“Did you know,” I say, “that Donald Trump drinks twelve Diet Cokes a day?”
I’m at The Plant, an agricultural experiment housed in a former meat-processing plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The Plant comprises a dozen food companies collaborating in a zero-waste economy. Brewers donate barley byproducts as food for the fish hatchery, and fish poop fertilizes aquaponic gardens. The place vibrates with optimism and ingenuity. It’s the ideal home for Kombuchade, Matt Lancor’s Kombucha enterprise.
Kombucha is a bubbly, fermented drink, usually served chilled, and made from tea, sugar and a starter called by its acronym, Scoby: a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. And lately, it is everywhere. More than fifty-one percent of twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds are regular Kombucha drinkers, and the rest of us are catching up. PepsiCo and Coors acquired established Kombucha brands, betting that demand will grow.
There are three commercial Kombucha brewers in the Chicago area: Kombucha Brava in Evanston, Arize Kombucha (also housed in The Plant) and Matt’s Kombuchade. I’m talking to Matt about Kombucha—once the most fringe of hippie drinks, now the Next Big Thing.
At the moment, though, we are discussing Diet Coke, which I quit because of Donald Trump. I don’t judge anybody for anything they drink, but the thought of Trump downing all that Diet Coke repulsed me, and my own habit vanished. I turned to Kombucha as a suitable fizzy substitute, and I’m experimenting with drinking it every day.
Matt holds a degree in material engineering from the University of Illinois, is ridiculously sharp, and takes my Diet Coke question—like all my questions—in stride. A serious athlete and longtime rugby player, Matt discovered Kombucha at a Seattle tournament with the Chicago Lions in 2014.
He felt dissatisfied with sports drinks and packets of sugar-and-caffeine-laden goo that he and his rugby teammates relied upon for refueling during the recovery time between matches. He was looking for something better. He noticed Kombucha in a Seattle grocery store. It was the first time he’d seen it and he was intrigued. The drink contained probiotics, vitamins B and C, organic acids. “If this doesn’t taste like shit,” thought Matt, “this is exactly what I’m looking for.” He bought three bottles and swapped them for his usual recovery drinks at the tournament.
Not only did it not taste like shit, “I felt amazing,” he says. “My energy levels felt stable, and I could break down and digest food for fuel more efficiently.” He was hooked and was soon making forty bottles a week at home for himself and his rugby teammates. In 2015 he formed Kombuchade, marketing his light, crisp Kombucha as an alternative to sport and energy drinks. (He calls it “performance Kombucha.”) These days, he supplies a long list of Chicago cafés and grocery stores.
Matt thinks of each human body as a Kombucha. In his metaphor, the body is a brewing vessel into which we add liquids and solids for a process of fermentation and transformation. The final product is how well we function: “How do you perform? How do you feel?”
Which brings us back to the Diet Coke question.
“What would the Kombucha look like if you were feeding it twelve Diet Cokes a day?” he says, with a shudder. “That’s basically artificial sweetener and food coloring. I can’t imagine making a Kombucha using those ingredients.”
He insists, though, that we don’t need a perfect diet to benefit from Kombucha, and he tells me about his personal experiments, like the time he ate a bunch of pizza followed by a bunch of Kombucha, finding he didn’t suffer the usual consequences of a pizza binge.
I tell Matt about my own experiment. I’m drinking sixteen ounces of Kombucha daily for forty days, looking for observable effects, wondering if I’ll end up with a story of my own.
There are Kombucha stories aplenty. Reading about it online, I learn it comes from China, invented thousands of years ago by a Korean doctor. Or it comes from ancient Egypt, brewed while the Great Pyramid was built. Or it comes from Russia, where it once enabled an eighty-year-old woman to conceive and deliver a healthy baby.
Kombucha traveled to the United States in the 1980s via health-conscious yogis in the Pacific Northwest. Or via AIDS patients in San Francisco, seeking a miracle. Or—my favorite, and certainly apocryphal—via Ronald Reagan. Diagnosed with cancer in 1985, Reagan read about the benefits of Kombucha in a Russian novel, ordered a Scoby from Japan, and began brewing at the White House.
