SO THERE I was in mid-2011, wandering the aisles of the Chelsea branch of Wholefoods in New York City with the same slack-jawed, wide-eyed expression I usually wore outside on the streets of the city.
My idea of a health store is Harvest Wholefoods in Grey Lynn, Auckland – a compact store with a reasonable range of options, so the many splendored things I was seeing in this colossal supermarket of all things nutritious were rapidly blowing my mind. There were items I’d never heard of, huge salad and hot food bars that looked scrumptious, and a selection of healthy products that seemed limitless.
While David, my NYC host called his wife Romy to ask what we actually needed to buy for the afternoon’s picnic, I strolled over to the massive cold drinks section to try and escape the blazing heat of the summer heat wave. While perusing the many options on hand, I saw a shelf full of interesting looking bottles filled with a strange coloured liquid called Kombucha.
I’d never encountered this stuff before, so I grabbed a bottle of GT Dave’s Organic Raw Multi Green Kombucha and read the label. It seemed that GT Dave was the king of all the hippies but I liked the idea of a super healthy drink that looked as refreshing as an icy swimming pool in the desert. Okay, so it looked more like a deep green pool in a swamp but the ingredients are listed as “organic raw kombucha, blue-green algae, spirulina, chlorella and “100% pure love!!!” There was even a quote from Mother Theresa on the label, so how could it be bad?
I bought the bottle and we strolled out into the city with our picnic food. As the 40-degree plus heat hit me, I cracked the bottle and had a huge swallow. The result? Instant bitter regret!
As I said in my travel blog: “If the measure of a medicine’s effectiveness is how bad it tastes, then this stuff is the universal cure-all. It tastes like sour vinegar mixed with onion juice and lawn grass. The blobs of green mush floating in the bottle lead me to assume that old GT Dave scoops this concoction from the surface of his never-been-cleaned Beverly Hills swimming pool before bottling it.”
It was awful in a way that took me a while to get my head around but something was happening. Again from the blog: “That said, despite the taste, I’ll definitely be back for more because I felt really fired up after getting some of the bottle down the hatch.” By the time I’d finished the bottle, I felt stupendous and the taste was even becoming vaguely tolerable.
That set the pattern for the rest of my stay in NYC and all the way through ten more weeks in the States. I had a bottle (or two) of GT Dave’s concoctions almost every day, often going well out of my way to get them. I walked for five miles in 42-43 degree heat every day in Vegas to get to the local Wholefoods, coerced my hosts in North Carolina to get me to a health shop and even left Zion National Park for a while just to get to the local health store. I tried every flavour, rejoiced to find them on special occasionally and was warned by a store clerk in Boston not to carry four bottles around in my backpack because the constant shaking would cause them to explode (they do get very, very fizzy). Yep – GT Dave had me hooked like a really dense and hungry fish. I’d crank down my half litre of Kombucha and I’d feel great – clear-headed, full of energy and ready to embrace the road.
It was only when I got to LA, where GT Dave’s labels changed that I registered something important about my drink of choice. It seemed that the Kombucha is actually mildly alcoholic – around 1.5 percent or so, which explained to a degree why I was enjoying it so much (I’d been a non-drinker for 19 years at the time, so even the equivalent of half a can of weak beer had an effect on me) but the overall feeling of well-being didn’t come from the alcohol. This stuff made me feel like a new man (in the best possible way of course).
Once I left the USA, I was gutted to find that Kombucha is a rarity in NZ – my local health store has a local brand but the bottles are tiny and the price is scary, so I finally decided to brew my own. I ordered a starter kit from TradeMe, it arrived today and the first batch is cooling down on the stove at the moment. If it comes out right, I’ll be on the good stuff for the foreseeable future.
Which brings us to the question: “What the heck is Kombucha”?
Wikipedia says: “The kombucha culture is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast…” but that doesn’t sound good at all (yuck). So let’s just say that Kombucha is ordinary tea, sugar and a dose of the starter culture (called a mushroom or scoby).
It’s a fermented tea, which has been known by a number of names: Tibetan Mushroom tea, Japanese Kelp tea, Russian Mushroom tea, Immortality tea or just Kombucha tea. It apparently originated in in Northeast China or Manchuria and later spread to Russia and the rest of the world.
As GT Dave’s website tells us:
“What It Is – Totally raw, All natural, Organic, Naturally anti-bacterial/anti-fungal, Low in carbohydrates, Low calorie Naturally rejuvenating, Vegan, Kosher.
What It Isn’t – Pasteurized, Sugary or overly sweet, Caffeinated, Artificial, Filled with preservatives/ additives.”
The health benefits are unproven according to scientific testing but the anecdotal claims are extensive. I’m willing to keep drinking it because it certainly can’t do any harm, and will probably do me a power of good, assuming I get the brewing process sorted and don’t end up with a contaminated or explosive mush. Watch this space. ASHLEY KRAMER