A new addiction has been swallowing close to $75 of my monthly paycheque—and I’m totally okay with it. “What’s your poison?” you might ask. Beer, vodka or plain old-fashioned red wine? It’s none of the above, possibly beneficial for my liver and a lot more too.
I’m talking about an effervescent delight known as kombucha, one of the latest beverages embraced by the health-conscious population and people who just enjoy a refreshing drink. It’s beauty in liquid form and its popularity, like its live bacterial cultures, is only growing. The kombucha industry is projected to take in $1.8 billion per year by 2020.
This fermented tea tonic has been around for thousands of years in Asia, but here in North America it is only beginning to catch on in the mainstream. However, it hasn’t been without struggle according to California native Hannah Crum, founder of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI). She cites an incident involving Whole Foods in 2010.
“Because it’s a fermented food it can contain trace amounts of alcohol,” says Crum. “There were concerns that some of the brands were over the legal threshold so Whole Foods pulled it from their shelves. It cost millions of dollars in losses and was a big blow for the industry, but people still love kombucha!”
It was that love and determination to get those brands back on the shelves that inspired her to found KBI, a trade organization that advocates for kombucha companies, in 2014. Starting with 40 founding members, the group has grown to 136 members in two years. Their mission is to educate consumers and retailers about the benefits of kombucha through studies and research.
Kombucha is said to be beneficial for a whole host of health concerns from arthritis and digestive problems to cancer. While it’s true the drink does contain antioxidants and B-vitamins, whether it’s actually doing much good for our bodies is still unproven.
But Crum says she’s witnessed enough success stories to be convinced. “What’s funny about the world we live in is that we’ve decided to ignore all human experience in favour of ‘What can I prove in a lab?’” she says. Not that she discounts scientific proof—one study KBI shared showed that cells exposed to gamma rays after being given kombucha suffered less damage compared to their kombucha-less counterparts—but “the reason we’re studying these things in the first place is that humans have already experienced a phenomenon.”
As for everyday benefits, increased energy, improved digestion and an overall feel-good sensation is the most common feedback Crum hears. “You don’t have to pay celebrities millions of dollars to endorse kombucha because people have a genuine physiological reaction after consuming it,” she says.
Victoria Conrad of Mill Village, NS is a convert. A kombucha entrepreneur herself, Conrad started her own business, Hummingbird Herbals, about two years ago after feeling the benefits of the drink. “It was about the two-month mark that I woke up and I was just feeling incredibly different,” she says. “In the last year and a half, not only has my digestive system improved, but my pain level with my rheumatoid and osteoarthritis has dropped to a level where I hardly notice it.”
Conrad has been drinking kombucha so religiously that her body craves it if she doesn’t have any within a three-day period. And her relationship with kombucha doesn’t stop there. She describes the brewing process as a deeply intimate experience between herself and the “mother.”
Mother? What’s that?
Kombucha is made of tea and sugar, pretty basic ingredients, but it’s the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), sometimes referred to as the mother, that is key to the fermentation process. The SCOBY feasts on the sugar in the tea for about seven to 14 days to produce the fizz in the drink, not unlike alcohol fermentation. Conrad doesn’t allow anyone on her team to touch the SCOBY. “I’m the only person who is allowed to handle the mother,” she says. “I’m very protective.”
Conrad’s business has been a hit in her hometown. Her brew is carried in trendy cafés, specialty grocery stores and at local inns. For craft brewers like herself, the public’s interest in unique handcrafted beverages is good for business. “People enjoy craft beverages because they all taste so different and you can sit around and talk about them,” says Crum. “I think humans just really like discussing things that are subtle and sophisticated.”
Whether kombucha is a medicinal cure-all remains to be seen, but it definitely is a healthy option when it comes to drinking a flavour-filled beverage. At about two grams of sugar and 30 calories per serving for a fizzy and tasty pick-me-up, it can take the place of soda any day.
As for the future of the drink, Crum is confident that kombucha will become a staple food. “It’s the 21st century yogurt,” she says.
I’ll raise an ice-cold, ginger flavoured, probiotic drink to that. To good health, world peace, and more kombucha!