It's a glaring 90-degree day, and I've just cycled through the heat for over an hour to an unknown part of town to visit a stranger I met that morning on the Internet. A young woman of Eastern European appearance answers the door with big hair and small jeans. "I saw your ad on Craigslist…" I mumble, and she leads me inside. A sour, stale smell is emanating from her kitchen. I soon find out why: Bowls of brown liquid and white, gelatinous blobs sit baking in the heat. "Want to try some?" she asks. "Sure…" I reply, trying to sound like I've done this a hundred times before. "Mixed or straight?" "Um… straight," I guess, holding my breath and taking a sip.
This isn't as tawdry or illegal as it all sounds. A few months ago, this was the only way I could get my hands on some kombucha, a fermented tea drink that had just been pulled off shelves by major retailers and distributors.
The voluntary recall followed revelations from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in mid-June that many of the major brands contained more than the legal amount of alcohol for a non-alcoholic drink. Whole Foods and New Seasons pulled all raw kombucha products from their shelves, and United Natural Foods, the distributor of all the big names in the kombucha industry—including California's GT's, Colorado's High Country, Germany's ProNatura, Canada's Celestial Seasonings (a subsidiary of organic food giant the Hain Celestial Group) and the partially-Coca-Cola-owned Honest Tea—cut off supply until its brands could figure out a way to keep their drinks from fermenting in the bottle and guarantee their alcohol content remained below 0.5 percent.
It was a big blow to the huge number of devoted kombucha fans in Portland, many of whom use the drink as a health tonic, claiming it cures everything from indigestion to baldness to cancer. But the recall has also been an unexpected boon for small, local brewers who are now fighting to keep up with demand for the drink and get their product onto grocery store shelves before the big players make their return.
My own interest in drinking sour, fermented tea was precisely zero until I read about this recall. Suddenly this illicit, potentially alcoholic brew sounded a lot more appealing. I wandered down to the local branch of Whole Foods, where its "locally brewed kombucha sold here" sign was conspicuously absent, and zoned in on the employee with the longest dreadlocks and spaciest gaze.
"Do you guys have any kombucha?" I asked innocently. "No, we're not allowed to sell raw kombucha anymore," he sighed. "They're testing all the different brands for alcohol at the moment, but I don't know when it will be back. We're still able to sell one brand, because it's pasteurized—but it's not the same as the raw stuff…."
That one brand is Kombucha Wonder Drink, owned by Portland tea tycoon Steve Lee, a co-founder of both the Tazo and Stash Tea companies. Lee stumbled across kombucha on a business trip to Russia in the 1990s, and started brewing it commercially in 2001.
Since then, he has seen kombucha grow from a fringe health tonic to one of the fastest-growing segments of the beverage market, which he estimates to be worth about $300 million at retail.
In the process of developing his brew, Lee made one commercial decision that has now proven pivotal in the brand's success. "One of our founders is a microbiologist," explains Lee. "He had founded a company in 1994 in Portland called Oocha Brew, and it was the first commercial kombucha brand in America. They had a recall from stores in the Northwest in 1998 because of alcohol, and it was sort of a death blow to their brand."
The problem for Oocha Brew—and the very problem the industry has just rediscovered—is that raw, unpasteurized kombucha often continues to ferment once it is bottled and sitting, often unrefrigerated, on grocery-store shelves, pushing the alcohol content over the legal limit. With that foresight, Kombucha Wonder Drink began pasteurizing its product.
It was a controversial decision. Most of the kombucha fans and brewers I've spoken to insist that the drink's appeal and health benefits are derived from its "living" nature. Regardless, almost a decade later, it is finally paying huge dividends for Lee. In the first month after the recall, he says the company has grown sixfold and is frantically trying to keep up with demand.
But Kombucha Wonder Drink can't quench Portland's thirst for kombucha alone. With some smaller stores and cafes continuing to sell the drink, even tiny mom-and-pop outfits have suddenly gone from being part-time passions to serious businesses in the past month.
It's early on Saturday morning, and Summer Abbott is standing in front of Northeast's Alberta Co-op
Grocery, handing out samples of Oregon Kombucha, which she and her mother have been brewing themselves and selling at small stores like the Alberta Co-op for the past year.
An older gentleman comes up and takes a drink. "Oh that's great! Where can I buy some?" he enthuses. "There are bottles for sale inside," she says, "I think they cost…actually, I don't know."