It’s hard to get the story straight. The wildest discrepancies surround Kombucha’s health effects, from rumors of reproductive miracles and cancer cures to conservative warnings about risks and alcohol levels. In 2010, Lindsay Lohan blamed the triggering of her court-ordered alcohol bracelet on Kombucha consumption. That same year, a random test found the alcohol levels in some Kombucha exceeded the percentage listed on the label, and it was pulled from the shelves of Whole Foods for two years. This publicity might have boosted awareness of Kombucha, so that when it was again available, it was poised for success. When I talk to friends about Kombucha, the question, “Can I get drunk off it?” comes up, but the main question is: “What is it good for? What does it do?”
There have been no reputable human studies on Kombucha. An article on the Mayo Clinic website states flatly that there isn’t enough evidence to support health claims for the fermented tea but concedes that it “may offer benefits similar to probiotic supplements, including promoting a healthy immune system and preventing constipation.” This concession supports Matt’s experience. It also supports the origin story of Evanston’s Kombucha Brava, told to me by its proprietors, Regina Sant’Anna and Douglas Skites in their gleaming new Evanston kitchen and storefront. Doug and Regina, partners in marriage as well as business, are the newest Chicago-area brewers.
Several years ago, Doug began to suffer from food sensitivities. Nothing doctors prescribed helped much, and he resigned himself to a severely limited diet, losing weight and feeling generally unwell. On a whim, he grabbed a bottle of Kombucha at a local bakery. To his astonishment, that one drink gave him some immediate relief. The experience sent him digging into research on fermented foods and their effects on the human microbiome. The microbiome is the entire community of microorganisms—bacteria, fungi, viruses—that inhabit our body, mostly our gut. The microbiome is a hot topic in medical research and diet books. It’s also a complex topic, but the basic concept is that our gut houses good, health-promoting bacteria and bad, health-damaging bacteria. There is growing consensus that the balance of bacteria has a profound effect on our gut health and is a factor in a range of health concerns, including obesity, degenerative diseases and mental health.
Doug was convinced by his research that fermented foods were vital to a healthy gut; feeding the good bacteria, weeding out the bad. An accomplished cook, he experimented, making foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. Doug was also an experienced home beer brewer, so it was inevitable that he’d acquire a Scoby. In collaboration with Regina, he began to brew Kombucha—first at home, and then in a shared commercial kitchen. Not only did Doug’s health improve, allowing him to loosen the restrictions on his diet, but the Kombucha was good! Doug and Regina and their two daughters enjoyed a steady supply, and friends eagerly accepted extra bottles.
They incorporated two years ago and haven’t stopped working hard since. “Like we’re in our twenties!” says Regina (they have a kid in college). They secured a high-ceilinged space—a former film studio—in south Evanston and dove deeply into the art and science of Kombucha, discovering that fermenting in oak barrels yields complex flavor and more beneficial bacteria. For flavoring, they turned to fresh juice from Chicago’s City Press. They started selling Kombucha at the Evanston Farmer’s Market in May, opened the storefront in July, and their Kombucha is on tap at Found Kitchen and Social House, Sketchbook Brewing Co. and Backlot Coffee. Regina and Doug envision a near-future when Kombucha is widely available in restaurants as an alternative to alcoholic drinks and soda.
The more information I amass, the less I know. GT Dave, founder of GT’S Kombucha, believes that Kombucha slowed the spread of his mother’s breast cancer and possibly saved her life. In one study, Kombucha appeared to benefit the damaged livers of rats.
A damaged liver is, in part, what motivated me to conduct my forty-day experiment. I am recovering from back surgery, hoping a daily dose of good bacteria might help repair the damage inflicted by months of painkillers and steroids. It’s not damage I can see, but I feel it in the form of a poor appetite, an overall feeling of lethargy. I don’t need or expect a miracle.
“Everybody has a health story,” says Nathan Wyse of Arize Kombucha. “Except me.” I’m back at The Plant. Established in 2011, and residing in the Plant since 2012, Arize is Chicago’s oldest Kombucha company. Staff are bottling orange-basil Kombucha. It is intensely orangey, and satisfyingly bubbly with a strong pop when you open the bottle. Nathan cites the potent flavors of Arize as one of its outstanding characteristics. Nathan stumbled into the beverage business as a creative mixologist of fresh juices, operating his own pop-up juice bar at late-night events. It wasn’t an illness that brought him to Kombucha: he was simply drawn to the world of healing diets, including those centered around raw and fermented foods, and he was inspired to create drinks that are both healthy and celebratory.
