Potions in Action: Kombucha (Part 1: What It Is)

Kombucha SCOBY floating at the top of a towel-covered glass jar.

I have a small confession.  After I started making my own yogurt, which had a side effect of deepening my personal spiritual practice, the DIY bug bit me hard.  I started looking for other opportunities to introduce more unprocessed, healthful foods into my diet.  One of those was sprouting, and I ate so many that I decided my best friend needed a sprouting set for Yule.  This boy has himself a mad GT’s Kombucha habit, which I’ve mercilessly teased him about for years–both because kombucha looks absolutely disgusting and because a daily bottle of GT’s translates into an annual habit of $1460.  Unfortunately for me, I had the brilliant idea to continue the jest by packaging his sprouting seeds and beans in repurposed GT’s bottles.  As I had none lying about, I bought six and steeled myself to consume their contents over a week.

By day three, I was hooked, too.

If you’ve never heard of kombucha (kŏm’bū’chah), allow me to introduce you.   It is just a beverage made of fermented sweetened tea that ends up tasting a bit like an effervescent, diluted, semi-sweet apple cider vinegar.  It often has some dry white wine or champagne notes, and it blends with fruit juices and herbal syrups very well.  The disgusting part is this:  you ferment this tea by culturing it with this thing that looks like an aborted alien fetus.  This beige, rubbery pancake with brown tentacles on its underside is properly termed a ‘zoogeal mat’ or a ‘biofilm’, and it is a Acetobacter-generated cellulose matrix embedded with many species of bacteria and yeast which all live together in symbiosis.  In fact, this particular biofilm is often called a SCOBY, an acronym for ‘Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast’.  A wide range of the yeast and bacteria’s metabolic (including acetic acid, ketones, and gluconic acids) accumulate in the liquid medium of the tea, which is eventually drunk as kombucha.

Yup, that’s right.  The thing that makes sweet tea into kombucha is not only the inclusion of bacteria and yeast, but their poop, too.  Yummy, right?

As bona fide tea snob and a biologist, it took all the courage I could muster to drink my first bottle.  To be fair, the GT’s bottles are very attractive and it was only my memories of a former housemates woefully neglected (to the point where it was moldy and maggoty) kombucha brewing operation that steered me off.  Once I actually got the brew in my mouth, I realized I really liked it.  When I do go out drinking, I find I’m a sucker for any lightly sweet cocktail with sour mix, lime, or carbonation.  Kombucha hits a lot of those high points.  Kombucha also plays well with lots of other flavors and makes very sweet, cloying fruit juices much easier to stomach.  A lot of people mix 20% juice with 80% kombucha, but I’m more partial to a 5% juice 95% kombucha ratio.  I find that the resultant tart/sweet ratio of that will be very close to cranberry juice’s.

This is pretty much what I am doing for my friend’s dry seed/bean storage. I think it looks awfully cute, is really easy to fill and pour, and it will make him laugh.

So why am I discussing kombucha in a blog about my spirituality?  Well, after a couple of weeks of regularly consuming kombucha I did notice a subtle change in my well-being.  Looking back, I realize that my health the first few days wasn’t spectacular, though it caused me no major hardship and I barely noticed it at the time.  For maybe the first three days, I had this light, intermittent headache–and I’m not headache prone.  I did also have a light case of diarrhea, though it wasn’t something where I would have to run to the bathroom urgently.  The evening of the second day, I had a few hours where I felt cold chills and feared the onset of a flu, but it quickly cleared.  I also got a few pimples even though my complexion is typically (and blessedly!) clear.  I was also more lethargic than normal, but I attributed that at the time to post-travels malaise and mild frustration with how messy my housemates had let the pad get while I was gone.

What I did notice, though, was how I felt a couple weeks later.  In short, I was in a GREAT mood!  I was feeling bizarrely optimistic, which really hasn’t been the case at all this whole year.  And I had energy.  I got a bee in my bonnet to really clean up the house–but it wasn’t a mania.  Over a week, I just did small discrete projects like dusting the window cases and re-merchandizing the clutter treasures my housemates display there.  I went on neighborhood walks.  I finished a lot of things that had been on my “To Do” list for ages.  It’s not like I’d ever get an energy rush…it’s more like my standard energy baseline went up a couple of notches.  I also noticed my sleep was a lot deeper and in longer lengths (I typically wake up several times a night these days).  In short, I was becoming a slightly better version of myself, and that little bit of increased optimism and energy was having a lot of positive spill-over benefits.

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