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Look To the Mother

The professed health-enhancing effects of kombucha tea have earned it growing popularity and a legion of enthusiasts

by Erin Pihlaja on August 9, 2012

Among the flyers posted on the bulletin board at the Honest Weight Food Co-op are a few squares of paper that read, “Wanted: kombucha mother.” Pinned against other requests for reliable used cars, items for sale, and various types of services needed, these notes seem like odd and sad cries for help written by lost alien offspring—unless the reader knows what kombucha is.

Also known as the champagne of life, the fungus of charity, the tea of immortality, and tea kvass—kombucha tea is a tart, brownish-colored beverage that is the product of the lacto-fermentation process. A culture composed of bacteria and yeast, known as the “mother” or “SCOBY,” is contained for over a week in a solution of sugar and tea. The culture digests the sweetened liquid and produces an array of acids, minerals, vitamins, probiotics, and enzymes. During the process, the original zoogleal mat creates another culture, often called the “daughter.” Both cultures are light colored and rubbery, and resemble a mushroom.

The tea’s origins have been traced back to early China and Japan, before it spread to Russia and other parts of Europe. Eventually the tonic appeared in the United States, and developed an ardent following (as well as a group of detractors starkly opposed to the brew). Supporters claim that kombucha tea aids digestion, improves the function of the immune system, clears acne, and helps cure a slew of diseases including cancer. Critics dismiss the healing powers of the drink and say that because production, often in the creator’s home, is often unregulated; the risk of contamination from unsanitary conditions could cause serious illness. Very little research has been conducted to address either group’s claims; and the few studies that do exist were conducted on laboratory animals outside of the United States in the 1940s and ’50s.

The public image of kombucha tea as a health food took a hit in 2010 when the upscale grocery chain, Whole Foods Market, pulled the products from its stores. The tea is fermented and contains a trace amount of alcohol, around 0.5 percent, and that amount can increase as the unpasteurized product sits on shelves. (Embattled starlet Lindsay Lohan even avoided jail time in 2011 when she blamed a failed alcohol test on the drink.)  Manufacturers answered back with warning labels, different recipes, and heat-treated versions, making the FDA happy but leaving kombucha fans displeased.

“That whole FDA thing is so corrupt and gangster,” says Joan Mahony of Coeyman’s Hollow. “After they changed the regulations, it’s much less potent now.” Mahony, a long-time consumer of kombucha tea, isn’t necessarily looking for a buzz, she just likes the way that the beverage fits into her lifestyle. She consumes a largely raw food diet and grows most of her own food. She also regularly eats fermented foods like kefir, a cultured milk product that is denser than yogurt, because she believes that fermented foods contribute to good gut health. “I wake up inspired and have clarity of mind when I fast and detox,” she says. “Kombucha is part of the whole package, it’s a booster.” Mahony is one of the people that posted on the community board at the co-op looking for a kombucha mother. She has been purchasing the tea from stores but is looking forward to making her own.

So is Kathryn Eastman, an environmental conservationist from Bethlehem. “It’s expensive,” she says. “Plus it’s satisfying to make things yourself.” Eastman first heard about kombucha tea from some chemists who worked in her office building. “They were making their own,” she says. “One said that she was helping her brother survive a major illness.” A year later, Eastman was looking to get a good rate on her life insurance and embarked on a health kick. She incorporated kombucha tea into her regimen. “I had high cholesterol, low bone density—I wanted to fix a bunch of stuff,” she says. She credits kombucha, along with her other lifestyle changes, with helping her to lose 25 pounds, lowering her cholesterol, and clearing up her psoriasis; and ultimately getting her a deal on her insurance policy.

Kombucha success stories add believers to the growing number of kombucha disciples. G.T. Dave, the creator and owner of Synergy Drinks, and his mother Laraine Dave, claim that drinking the tea daily helped her beat an aggressive form of breast cancer. Rumors abound that former President Ronald Reagan also fought his cancer by downing the drink. Internet forums list the testimonies of hundreds of people claiming that kombucha has saved their lives and cured their ailments. However, the real proof of the brew’s popularity is not in the blogosphere but in cold, hard cash.

Sales of kombucha products have consistently grown over the last few years and recently increased  27 percent to reach $370 million per year. While some major manufacturers like Coca-Cola and Honest Tea have looked to kombucha drinks to boost sales, most of the revenue comes from small companies, many of which began with modest operations in a private home. And this means that nearly anyone could become a manufacturer of kombucha, as long as they can find a mother.