Looking for a not too sweet soda alternative at Whole Foods in Venice, California about seven years ago, I picked up a clear glass bottle with a white and blue label that read, "G.T.'s Kombucha." The flavor was described as "Original." What's kombucha? I wondered. So, I flipped over the vessel to find tea, sugar, water, and "100% pure love!!!" listed as ingredients. Out of pure curiosity, I bought the bottle, noting a few other flavors on the refrigerated shelf, like Gingerade, Cranberry, and Citrus (now named Lemonade). But going with Original for a first taste seemed like the right idea.
Pow! Sour tang and prickly carbonation walloped me in the face as I swallowed the vinegary drink. I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about the taste at first. It certainly wasn't sweet (which I appreciated), and I sort of liked the fermented funky flavor. Taking a closer look at the bottle, I realized kombucha was some kind of health drink that apparently, according to marketing jargon on the label, helped the founder's mother beat cancer. So, the added benefit of a wellness-promoting product made the kombucha taste that much sweeter.
What Is Kombucha?
While kombucha—which is technically a fermented tea—has been consumed throughout the world in places like Russia and China for centuries, it's still a relatively new drink in the U.S. Kombucha is commonly made from a base of sweetened green or black tea (hot water and sugar are combined, tea leaves are steeped, then that mixture is cooled, and a small amount of previously brewed kombucha is added in to balance acidity), to which the brewer adds a SCOBY (or Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) starter, a round blob that looks like a flattened jellyfish. The SCOBY, or kombucha culture, is composed of a collection of bacteria and yeast which eat the sugar in the brew and, in turn, produce a tart, effervescent beverage. This fermentation process is not entirely dissimilar to the way wine is made (yeast eat sugar in grape juice and poop out carbon dioxide and alcohol), and as a result, kombucha bacteria produce a small amount of alcohol (usually between less than 0.5-2 percent ABV) as they eat the sugar, but also release glucuronic acid (believed to be a detoxifier), B vitamins, and more.
A kombucha SCOBY is sometimes referred to as the "mother" because, with each batch, a smaller SCOBY grows on the original one, and that baby can be separated from the "mother" to brew a new batch of tea. One only needs a bit of a SCOBY to kickstart the brewing process, and a single small piece will eventually grow into its own larger collection of bacteria, which will form on the top of the vessel holding the brew, thus protecting it from oxygen.
Los Angeles-based GT's Kombucha, part of Millennium Products, is considered the category's market leader, having launched way back in 1995. The company has appropriately grown over the years, expanding its portfolio of beverages in late 2010 from Classic Kombucha and Classic Synergy (the difference between Kombucha and Synergy is that the Synergy line has added fruit juices), to include the Enlightened brand—Enlightened Kombucha and Enlightened Synergy. More on this later, but now the Classic line bears an alcohol warning and one must be 21+ to purchase, while no id is necessary to buy Enlightened bottles.
In general, over the last 20 years, and most specifically in the last five years, this country has embraced kombucha as a lower-calorie, lower-sugar soda alternative that—as a fermented beverage—also has the added benefit of containing probiotics, along with the previously mentioned healthy acids and B vitamins.
A fact that the average kumbucha drinker probably doesn't realize, and a potentially disappointing outcome for home brewers, is that after going through a first fermentation, kombucha isn't naturally carbonated. Most—if not all the kombuchas at stores are carbonated—but in order to achieve those bubbles, the tea needs to go through a secondary fermentation. "Fruit is usually added, the SCOBY removed, and the bottle sealed airtight," explains New York-based home brewing pro Hannah Lehman.
GT's founder George Thomas says that "kombucha was reportedly first discovered in 221 B.C. in China," and his website describes the stuff as an "ancient elixir." But both Daina Trout of Los Angeles-based Health-Ade and Gary Hawes of Hawaii's TheBu kombucha companies agree that the drink's precise origin in unclear, though it is certainly a beverage steeped in history.
Following the success of GT's, Health-Ade, which began by sell its teas at farmers markets around Los Angeles, is also considered a pioneer of the beverage category, having debuted in 2012. Which really wasn't so long ago, and just goes to show how quickly the booch world has grown. In fact, according to market research, last year the kombucha industry was valued at 600 million, and is projected to grow to 1.8 billion over the next four years.
"Most books say [kombucha] has been around for thousands of years and consumed in countless cultures," says Trout. "I've read that Japanese samurai used to drink it as a 'miracle elixir' when they were out at war, and that Russian estheticians use it as their 'secret' to clear skin."
Hawes concedes, "There are numerous apocryphal stories out there, many conveniently used as marketing hype. These include an ancient Korean physican (Dr. Kombu) who cured a Chinese emperor with his magical tea elixir."
Is Kombucha Really Good For You?
Proclamations like "Elixir of Life," "I'm Alive!" and "Love-Health-Possibility," jump out from the labels of the kombuchas sampled as part of this Taste Test. Some bottles even list their purported powers: "Helps Improve: Liver Functions, Digestion, Body Alkalinity, Circulation, Weight Control, Metabolism, Respiratory & Immune System," followed by "*These Statements Have Not Been Approved By The FDA."
Up until just recently, I always considered kombucha a healthy drink. Why? I guess it has to do with reading that GT's label the first time I picked up a bottle, and the brand's story about how it helped the founder's mother, Laraine, overcome cancer. And while I am not saying kombucha isn't good for you, I am saying that some of the stories and marketing around the drink may lead consumers to believe it's some type of magic cure-all. But ultimately, there's no scientific evidence to support that.
