The obscure brew that could just replace your coffee

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Kombucha tea may be an acquired taste, but converts praise its energy-boosting health benefits and natural qualities.

By Terri Gleich
For Healthy Living

When Jennifer Paradis first tasted kombucha tea, she had one word for the tangy fermented beverage – “nasty.”

But after researching its reputed health benefits and giving it another try recently at the Poulsbo Farmers Market, she’s become such a big fan that she’s brewing the probiotic-rich mixture at home.

As part of an overall emphasis on healthy eating, the aerobics instructor replaced her morning coffee with kombucha and says she’s never felt better.

“I do find that I’m regular,” she said. “I have a lot of energy, but I’m not jittery. And I just have a sense of well-being.”

Long popular throughout the world, the carbonated brew is gaining ground in this country among health-conscious consumers like Paradis. According to SPINS, a market researcher for the natural products industry, U.S. kombucha sales grew 27 percent in 2011 to $370 million.

In Kitsap County, the elixir is available from local producers such as Symbiosis Farms, which sells it at the Poulsbo Farmers Market and the Lynwood Community Market. Hitchcock Delicatessen and Charcuterie on Bainbridge also brews and sells its own kombucha.

Local groceries, including Central Market and Fred Meyer, sell bottles of the top national brands. But the trendy brew can be pricey: A16-ounce bottle of G.T.’s Enlightened Kombucha sells for $3.19 at Central Market.

That’s why some enthusiasts turn to home brewing. Bremerton retiree Shawn Neuman has been fermenting her own tea since 2007. She shares her knowledge and her SCOBY through her Kitsap Kombucha blog. Another popular source of information is and youtube offers numerous kombucha brewing videos.

SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. It looks like a cream-colored pancake and it is the key to making kombucha. When added to sweetened tea and allowed to sit for two to three weeks, the bacteria and yeast in the SCOBY eat the sugar in the tea, causing fermentation.

“All the live enzymes are in there,” said Neuman. “It hasn’t been cooked so the live probiotics are in there.”

She drinks 4 ounces of it every other day for the health benefits, which she believes include detoxifying the liver, but confessed that she doesn’t like the acidic flavor.

Kombucha might be an acquired taste, said Chef Brendan McGill, owner of Hitchcock Restaurant and the adjacent deli, but it is part of a long culinary tradition.

“Raw, fermented foods are absent in the American diet, but they have been present in the human diet as long as humans have been agricultural,” he said, citing sauerkraut and kim chee as examples.

McGill brews ten liters of kombucha with organic Assam tea every couple of weeks and sells it at the deli in 1-liter bottles. The tea is $10 and there’s a $5 deposit for the flip-top glass bottle.

“We’ve been selling it faster than I can produce it,” he said, adding that he’d like to make four times as much but needs to figure out the logistics. Kombucha must be brewed in glass containers that have enough space for the SCOBY.

Kombucha is thought to date back to 200 B.C. It is known as the “Tea of Immortality” in China and kombucha web sites tout health benefits that include easing arthritis pain, improving eyesight and aiding in weight loss.

Dr. Spencer Root, a gastroenterologist with The Doctor’s Clinic in Silverdale, said there have been no studies done in the U.S. on the health benefits of kombucha. But there is a body of research that shows probiotics aid in digestion and help keep the immune system healthy.

“I suspect that it is in general good for folks,” Root said of kombucha.

However, he said, because it’s raw and can continue to ferment after bottling, the tea can have varying amounts of alcohol in it. He recommended buying from a reputable source or doing careful research before brewing the mixture at home.

In 2010, kombucha made national headlines when Whole Foods pulled all brands of the brew from its shelves because of concerns that the alcohol content exceeded the 0.5 percent allowed by law for non-alcoholic beverages. The issue was quickly resolved after national brands, such as GT’s Kombucha, reworked their formulas.

Home brewers need to closely monitor the second stage of fermentation, when a lack of oxygen carbonates the drink but can also raise the alcohol level. Many websites give tips on managing the brewing process.

Scott Gambrill of Symbiosis Farms on Bainbridge Island has had to get up to speed quickly on all aspects of the brew, since he and his two partners started making it in May to accompany the Turkish flatbread sandwiches they sell at the Poulsbo and Lynwood markets. They ask people to bring their own reusable jugs for the tea, which sells for $8 for a half-gallon.

Through trial and error, the Symbiosis farmers have developed a popular blend that offsets the slightly vinegary taste of the fermented tea with fruit juice.

“It’s a delicious beverage that’s also good for you,” Gambrill said. “It’s exciting to be a part of the revival of this ancient beverage that is a health elixir.”

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