"I'm not much of a saleswoman," she says to me apologetically. Until a month ago, she didn't have to be. "We were running at a loss for a long time," she says. "But since the recall, we have lots of new contracts…we have grocery stores calling us: 'Do you have kombucha? We need it!' We're a good old-fashioned business now!"
Back at Whole Foods, the "locally brewed kombucha" sign is resurrected.
I walk in expecting to see Kombucha Wonder Drink, but instead, it's a rather sleek-looking brown bottle that reads "Brew Dr. Kombucha."
I track down Brew Dr. to a small Hollywood-area brewery. The whole street is thick with that distinctive vinegary smell. Inside, owner Matt Thomas, 30, watches over a small team as they work in the heat, boiling and fermenting giant vats of tea and pancakelike, gelatinous SCOBYs ("symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast") before filtering the brew into bottles and kegs to be sent out to stores, cafes and bars from Ashland to Seattle.
Just two years ago, Brew Dr. was simply a two-man operation running out of the basement of a teahouse Thomas owns in Bend. But with the popularity of kombucha increasing so rapidly, the business soon outgrew his tea company and is now the largest brewer in the Northwest.
Since the recall, the company has been inundated with orders from smaller grocery stores. But for Thomas, the priority has been getting his product back on Whole Foods' shelves without having to resort to pasteurization, or sacrificing quality and flavor.
Working with food laboratories and a university, Thomas and his team figured out a way—although he won't reveal how—to brew his product with such low levels of alcohol that even if a secondary fermentation does take place, it still won't reach 0.5 percent. The tax and trade bureau gave this new process the thumbs up, and Whole Foods couldn't get his product back fast enough.
"We spent a lot of money on it," he admits. "I will say that our costs have gone up and our profit margin has shrunk because of it." But the increase in volume has more than made up for the extra costs, and Thomas has been able to invest in new equipment that will allow them to brew five times as fast, and has leased 5,000 feet of warehouse space to house it in.
With the Northwest's grocery shelves now his for the taking, Thomas is having to turn away requests from some of the biggest retailers in the country, and Brew Dr.'s money-making potential is limited only by the company's own capacity to brew more kombucha.
"If we had the product, we could sell $100,000 worth in a month. Maybe even beyond," he says.
"Give us about two months, and we'll be able to satisfy the entire demand of Oregon and Washington." He pauses to reconsider for a second, taking a long, slow swig of his brew. "Yeah, two to three months. I'm always an optimist."
The Kombucha Taste Test
IMAGES: Kelly Clarke
We gathered kombucha virgins and devotees alike from around the WW office to taste-test some of the finest fermented fizzy tea Portland has to offer. In the name of investigative journalism, I also brewed my own, which was christened "Ruth's 'Buch Hooch." Our resident kombucha expert, Manager of Information Systems Brian Panganiban (right), also rated the size and appearance of the kombucha bacteria blob evident in each bottle. —Ruth Brown
Oregon Kombucha Pear Ginger
This was the most tart and least sweet of the kombuchas we tried. Some found it a bit weak and no one was able to discern either pear or ginger flavors, although one kombucha first-timer looked like she'd been hit in the face with it. "Whoa…kombucha!" she offered. "I didn't hate it!"
Blob: A man o' war mass with a couple of flecks of dark SCOBY.
Oregon Kombucha Strawberry Green
This was far sweeter and more flavored than the company's other drink, and was much more enthusiastically received. Several tasters thought it was similar to juice.
Blob: A dime-sized loogie.
Kombucha Wonder Drink
This drink divided the room. Kombucha fans thought it tasted "artificial," but some newcomers enjoyed the less-potent flavor—if not the smell. "It smells like hot-dog water," noted one drinker.
Brew Dr. Kombucha White Rose
"It smells the worst, but it tastes the best," said one taster, and most agreed. This drink was strong, but refreshing, and had the most distinctly "kombucha" flavor of all the brands. "Light, floral—makes me yearn for a glass of wine," said one of the first-time tasters.
Blob: Just cloudy.
This was fizzier than the other drinks and tasters enjoyed the herbal, ginger notes, but most found it a bit weak.
Blob: Multiple boogers.
Ruth's 'Buch Hooch
My own creation was surprisingly well received, perhaps because it didn't seem to have fermented very much and tasted mostly like sweet tea. Several of the newcomers nominated this as their favorite—as one taster put it: "It doesn't taste like kombucha."
Blob: None, but you should see the giant alien SCOBY blob currently infesting my kitchen.