The pluses and minuses of kombucha

As revolting as it looks, it's just yeast

The tea’s reputation has drifted from the wastes of Manchuria to the Berber carpets of Beverly Hills.
  • The tea’s reputation has drifted from the wastes of Manchuria to the Berber carpets of Beverly Hills.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matthew Alice: I’ve heard recently that the kombucha tea mushroom that everybody’s drinking is supposed to be bad for the sewer system. Is that true — Toni, South Park

Pardon my typos. Haven’t quite gotten the hang of pounding the keyboard in my new biohazard suit. Gloves are a little bulky. The gnomes in the Matthew Alice Recombinant DNA and Buffalo Wings Development Lab are brewing a batch of the stuff, and after I peeked in to check on progress, the suit seemed like a good idea. Hope the “mushroom” is the miracle people claim, because it sure is a stone-ugly sucker.

Kombucha is the name given to a brownish, translucent, jellyfish-like glob of yeast and bacteria. It’s not a mushroom, though it is a distant relative. They’re both in the broad group of simple organisms that includes truffles and athlete’s foot. People have been cultivating kombucha for about 2000 years. Somehow they’re convinced it will cure absolutely anything from cancer to chapped lips, stop the visible aging process, and generally make you a more interesting, attractive person. Remember those TV commercials that showed hefty Siberian peasants who lived to be 130 by eating yogurt? Apparently they washed it down with kombucha tea. The tea’s reputation has drifted from the wastes of Manchuria to the Berber carpets of Beverly Hills, and now it’s the very last word in life-enhancing elixirs. Tradition has it that the jiggling globs must be passed along free for the asking, from believer to believer, like some kind of mystical sourdough starter. But of course Beverly Hills ain’t Manchuria, and this ain’t 200 B.C., so it’s often peddled for $10 to $50 each by people who raise the stuff like orchids or Jack Russell terriers.

As revolting as it looks, the yeast in the kombucha blobs is from the friendly group of baker’s and brewer’s yeasts that reproduce by budding. The bacteria are those commonly found in vinegars. To make the tea, you plop the slimy mass into a glass bowl of black tea with sugar, cover it with a towel, keep it warm for a week, then pour off the tea and drink it. During that week, the yeast beasties have devoured the sugar and reproduced themselves in a layer under the original yeast/bacteria island. Pull the two layers apart and, lucky you, you now have twice as much of the stuff. In the process, the tea has fermented, though the alcohol content is only about half a percent, the same as nonalcoholic beer. Mature, fully ripened kombucha tea tastes like — oh, dusty, mildewed vinegar is as close as I can come. Some people put the kombucha itself in a blender and use it for facial masks, or put it in taco shells, rub the stuff on their pets to improve their coats, feed it to their plants....

U.S. physicians who’ve analyzed the tea admit it contains B vitamins and certain useful amino acids, but of course the docs are leery of all the miracle claims. Most of the research into the yeast’s rejuvenating properties comes from Russia and Germany. And to answer your question, in our primary-treatment-type sewage disposal, small amounts of yeast and bacteria would pose no problem. They’d be separated from liquid wastes at the Pt. Loma treatment plant and be hauled off with the sludge. In an inland, secondary-type treatment plant that depends on bacteria to break down solids, small amounts of yeast would actually be a help, since the bacteria feed on it.

Personally, I’ll pass on kombucha. About the only renegade member of the myceteae kingdom I’ll take a chance on is Ustilago maydis, a parasitic black smut ball that grows on corn. Sliced and fried, with crepes and cream sauce, it becomes the Mexican classic crepas de huitlacoche. It may not prolong your life, but you’ll really enjoy what little time you have left.

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