I used to feel guilty about not eating enough kale — lately, I’ve been more worried about my lack of participation in the national frenzy for kombucha. The question is why is everyone so keen on it right now? After all, the ancient-fermented-beverage-turned-trendy-health-elixir was first popularized at Whole Foods in the early aughts. But the passing years seem to have only made the craze for the drink more extreme. With ever more brands and flavors to choose from, it’s practically more mainstream than iced tea — and a lot more sexy (yes, GT’s “Tantric Turmeric,” I’m looking at you). My hipster in-laws insist on serving it, celebrities are photographed drinking it and I’m facing cooler cases full of the stuff everywhere from the grocery store to the gas station.
Here’s one thing holding me back from being a huge convert: Kombucha tastes pretty weird. I’d heard it described as delightfully bubbly and refreshingly sour; my first sip reminded me of some kind of tea stewed with vinegar, unwashed carrot peel and dirt. Given that the flavor wasn’t a slam-dunk for me and it costs between 3 and 5 bucks per bottle, I decided to take a closer look at how it’s made. Is kombucha really the miracle tonic it’s hyped up to be?
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Let’s start with the fact that there are many unproven health claims about kombucha. The rumors run the gamut: I’ve heard it can instantly cure a hangover, magically combat cancer, plump the skin and fix wrinkles. So what’s the real scoop? Turns out, the drink’s most authentic benefits are derived mainly from its large quantities of probiotics, which help re-establish healthy flora in the digestive system. This is no small advantage, as anyone who’s battled intestinal discomfort after a round of antibiotics, a long plane flight or a stressful business trip knows. Anything that helps the inner workings run smoothly is a worthy option in trying times, am I right? Beyond that all-important angle, there’s something else: It’s likely that such flora helps increase the absorption of nutrients in the gut, which helps boost the immune system.
To profit in these ways from kombucha, however, it turns out you must choose versions that are raw and unpasteurized — luckily, most of the widely available brands are exactly that. High heat destroys the live, friendly bacteria that confer the therapeutic effects. (This is equally as true for other fermented items such as kefir, the tart yogurt drink, as it is for kombucha.) With so many good-quality brands to choose from, I sampled widely until I found one I didn’t hate. For me that meant no undertones of dirt. With tolerable flavor in hand and convinced by the research that my gut health might benefit, I started drinking it a little more often. In the process, I found an addictive appeal in its tangy effervescence. Just as its fans promised.
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I began to like it so much, in fact, I decided to make my own kombucha at home. My hipster in-laws enthusiastically supplied me with a “mother” SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a flat, slimy “mushroom” that magically turns tea into kombucha. After setting it atop the sweet tea to transform the liquid through fermentation — I realized that making kombucha is like having a cool science experiment on the kitchen counter. I even began sampling the effects of adding various juices: Pomegranate is one of my favorites and turns the drink a pretty pink hue. Drinking the brew has made me feel healthy, and above all, regular. But possibly the best part? No more kombucha FOMO. Amen.
If you want to try it yourself, check out DIY Kombucha here. Or, keep things simple and add GT’s or Brew Dr. Kombucha, my taste-test unpasteurized favorites, to your grocery list.