Nathan has been making Kombucha since before it was ubiquitous, and I ask him why he thinks it’s exploded in popularity. Is it the Lindsay Lohan effect? All the books about gut health? Are others quitting Diet Coke? “We have these teachers all around us,” he says, “in the form of disease, food intolerances, food sensitivities.” Nathan believes that Kombucha is the perfect accompaniment not just to salad and avocado toast, but to rich foods, greasy burgers, a way for people to improve their health without sacrifice. “People don’t feel as good as they want to,” he says, “and sometimes one Kombucha can have a noticeable, positive effect.”
During my forty-day experiment, I search for discernible effects. The first week is good; I’m hungrier. A subtle but welcome change. Days twelve to fourteen I feel worse: nauseated and achy. I consult with Matt at Kombuchade, and he suspects it’s mild detoxification, a battle in my microbiome between good and bad bacteria. “The unhealthy bacteria are looking out for number one,” he says. “They’re saying, Freda, wait, don’t kill us, eat a donut!’” On Matt’s website, he recommends beginners start with four ounces daily, and I’ve been drinking sixteen, possibly an extreme amount for my gut. But I forge ahead, and by day seventeen the symptoms disappear and I feel great. I’m over the worst of my recovery, I’ve been off pain meds for weeks, I’m taking longer walks, eating better. It’s impossible to know what, if any, aspects of my feeling great are attributable to Kombucha. By day thirty I have one other change in my health: the return of my menstrual cycle after a long hiatus I mistook for menopause. My doctor says there’s no way it’s because of Kombucha. Irregular stops and starts are typical for a fifty-year-old woman. But do I think about that eighty-year-old Russian woman? Why yes, I do.
During the forty days I also brew my own Kombucha with a starter kit: glass jar, tea bags, sugar, packet of “starter tea” and a Scoby. The Scoby is a gelatinous disc with loose, translucent tentacles, a slightly battered, but kind of alive, jellyfish.
I dissolve sugar in hot water, add tea bags. When the tea cools, I add the Scoby and starter tea. I use pH strips to test the mixture; it must read 4.5 or below to preclude the growth of unwanted yeast. Blooming mold is a possibility. That Mayo Clinic article increases my paranoia: “Kombucha tea is often brewed in homes under nonsterile conditions, making contamination likely.” Yikes. I get a safe pH reading, cover the jar with cheesecloth, secure it with a rubber band, and stash it in the darkest corner of my kitchen to ferment. The instructions say that I should see a cream-colored layer form at the top of the jar. “This is your brand-new Scoby!”
Ten days later, I’m delighted. I have indeed managed to grow a brand-new Scoby, a translucent disc hovering on the surface of my homebrew. I scoop out the Scoby, store it in a jar of its own (a “Scoby hotel”) and play with my finished Kombucha. I bottle some plain, flavor some with pomegranate juice. The rest I pour into three glasses, to which I add fresh ginger and lemon juice. I offer one to my son, one to my husband.
“You first,” they say, nervously.
The Kombucha looks safe, with no evidence of mold. The broken threads of Scoby that drift through are normal. It looks like iced tea. Like iced tea someone sneezed into. I drink mine and it’s fine. Not as effervescent and tart as I’d like, but with enough fizz to be satisfying. After observing me for a few minutes, my husband and son drink too. We don’t die or get sick.
I learn, just in time for the fortieth day of my experiment, that Kombucha cocktails are a thing. I shake ginger Kombucha with vodka, lime juice, ginger juice and ice, top it with a little soda water, and divide it into two glasses for myself and a friend.
“I don’t know what to call this,” I say. My friend takes a deep drink. “Call it delicious!” she says. “Plus, it’s good for you. It’s Kombucha!”
This is infinitely appealing logic. The “good” thing (Kombucha) cancels out the “bad” thing (vodka). Here, I think, might be the crux of the Kombucha craze. Rather than eliminate things from our diet—gluten, dairy, sugar—we can add a thing that will make us healthier. A magic bullet.
At the end of these Kombucha days I’ve gathered more stories than data, more questions than answers. I believe it’s better for me than Diet Coke, and I love the stuff, especially the locally made varieties. I’ll keep drinking it. I’d send a case to the White House if I thought Trump would make the switch.
I do have an answer, though, to the question about getting drunk off Kombucha: The answer is no. You’d need to down eight bottles to approach the buzz of one beer. I don’t recommend trying that. But if you add vodka to Kombucha, you can—definitely—get drunk… and maybe, even, a little healthier.
To find out more about Kombucha Brava : kombuchabrava.com/