BY AMANDA HAWKINS
I was visiting my Aunt Susie a few years ago and noticed a large jar of liquid sitting on her counter. Something brown and flat floated on top of it. It was kombucha, a strange form of tea. The brown pancake thing on top was what kombucha enthusiasts called the "Mother," a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that feed on sugar. After a week or so on the counter the kombucha becomes bubbly and tangy and purportedly good for the gut.
Kombucha is as easy to make as sauerkraut – maybe easier because no chopping is involved. Every time a batch of kombucha is made the Mother makes a baby pancake colony, so even though you can buy a Mother online in starter kits, chances are there are baby Mother colonies near you waiting to be adopted.
Once you have a Mother, you just steep some tea, add some sugar, let it cool, and give that floppy Mother a little soak for a week or two in a warm, dark place. Of course, Aunt Susie also says everything must be "scrupulously clean."
My aunt explained all this, and because she knows I care, she mentioned all the good stuff kombucha is supposed to do for your body too. Like other fermented foods, the Mother and all its microorganisms are supposed to aid digestion, which in turn does good for every other corner of the body. Some people start drinking it for purely medicinal purposes, rather than for taste.
Health benefits aside – it just looked gross. As if that weren't enough, she opened the jar. The aroma hit me upside the head like an alcoholic version of cider vinegar. Pow! And because I was newly pregnant at the time – and everything made me nauseous – it was not exactly the best moment to meet kombucha. Aunt Susie poured me some anyway, and I took an obligatory sip.
You could say it's an acquired taste. "Strong," was the word Aunt Susie used. Think of that cider vinegar again, or, think of pleasantly rotting apples. I wasn't surprised that Aunt Susie drank it. She takes blue-green algae capsules too. She was eating quinoa before most people in this country knew how to pronounce it.
But now kombucha is everywhere. Bottles line the refrigerated section of the grocery store, marketed toward both the body builder and baby boomer, the health freak and hipster, and everyone in between.
Sacramento alone has at least two brewing companies and one mobile truck. You can order kombucha on tap from the trendier restaurants, and you can read about it in periodicals from San Francisco to New York City. Kombucha, despite its oddities, has gone mainstream.
I decided to give it another try. How bad can it really be? Russian grandmothers make kombucha. It's as normal in some places of the world as yogurt, and, according to all the companies who sell it, kombucha's resume supposedly dates back to ancient China. Not bad. Besides, I like fermented foods, and when I was pregnant even water made me queasy.
It was hard to choose a flavor. At first I had eight varieties of kombucha in my cart, but that was ridiculous. The science and logistics and that wee alcohol content make commercial production expensive. It takes less than five cents a jar to brew the tea at home, but in the store it's sometimes four dollars a pop.
I'm a sucker for marketing and hopelessly indecisive, so to choose between mango or chia seed or ginger raspberry was rough. I finally decided two was reasonable enough.
The first bottle is pretty and flavored with botanical delights: juniper berry, spearmint, and lemon myrtle. The aroma is closer to flowers than funk, and the taste is clear and beautiful, like perfume. I could imagine someone liking it, maybe, but I prefer to wear my scents, not drink them.
The second bottle is brown and old fashioned. It's kombucha plain and simple. It even has a white label with the word "raw" printed in black and taped around the top, as if to warn me. Fear aside, Aunt Susie was right. It tastes like apple cider that's been lost too long in the back of the fridge. It's weird, but kind of good.
It is true, kombucha is funky and fizzy and doesn't seem quite right the first time. But also, like beer (or smoking, or cliff jumping) there is an odd fascination with the experience. You want to try it again, even if you don't know why.
Then something happens. It grows on you. Maybe, like Aunt Susie, you are soon drinking it not out of curiosity, or coolness, or compulsion, not just because it's beneficial for your body, but also, because you actually dig the taste of kombucha, rotten fruit and all.