giving me a starter kit, a kombucha baby of my own. She handed me a small jar but made me promise to transfer it to a large one. Where I would acquire such a jar, I wasn’t sure, but I thanked her, took my baby and drive home. When I pulled into my driveway I sat in the driver’s seat staring at the contents of the jar. I couldn’t bring this into my house. What would my non-Bastyrian housemates say? I decided to leave it on the floor of the car until I could plan my next move. Each day I drove to school, to work, to the grocery store and back home again unsure what to do with my adopted baby kombucha. I asked everyone for advice and conducted online research but two weeks later it became clear that I was not going to raise this kombucha. I was not going to transfer it to a larger jar, to feed it the sugar and tea that it needed, and I was increasingly fearful that the bacteria that appeared to be growing was not the “good” kind. One night when I arrived home I finally took the jar out of the car, walked straight up the driveway to this side of the house and disposed of it in my trash. I imagine the raccoons in my yard can now boast the healthiest intestinal microflora of any in Seattle.

Lately some chronic GI issues are making me rethink my stance against kombucha. Can it relieve my discomfort? Long tauted for its health benefits, kombucha is the drink of choice among the intestinally challenged and I wonder whether desperate times may call for a compromise in principles. Maybe I'll ask Jessie for some of her brew.


  1. i want so badly to love kombucha but i'm in the same boat...the animals that live in it scare me!

  2. I finally caved and tried it again at the Bastyr Herb and Food Fair this weekend. Did it like a shot. Could've used a chaser...thankfully the Theo chocolate samples were nearby. It wasn't completely awful but I'm not yet a believer.