Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

March 15, 2014

From One Mother to Another: Kombucha Catches On

TRAVERSE CITY — Would you sell your mother? Or your babies? Alan Bowen happily gives his away.

This family requires a special kind of love, as "mother" is a slippery, mushroom cap-like mat of yeast and bacteria, and her babies are slightly more amorphous versions of the same. Mother — plus black or green tea, sugar, starter and time — produces kombucha, an ancient fermented tea drink now surging in popularity.

Bowen, a sixth generation Empire resident, keeps fliers at the ready. It includes his testimonial, kombucha facts and a do-it-yourself recipe. Want to learn more? His pleasure — he drank the kombucha Kool-Aid years ago and happily shares.

"I believe in this stuff," Bowen said. Minor colds and flu "don't touch" him anymore and he credits kombucha with getting rid of his gallstones and speeding his recovery from a recent leg infection. "If you find something great, that's easy to make, cheap and keeps you healthy, why wouldn't you tell people?"

He's not alone in his enthusiasm. Bowen co-administrates the TC Kombucha Brewers fan page with chiropractor Rick Murphy. There are 24 members and counting in their group, Murphy said.

"People are becoming more health conscious in general," Murphy said. "Kombucha is a part of that."

Kombucha's advocates claim that the resulting brew has probiotics, a detoxifying effect and boosts the body's natural immunity. Detractors point out that evidence is anecdotal and the Food and Drug Administration warns that the lack of scientific data and non-sterile conditions in certain home brewing scenarios could make people ill.

That hasn't stopped the retail kombucha craze, as national grocery store sales grew nearly 40 percent from 2011 to 2012 and 37 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to SpinSCAN, an aggregator of data from point of sale systems. Investments by subsidiary's of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in kombucha start-ups caught the eye of beverage watchdog organizations, some claiming that the infinite ability to customize kombucha flavors, combined with the impassioned grassroots brewing movement may make kombucha the next "craft beer" (incidentally, kombucha can be made easily into beer, but traditional varieties contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol).

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