However, there are some solid nutritional benefits to kombucha that many brands lean on, like the fact that the drink contains probiotics, often lactobacillus (the same bacteria in yogurt, and fermented foods like kimchi and kefir). Kombucha "has all the benefits of probiotics, organic acids, and tea, in a low carbohydrate beverage," explains Hawes, and Trout agrees, adding that, "kombucha is naturally rich in probiotics and healthy acids, as well as usually a great source of B12." GT further explains that kombucha "restores balance to the body's system through detoxification and alkalization," and that, "Once the body is restored to a more balanced state, it performs better and can heal itself."
Kombucha and Booze
A note customers will find on kombucha labels, which they wouldn't have spied prior to the summer of 2010, is the amount of alcohol in each bottle. In 1935, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) decided that if a product contains more than 0.5 percent alcohol, it is considered alcoholic, and must therefore carry a warning.
As mentioned, during kombucha production, the SCOBY yeasts and bacteria do release tiny amounts of alcohol, although there are ways a producers can decrease booze levels via filtration, pasteurization, and refrigeration. When kombucha first hit shelves, bottles did not carry any warnings. On June 17, 2010, Whole Foods pulled kombucha off its shelves after some products showed elevated levels of alcohol, and the retailer only returned to selling the drink once brands revised labels to indicate how much alcohol their drinks contained. Right around then was that whole Lindsay Lohan kombucha-SCRAM bracelet fiasco in which there were reports that her affinity for kombucha may have set the thing off (which turned out to not be the case).
In response to the Whole Foods incident, GT's slapped an alcohol warning on its original line, now dubbed Classic, and continued to sell the drink to those over 21 (these bottles supposedly contain between .025 percent and 1 percent ABV). Meanwhile, he likewise launched a second line, Enlightened, for those under 21, with drinks containing under 0.5 percent ABV.
In all fairness to producers, it's worthwhile to note that alcohol levels can increase from manufacturer to store shelves. So, those elevated alcohol levels in Whole Foods' bottles could have developed after the drinks had left production facilities. For example, if refrigeration isn't sufficient during transport, the bacteria keep eating the sugar and can produce more alcohol.
And as far as checking booch for booze, Trout explains that, "All tests are not created equal—so the method you use to test the alcohol level may matter." Further, while here in the U.S. we deem 0.5 percent to be the line between non-alcoholic and alcoholic, other countries have different thresholds for what constitutes a boozy drink.
Last fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that regulators had found more than half a percent of alcohol in some kombucha bottles, forcing them to send out warning letters to various brands. The piece also calls out two class action lawsuits against GT's Kombucha, one claiming the brand contained as much as 3.8 percent booze (by way of comparison, Bud Light clocks in at 4.2 percent ABV).
While I am suspicious about kombucha and its purported health benefits, I am a fan of the drink simply because I like it. I am keen on acid and sour-tangy flavors in general, it's low in calories and sugar, and I happen to like carbonated beverages. Especially when hungover. Kombucha has helped me combat a hangover or two (or at least I think it has). Plus, I am getting a probiotic boost along with those other supposedly healthy compounds.
So, taking a survey of the vastly matured kombucha scene, I—along with co-workers at Vox—sampled a bevy of beverages from big brands and small startups, with flavors ranging from Original to Taiwanese Guava to Watermelon Cayenne.
The base ingredients found in most kombuchas are water, tea, sugar, kombucha cultures (yeast and bacteria), and any fruit juice/flavoring a company chooses to add. Brands that decide not to add extra flavors usually name their most basic kombucha "Original," as was the case for that very first bottle of GT's ($3/16 oz.) that I tested years ago. Of course now myriad producers offer Original-flavored kombuchas, and many of those have a similar funky, sour, fermented flavor going on. However, the tangy and level of sweetness is more pronounced in certain brands. GT's falls somewhere in the middle, as does Health-Ade's original ($5/16 oz.) "bubbly probiotic tea," with its mild, sour-sweet taste. But, for example, the Original flavor by Portland, Oregon-based Humm ($3-4.50/12 oz.) leaned sweeter, while LA's Better Booch ($5/16 oz.) tasted more tea-forward. One of the most unique kombuchas we tried—a personal favorite and also a crowd winner—was Curly Wolf's Plain Jane brew ($4/12 oz.), made in Tucson, Arizona. There, founder Timothy Johnson ferments his kombucha in toasted American oak barrels for about a week, which yields an elegant, and slightly saline drink with an overall clean flavor.
By now it's easy to find creatively-flavored kombuchas. Those who dig the flavor of cherry will want to seek out Toronto's Vams Culture ($4.50-5/250ml) made with black cherry juice, while TheBu ($38 for 12-14 oz. bottles) draws inspiration from local Hawaiian fruits, yielding a line of drinks in flavors of tangerine, honeydrew, and a tropical blend of mango, passionfruit, and hibiscus. Out in Ohio, Bucha Bill ($30 for 6-12 oz. bottles) puts forth lavender tulsi, ginger, and watermelon cayenne, of which the latter was our favorite from the bunch. Meanwhile, Michigan's Unity Vibrations' ($4/12 oz.) Strawberry Vanilla was super fruity but not too sweet, fortified with fresh strawberries juice and vanilla bean for a drink that tasted as close to a milkshake as kombucha can get. It's what we'd give to a kombucha neophyte or someone who thinks they don't like kombucha at all.
Finally, we also loved Kombucha Dog ($4/12 oz.). Not only does the Los Angeles-based company brew vibrantly-flavored, well-balanced teas in simple flavors like mint, ginger, and wild blueberry using raw juice pressed in house, but owner and pro photographer Michael Faye gets extra points for his bottle art. He shoots photos of dogs who are up for adoption, and uses those images as bottle labels.
With so many excellent kombucha options out there now—beyond funky to exotically fruity and spiced—kombucha has clearly matured from a supposed health drink to a better soda alternative. Whether or not kombucha carries the curative properties some suggest, drink it because it can be delicious.