By Veronica Meewes
Photography by Tae Won Yu

It’s hard not to notice that kombucha, the fermented wunderdrink, is experiencing an awareness, consumption and popularity explosion, currently gracing the palms of enthusiasts from the schoolyard to the boardroom. Yet even though the tea appears to be the newest thing on everyone’s tongue, the beverage is actually quite ancient, with an ardent following that spans some 2,000 years.

First brewed during China’s Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C., the drink was dubbed “the tea of immortality.” When a Dr. Kombu from Korea found people in China living beyond 100 years and appearing to be in exceptional health, he brought the widely consumed tonic back to Japan to treat the ailing Emperor Inkyo.

Named for Dr. Kombu (the added “cha” means “tea” in Chinese), kombucha quickly became used throughout the country—Samurai warriors were even known to carry flasks of it and imbibe mid-battle. Increased trade and travel brought the drink to Russia and India, and soon it was being enjoyed globally.

All kombucha begins with a gelatinous, pancake-like fungus “starter” known as a “mushroom” or “SCOBY” (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The scoby sits atop a brew of tea (either green or black works best) sweetened with sugar, honey or agave nectar, and is left undisturbed in a warm, dark place anywhere from a week to 30 days.

What happens during this process, according to kombucha expert and author Günther W. Frank, is that “the culture feeds on the sugar and, in exchange, produces other valuable substances which change into the drink: glucuronic acid, glucon acid, acetic acid, lactic acid, vitamins, amino acids, antibiotic substances and other products…a real tiny biochemical factory.”

The professed health benefits of consuming kombucha are numerous, including increased energy levels, strengthening and stabilization of the immune system, normalization of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, stimulation of metabolism (many report decreased appetite and weight loss) and an overall detoxification of the body by helping to eliminate harmful by-products, additives and toxins from the liver and tissues. Kombucha is also said to help with kidney problems, allergies, disorders of the bowel, migraines, diabetes (by helping to moderate glucose levels), skin diseases, anxiety, insomnia, overcoming addiction, hangover relief—even baldness and the elimination of grey hair.

With such astonishing claims, it’s no wonder kombucha retail bottlers like the GT’s brand are now crowding store shelves. Yet a large subculture of kombucha home brewers and bottlers has been quietly producing, sharing, selling and promoting the elixir for years.

Austinite Kathie Sever began home brewing kombucha after discovering online—and confirming with a nutritionist—that it could be beneficial for her son who has celiac disease (gluten intolerance).

“I put ginger in it and don’t brew it for too long, to keep the tartness down. It comes out like a bubbly ginger ale,” she says.

Sever notes the similarities between the kombucha-brewing process and making sourdough bread: both utilize a “starter,” and both respond to what’s in the air. (GT’s brews their kombucha in rooms with purple walls and piped-in spiritual music.)

“It is pretty amazing,” Sever notes. “I make batches with the same sugar, same tea, and they come out totally different. The fluctuations can sometimes be frustrating.”

Mastering the fickle vagaries of temperature and fermentation was also part of the learning curve for Kimberly Lanski, co-owner and brewer behind Austin’s Buddha’s Brew. She makes kombucha that’s amber in color, less fizzy and very mellow, and though her recipe is a guarded secret, she admits she brews batches for about 21 days, uses Austin water that has been purified and filtered by Pure Water Stop and all-organic ingredients. She’s thrilled about the new interest in kombucha and is happy to share health information.

“It’s the good bacteria,” Lanski says. “Sometimes the lids push up on Buddha’s Brew and people think that means it’s bad. I tell them, ‘No! That means it’s really good.’”

Buddha’s Brew comes in five flavors—ginger, blueberry, cranberry, grape and original. Lanski hand-delivers her kombucha to roughly 20 local stores, and works the Buddha’s Brew booth at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market. It’s definitely a labor of love, but the business continues to grow and prosper; she recently took on a partner and plans to expand to a larger warehouse in South Austin. Whole Foods Market and Wheatsville Co-op are on the retail horizon.

University of Texas Professor David Edwards started brewing kombucha in his pantry about 17 years ago. During an eight-year period, he estimates he gave away 50 or 60 scobys, one of which got Kimberly Lanski started. For him, a big part of the appeal is the joy of sharing something so personal and beloved.

“When I was driving my first scoby home,” remembers Kathie Sever, “it was reminiscent of our drive home from the hospital with our first baby…slow, careful, always looking over my shoulder to make sure baby was okay. The scoby was even belted in!”

Each batch of kombucha doubles the starter culture, providing a sustainable supply of baby scobys to invite friends into the fold, connect with other enthusiasts and expand the kombucha community—aspects that promise to keep this potable darling of the DIY health and wellness community around for yet another 2,000 years.

“It’s fun to see your kombucha circle grow,” says Sever, who’s given away several scoby babies to friends and associates. “It’s amazing how something so seemingly simple as tea is actually very complex and offers so much.”