A Matter of Culture

Fizzy and fermented, kombucha may or may not save your life.

It starts with big blobs of bacteria — but hey, some of the best things do. These blobs bob in sugared tea to produce a sweet-and-sour, naturally fizzy, fermented drink that some say cures cancer, diabetes, migraines, asthma, acne, AIDS, hangovers, bronchitis, psoriasis, insomnia, fatigue, arteriosclerosis, bad eyesight, cold sores, and erectile dysfunction. Packed with probiotics, polyphenols, amino acids, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, yeasts, detoxifiers, membrane-strengtheners, free-radical scavengers, immunity-boosters, anti-inflammatories, antibacterials, antibiotics, and anti-parasiticals, it’s kombucha — and it’s also said to burn body fat and grow hair on bald heads.

Although its origins are veiled in mystery, kombucha has been brewed in Europe for centuries and in Asia — if rumors are true — for millennia. Often misidentified as mushrooms, the blobs are cultures. Scientifically classified as a “zoogleal mat” or “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast” — scoby for short — each white, Frisbee-shaped blob will expand indefinitely if treated well, and can be divvied up to make ever more kombucha, year on year.

As word spreads about its alleged healing powers, a kombucha boom is afoot nationwide. And, as happens with most miracle cures, the East Bay’s all over it.

Major brands have been brewing kombuchas these last few years: Red Bull introduced its Carpe Diem Kombucha three years ago. But when it comes to funky-tasting fizzy drinks and cold-sore cures, why not go local? Several small companies are brewing the spumante stuff right here.

When Lev Kilun was growing up in the Soviet Union, nearly every household made its own kombucha. After immigrating to the United States twenty years ago, he missed the drink so intensely that he began brewing it at home. When his American friends tried it and loved it, “my hobby got carried away” and became a business. First, Kilun brewed Lev’s Original Kombucha in Oakland’s now-defunct Cafe Lyon. Last year, he moved brewing operations to a former military kitchen on Treasure Island.

“It’s right at sea level, so you couldn’t get better air pressure if you tried,” said the longtime telecommunications engineer, adding that the island’s cool temperatures and fresh sea air benefit the brewing process.

Sold in bottles at many stores and on tap at Oakland’s A Cuppa Tea, Berkeley’s Ashkenaz, and other locations, Lev’s is made with 100 percent organic whole-leaf green tea. Most big companies use black.

“Black tea has a musty taste,” Kilun explained. “I prefer the flavor of green tea. It’s light and fragile, so it produces a kombucha that’s more like Champagne.” Although he prefers unflavored kombucha, “in which you can really taste the tea,” Lev’s also comes in mint and fruit flavors. And although Kilun prefers kombucha “as a chaser or as a remedy after a rough night” rather than as a cocktail ingredient — “because when you mix it with alcohol, you kill the bacteria and neutralize the probiotics” — he knows that bartenders make mint-kombucha mojitos and mango-kombucha mimosas. His ancestors might balk at that, but he just laughs.

“I don’t think of kombucha as Russian anymore.”

Kombucha is among the old-fashioned foods produced at Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth cooking cooperative, whose worker-owners promote the writings of early 20th-century nutritionist and indigenous-diet advocate Weston A. Price. Three Stone’s hibiscus, antique-rose, grape, and grape-lemon kombuchas are made with organic black, green, and white teas, unbleached cane sugar, and reverse-osmosis water, explained co-owner Jessica Prentice.

“Nonalcoholic fermented drinks are really common in traditional diets around the world,” Prentice said. As for whether or not kombucha is a miracle cure, “I don’t think we’ll ever know,” but the antioxidant power of green tea alone is one its many health-giving components.

“Yes, it has caffeine, but a lot of traditional people ate things containing stimulants,” she said. “In those traditional foods, those stimulants are balanced by other things. In kombucha, the caffeine is balanced by lactic acid and probiotics.”

In sugary soda pop, caffeine isn’t balanced by anything.

“Soft drinks are horrible,” Prentice said, adding that there’s nothing worse in the standard American diet. “But I think these foods and drinks that people are now so attracted to are all toxic mimics of other things that were nourishing once upon a time. Kombucha is the nourishing ancestor of the toxic mimic that is modern soft drinks.”

In the kitchen at Berkeley’s Cultured Pickle Shop, Alex Hozven displayed the five-gallon glass vats in which huge gloopy cultures were busily transmogrifying sugar in black tea.

“These just got fed,” she said. Later in the fermentation process — which takes about two weeks in winter, one week in summer — Hozven would pour off some of the original liquid and add others for flavor. Her specialty is seasonal vegetable flavors such as pumpkin, celery, carrot, fennel, jalapeño pepper, turnip, and beet. No two batches are quite alike. And while most commercial kombuchas are strained diligently before bottling to remove every last scoby scrap, globs swim proudly in Cultured’s.

“You’re always going to get a few strands of culture,” said Hozven, who first discovered kombucha thirteen years ago when she sought a caffeine-free energizer while nursing her son. “I’ve come to really like those bits.”

The Bay Area’s oldest kombucha company, Emeryville-based Rejuvenation, also is one of the nation’s oldest. An avid vegetarian for more than 45 years, Dennis Campagna launched it 27 years ago with the fermented sprouted-wheat drink Rejuvelac, then added kombucha, which he had long been brewing for himself at home.

“In those days, the health-food industry was very different than it is now,” said the founder’s nephew, Chris Campagna, who is now Rejuvenation’s operations manager. “It wasn’t about the mass market and the megastores. It was mostly mom-and-pop health-food stores, where my uncle could go in and tell them about his products and they could taste it and make up their own minds.”

Still family-owned, Rejuvenation sells its 100 percent organic black-tea kombucha in three different sizes, which most companies don’t. This is part of what Campagna calls his “kombucha for the masses” philosophy, which also entails using a bit more sugar in the recipe than other outfits do: “We make that tradeoff to produce a really, really palatable product,” he said. The result is indeed a perfect gateway kombucha for newbies: effervescent, engagingly mild, and mercifully glob-free.

At her Sage Table cooking classes, Berkeley’s Dara Merin offers kombucha tastings and teaches kombucha-brewing. Her favorite recipe starts with black and green tea and raw organic sugar. In the later stages, she adds the assertive juice of freshly grated ginger.

“I love that each batch of kombucha comes out different, with a slight variation in the sweetness and strength and amount of fizz,” Merin said. “I love watching it change every day while it’s brewing.”

Best of all, she loves kombucha’s power to create community.

“When your scoby grows too big, you have to share. If you want to start homebrewing, put the word out, and I guarantee that someone will know someone who would be more than happy to share some of their culture with you. That’s the ancient way of food preparation, this idea of a culture being shared from person to person, neighbor to neighbor, village to village.

“That’s such a beautiful thing.”

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