illustration by darren gygi
Kombucha, a fermented tea, has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times. In the U.S., though, it was mostly a niche beverage, brewed by back-to-the-land enthusiasts who saw it as a natural health elixir. In the 2000s, suddenly celebs from Lindsay Lohan to Madonna were spotted drinking the beverage, and claims of its anti-aging and healing properties were spreading all over the internet. In 2009, GT’s Kombucha, the top national producer, had its first million-bottle year. Overall kombucha sales have jumped from $128 million in 2009 to $529 million in 2014, and its projected that sales will hit $1.8 billion by 2020. Now, seemingly everyone from your mom to your dental hygienist is buying kombucha by the bottle, filling up growlers, or even brewing their own.
Proponents say kombucha’s flavor is delightfully refreshing, like a tart, vinegary hybrid of fruit juice and sparkling water. If you take a close look at the bottom of a kombucha vessel, there are often gooey strands and globs of something that looks like it should have been caught by quality control. In fact, these are natural bacterial remnants from a kombucha SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast—the funky substance (it looks like a slimy disc of pita bread) that floats on top of the mixture of sugar, water, and tea that is used to brew kombucha. During the fermentation process, the SCOBY feeds off the sugar, releasing bacteria as well as trace amounts of alcohol.
While some fans drink kombucha simply for the flavor, others believe they experience health benefits due to the beverage’s probiotic content. Dr. Courtney Baechler of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis regularly recommends kombucha to her patients, and says she has seen their health improve as a result. “It’s good for people having a hard time with digestion or low energy, who are looking to optimize immune health, or working on detoxification,” she says. The benefits Dr. Baechler describes are anecdotal, as extensive research has yet to be done on kombucha and most probiotic strains. “Since there are not things to patent in kombucha or probiotics, there aren’t the same financial incentives that often drive some of the research agenda,” she explains.
Drinking kombucha isn’t without its risks, and home brewers must be careful that their concoctions are not contaminated by harmful molds. The consumer health section of Mayo Clinic’s website also notes that, in rare cases, kombucha drinkers have reported adverse effects, and, due to the lack of evidence supporting the beverage’s health benefits, recommends avoiding it.
Such advice hasn’t dampened local enthusiasm for the drink. Deane’s Kombucha, the first Twin Cities kombucha brand, went commercial seven years ago and today is joined by a handful of other local brands. Drake Ellingboe, founder of Lake State Kombucha, launched his company in 2014 and predicts that kombucha will soon become more mainstream in the region. “Almost every grocery store you go into currently has kombucha,” says Ellingboe. “I’ve heard that areas on the coasts are even selling kombucha on tap at gas stations—but the market in Minnesota is just now starting to get competitive.”
While the drink doesn’t have the reach that it does in other parts of the country, in 2014 kombucha debuted on one of the biggest stages in Minnesota for food and drink: the State Fair. And more and more local breweries are also serving kombucha on tap as a non-alcoholic option with many of the same flavor nuances and artisanal characteristics that craft beer drinkers enjoy. “I have a feeling the kombucha craze could be similar to the craft beer explosion,” Ellingboe predicts.