Kombucha: The Magical Drink

Kombucha is a fermented beverage considered by many to have health-giving qualities that improve the immune system, detoxify the blood, improve digestion and strengthen the kidneys and liver. In its simplest form, kombucha is brewed from black tea, sugar and a culture that is made up of a colony of bacteria and yeast. Tea varieties, sweeteners and flavorings all change the character of the final beverage.

The earliest records of kombucha date back to China’s Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), whereby it was believed to have magical powers that enabled people to live forever. Later, travelers brought kombucha to Russia and Western Europe, where it was regarded as a health-giving drink. It gained popularity in the 1920s, and then almost disappeared during World War, when tea and sugar were scarce. In the 1960s, the beverage was “rediscovered” as part of the natural-food and back-to-the-earth movements, and its healing properties were again acclaimed. German and Russian scientists studied the drink for its medicinal value as a probiotic. Although no scientific conclusion has ever been reached about kombucha’s properties, natural-health practitioners believe it to strengthen the immune system and help cure many illnesses.

In the U.S., kombucha was less well known. Health-seekers brewed their own or bought from local sources, as commercial versions were virtually unknown. In 1993, a woman named Laraine Dave began drinking kombucha daily. Two years later, Dave was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. As doctors monitored her disease, they discovered the cancer had not metastasized. Dave attributed her recovery to kombucha, and continued to drink it daily during chemotherapy. Dave’s teenaged son, G.T., was fascinated with the miracle drink he believed saves his mother’s life, started brewing it in his parents’ kitchen and sold the bottled kombucha to local health-food stores. Soon, he was marketing his product to grocery stores as GT’s Kombucha.

According to industry analysts, U.S. kombucha sales of all store brands exceeded $150 million in 2010. Retailers such as Whole Foods carry numerous brands, ranging from GT’s (which now includes more than 19 flavors) to new startups offering wild flavor combinations designed to “zing” the senses while nurturing the body. Some local natural-food stores and health-minded restaurants brew their own varieties, serving them up at juice bars and even making bottled versions available for customers to enjoy at home. Brew-it-yourself kombucha is booming, with many websites offering advice, instructional videos and starter kits. Online forums and trading sites offer home brewers everything from discussions of new flavors and what-went-wrong advice to trading opportunities for kombucha starter.

Ed Kasper, a retired acupuncturist and medicinal herbalist, owns and operates The Happy Herbalist, an online company in Cary, North Carolina, and offers information, instruction and supplies for kombucha and traditional Eastern healthy living. “You can make it with ginger, goji berries, hawthorns and water berries, which are traditional folk medicines and can add flavor with herbs and spices,” he says. Kasper is a consultant and advisor to national, regional and local kombucha brewers, and has been one of the drink’s leading advocates since 1997. “When you age it a bit longer, it turns toward vinegar and is great for a hair rinse, foot splash or for soaking your feet in with roses and other acidic plants because it perks them up,” he adds.

Local commercially brewed kombucha is available in the Chicago area to those who seek it out. Murphy’s Health Foods and Juice Bar in Libertyville began brewing and serving its own variety in 2010. Owner Lori Murphy says many customers come in specifically for the kombucha.

“Kombucha has remarkable properties as far as being live, cultured and giving good bacteria, amino acids and enzymes that are naturally occurring in a wonderful, effervescent drink,” says Murphy. “People with digestive disorders, low energy or chronic irritations seem to feel better when they drink kombucha on a regular basis.”

Bryan Baldwin, juice-bar server and kombucha brewer at Murphy’s, adds, “You get enormous antioxidant benefits of green tea, cultures and the friendly bacteria of the probiotics, enormous ketosis of living enzymes and detoxifying acids that are great for detoxifying the liver and the kidneys.”

Some people prefer to brew their own kombucha at home. All that is needed is a culture (often called a mushroom), a brewed tea and sugar, which acts as the medium to allow fermentation. “You brew your regular tea in a five-gallon jar to a strength ready to drink and then put a kombucha (culture) on top, ferment it for 21 days, remove the tea from the jar and you have a nice, delicious beverage you made all yourself,” says Hatice Yavuz, manager of Cousins Incredible Vitality, a raw restaurant in Chicago famous for brewing and bottling kombucha in various flavors.

Although the fermentation process is similar to that of making beer, the resemblance ends there. Kombucha is actually an acetic acid ferment centered on the glucronobacteria class of bacteria, as well as a few yeasts that tolerate the bacteria. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), kombucha is considered “yang” and awakens energy like a warm fire, says Kasper, adding that apple-cider vinegar has similar properties. Other popular fermented items, such as kefir, yogurt and kimchee, have “yin” properties.

Like anything else, though, too much of a good thing can bring trouble. “If somebody over-consumes kombucha, it might disturb their digestion because too much good bacteria will mess things up a little bit,” explains Murphy. She advises that children, pregnant and nursing mother avoid the beverage.

Kombucha cultures can be obtained online, through swaps with other brewers or by using an already-brewed starter. Experts agree that while brewing at home is a great option, one should read up on the process, proceed with a level of caution toward sanitation and be meticulous about cleanliness. Kombucha lovers agree that you can benefit from learning more about this wonderful drink and asking your doctor if it may have the potential to jump-start your own health.

Murphy’s Health Foods and Juice Bar, 400 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville 60048. Call 847-362-4664 or visit MurphysHealthFoods.net.

Cousins Incredible Vitality, 3038 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago 60618. Call 773-478-6868 or visit CousinsIV.com.

Ed Kasper LAc : call 888-425-8827 or 919-267-6776 or visit TheHappyHerbalist.com.

Recommended books:
Kombucha by Gunther W. Frank
Kombucha: Miracle Fungus by Harald Tietze

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