Have you heard of kombucha?
If you have, chances are you either love it or hate it. Those pro-kombucha have touted that it is the “elixir of life,” a detoxifying brew that serves up a healthy dose of antioxidants and probiotics. On the other end, it is looked upon with bewilderment. “It tastes like straight up vinegar,” one person described.
First, let me confess that I am one of the “followers” of kombucha. I wanted to find out if I was truly alone in my obsession. I tried to offer sips to friends, but I was turned down indignantly.
Maybe it was my description? “Its this vinegary, fermented, slightly acidic drink,” I started. “But it’s filled with a ton of probiotics and antioxidants.” Not helping.
I found the perfect source to help me uncover this recent healthy trend. Ryan Smith, chef of the upcoming restaurant Staplehouse, is not only an advocate of kombucha’s health benefits, but he brews his own.
“My diet before was typical of most chefs: 50% of beer, then fill in the rest with bread, meat and cheese,” he told me. However, after his close friend Ryan Hidinger became sick, Smith changed his view of what he put into his body.
“Now I’m the opposite. I’m not strictly paleo but I eat a majority of meat and vegetables.” Then after visiting his sister in Portland, he learned about kombucha.
The next logical step for Smith was to brew it himself. “I like to do things myself, so it made sense to make it.”
The process sounds very science fiction-y. You need a “mother,” or SCOBE (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Smith got his from fellow brewer Kellie Thorn of Empire State South. The “mother” reforms a new “mother” in each brewing process, so when you want to share the culture, you simply peel off a layer. Smith brews his kombucha in multi-gallon glass jars, so his mother is now a foot wide. The mother looks like, well, bacteria.
On Smith’s kitchen counter are two giant glass jars of his kombucha. There are differing ways to ferment but Smith always starts with black tea. After an initial eight day fermentation, he does a second fermentation where he adds in sweetener and flavoring. His process takes two weeks, before the kombucha is refrigerated and ready to drink.
I asked Smith how he described kombucha to someone who has never drank it before. He was having trouble coming up with a description too. “It’s kind of herbally and sour,” he paused. “It’s hard to describe and unlike anything else you’ve ever had before.”
Equally as hard to explain is how your body feels when you drink kombucha. “I feel completely different, I am more energized and clear headed.” He grabbed for words. “I feel clean. I don’t know how to describe it in a word, but my body can sense it and it just feels good.”
Fermentation is a tricky process though, because it involves live bacteria. Smith advises those looking to start brewing their own kombucha to take baby steps. “Be smart about it. There are a lot of moving parts that you need to be aware of.”
If you want to try out kombucha, I recommend buying one of the store brands first, because they tend to be sweeter and taste more approachable.
Smith prefers his. “I don’t know what they do with processing that stuff, but I know what I do with mine. I guess its just knowing.”
My verdict on Smith’s kombucha? Well, it did taste better, but certainly was more potent. Home brewed kombucha is not for the faint of heart.
Besides drinking the stuff, Smith is planning on incorporating kombucha into his menu at Staplehouse. He’s not sure how, but he is more interested in cooking with it or making cocktails. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what becomes of this “elixir of life” on his menu.
So which side do you err on? Smith says his friends are 50/50 for love/hate of kombucha. As for me, I found about 10% like it.
-By Alexa Lampasona for the Food & More blog