Dining with Dara: Kombucha the hottest new thing in iced tea

Kombucha
Kombucha is sweetened tea that has been fermented by adding yeast and bacteria cultures.
Photo courtesy of WikiMedia

Hot enough for you? This rash of summer-like weather has many people turning to their summer routines — getting out the kiddie pools, setting out the hanging flower-baskets, and maybe even brewing a pitcher of iced tea. But have you ever thought of adding yeast and fermenting that iced tea? Our regular food and dining correspondent, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, senior editor of Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, is here to tell us about the newest thing in iced tea, called kombucha.

Tom Crann: I see you've brought a few very pretty bottles — of what, exactly? What is kombucha?

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: Good question. Kombucha is sweetened tea, fermented. As you know, anything with sugar in it can be fermented: Every fruit, from grapes to rhubarb, can be turned into wine. Every grain, from barley to rice, can be turned into beer. It's just a matter of adding the right cultures of yeast and good bacteria to transform the sugar that's present into alcohol. That fermentation doesn't just turn the present sugar into alcohol, it generates different sorts of acids — good tasting acids, in the same way lemon juice or vinegar have good-tasting acids, and all sorts of secondary taste and odor compounds. Kombucha is that which results when you brew tea, add sugar, and then ferment the sweetened tea.

TC: And it is newly popular.

DMG: It's hugely popular. Go into any of the local co-ops right now, and you'll see shelf after shelf of kombucha. It seems like everyone who's got heart-healthy, or eating-fit aspirations is drinking kombucha this summer.

TC: Why, what's the health association?

DMG: Now, this is complicated. I'm going to tell you what the health idea is, but don't take this as my endorsing this health idea, because I'm not personally convinced.

OK, the idea is: for the last 200,000 years, people evolved in a sort of symbiotic relationship with maybe a thousand species of good flora who live in our intestines.

Since World War II, we've been living in a world of better living through chemistry, and advanced hygiene, which has been harming the natural functioning of this flora. And hence the rise of asthma, allergies, and other bad things. The thinking goes that if you eat things made with good flora: pickles, miso, kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, salami, cheese, and kombucha — you're healthier.

TC: But you're not convinced.

DMG: I'm not a good-flora denier, either. But if the question is: should I drink a Coke with a bunch of sugar or kombucha with a lot less — kombucha.

TC: And there are local companies making kombucha right here in the Twin Cities?

DMG: Two of them, both in St. Paul. First, there's Unpeeled. At Unpeeled, Dr. Mike Johnson is a chiropractor who started making it to sell to his clients. It took off. He got a commercial kitchen , and now he's got eight employees and distributes his kombucha in 10 states.

Also in St. Paul, Deane's Kombucha is run by a man named Bryan Deane Bertsch who is also an interfaith minister, meditation coach, and energy healer, and he ferments his kombucha in oak barrels and lets it get to a percent or two alcohol, which means it can only be sold in liquor stores.

TC: And do these two local Kombuchas taste different?

DMG: Completely different. Deane's has more of a tangy, complex flavor. I think of it as the Roquefort of iced tea. I brought you my favorite, their ginger honey.

TC: Great. And is this very different from Unpeeled Kombucha?

DMG: Completely different. Dr. Johnson from Unpeeled prides himself on his kombucha's lack of funky tang, and he makes flavors like Limeade Quench, a ginger-lime tea, and cranberry-pomegranate.

TC: There's always a pomegranate in these new health foods. Let's try this one.

DMG: Do you have a favorite?

TC: I do, or I don't know that I do.

DMG: It's a good thing to have an opinion about. You'll know what your yoga instructor is offering you at the conclusion of your hot yoga class.

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