Kombucha catches on in Bend

Fermented tea drink now widely available on tap

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

No question, Bend is a beer town. But as it turns out, there's another brewed beverage taking over.

That amber, carbonated beverage being sipped at a local pub might not be beer. It could be a fermented tea, kombucha, served up in a pint glass.

Though it's unlikely to ever reach the ubiquity of beer, the popularity of kombucha has skyrocketed locally in the past few years.

“Kombucha in Bend is like a cult,” said Jamie Danek, who is part owner of Bend-based Kombucha Mama. She says people in Bend are die-hard about the beverage.

As with beer, many people prefer to drink this funky, tangy, fizzy beverage not from a bottle, but straight from the tap. From the K Market, a cigarette outlet and convenience store on Bend's west side, to Mother's Juice Cafe, kombucha is available on tap all over.

“In Bend, it's above and beyond the craze level,” said Danek. To wit, Kombucha Mama is expanding and Danek expects the company to produce 2,500 gallons of kombucha every week within the year.

At local restaurant Jackson's Corner, general manager and part owner Aaron Christenson says sales of kombucha are nearly equal with sales of beer (the restaurant has six taps of beer, five of kombucha.) “It's crazy. It's really popular,” said Christenson. “It's kind of wild.”

But, unlike beer, drinking kombucha isn't going to give you a buzz — though it's often as expensive, if not more so (a pint of kombucha costs 50 cents more than a pint of beer at Jackson's Corner).

What is it about kombucha that makes it so popular here?

Proponents tout health benefits they connect with drinking kombucha, including improved digestion, increased energy and enhanced immunity. Some drinkers just really dig its distinct taste. It's the kind of thing people seem to either love or hate; Bend seems to have way more lovers.

What is kombucha?

Kombucha (pronounced kom-BOO-cha) has been around a long time. Its roots can be traced to Russia or China, depending on which source you believe. Long a home remedy, the fermented tea is now a mass-produced beverage available in most grocery stores.

The kombucha-making process begins with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — known as a SCOBY. Danek likens it to a sourdough bread starter. The tea makers put the SCOBY into a jar with sweetened tea. The SCOBY floats on the top and grows to the width of the container as it eats the sugar.The patty is a thick, pancakelike structure with the texture of dense jelly.

Christenson says some people have a negative reaction when they hear about the process. It can seem gross. “There is definitely some concern with people before they try it,” said Christenson. But he likes it.

At Kombucha Mama, the tea goes through an incubation period, flavor (like chai or lemon ginger) is added, and then it is put into kegs or bottled.

The benefits to immunity, overall energy and digestion are anecdotal — they aren't verified by medical research. According to an article by Meredith Melnick, Huffington Post nutrition and fitness editor, “There has yet to be a single clinical study of human kombucha consumption and studies that do show some benefit have generally been preliminary and in animals.”

There have been some reported dangers to consuming homemade kombucha, as it can become contaminated.

The beverage generally contains a small amount of caffeine and alcohol. It is fairly low in calories — about 15 to 70 calories per serving, depending on the brand and flavor — and contains B vitamins and lactic acid. Kombucha also contains probiotics (also found in yogurt and other fermented foods).

“Kombucha, in general, is a tasty, naturally carbonated drink that is also naturally low in sugar,” said Larry McGrath, who does Oregon sales for Brew Dr. Kombucha, which is made by Townshend Teas and sold widely in Central Oregon.

Kombucha is quite bubbly. Fermentation gives it a kind of intense, tangy flavor. Each brand has its own style. Brew Dr. Kombucha uses different varieties of tea — black, white, green — and ferments each type individually, says McGrath.

Danek says Kombucha Mama is focused on flavor first — the company recently came out with a pina colada flavor to go along with other offerings including lemon ginger and pomegranate lemonade.

Other kombucha makers focus on other aspects, such as herbal or medicinal additions.

Local interest

Joe Anzaldo, assistant manager at Newport Avenue Market in Bend, says the store has been selling a lot of kombucha for about three years now, both in bottles and on tap. He says the beverage industry has a lot of trends, but this one seems to have staying power. “Each year I keep thinking, 'OK, this is the peak,'” said Anzaldo. “Kombucha is holding on and holding its own.”

He says the popularity is great for the store because it has a higher price than, say, a soda. He also notices that people who prefer kombucha tend to drink it every day, like a cup of coffee. “We're just riding the wave until it crashes.” While he says a “layman might think it's a hippie-type drink,” he has found kombucha appeals to a wide demographic, including high school kids and senior citizens.

Danek knows people in their 60s and 70s who come in weekly for growler fills because they like how the beverage assists with digestion. She knows men in their 40s and 50s who fill up their hydration packs with kombucha and drink it while mountain biking in order to assist their sports performance. She sees “dudes in their 20s” as well as older women, all of whom have a different reason for imbibing.

Danny Johal, manager at K Market, had never heard of kombucha until he bumped into Danek at the bank a few months back. Although he was skeptical of how well it would sell, he agreed to put it on tap as of two weeks ago. They ran a price special for kombucha and, that day, saw a lot of new faces come in the door. “I was surprised by the whole thing, actually,” said Johal.

Another surprise is how much he, his mom and several employees have taken to the beverage. “We love it ourselves,” said Johal, who says he has cut down on his coffee intake in part because of kombucha. He also credits kombucha with helping his digestion.

Kizer Couch, owner of Stop and Go on the corner of Northeast 27th Street in Bend, offers several kombucha flavors on tap alongside the more than two dozen beer taps he offers at the market's growler filling station. He first tried kombucha about a year ago. “I kind of like weird stuff, too. But I didn't know it was marketable.” He worried it was more of a westside Bend, health-nut kind of beverage. But a few months back, Couch put Brew Dr. Kombucha on tap and it was a hit. Last week, he added Kombucha Mama. “I didn't think it would actually start going like this,” said Couch.

Many people who drink kombucha do so every day as a “health tonic,” said Danek. She says people get addicted to it — “Your body starts to crave it.”

Many regular drinkers are people who used to drink soda every day; they switched to kombucha as a healthier alternative. That is an association Danek likes: “We want to be the new soda.”

On tap

Kombucha Mama wanted to put its product on tap locally as a way to make the beverage more affordable. “It's really expensive to make,” said Danek. That means the cost of buying kombucha and bottling the product is more expensive than offering it on tap. People would buy a $4 bottle every day. Now those individuals also have the option of filling up a growler (a 64-ounce growler costs $10-13 to fill up at Kombucha Mama; prices vary by location.)

Now she says about 60 percent or so of their business comes from growler and keg sales, versus bottle sales. “It's fresher. It's a live product. Anything that's fresher is better, in my opinion,” said Danek.

McGrath agrees, saying, “It's similar to beer in the respect that it's good in a bottle, it's probably better on tap.” He also thinks offering it on tap allows people to try samples.

Buying beverages on tap is also something local people are in the habit of doing.

Danek sees definite links between the immensely popular and successful beer brewing industry and kombucha. She says their business would not be where it is if not for the help of local breweries. A home brewing shop, now The Brew Shop, helped them with their initial plans. Silver Moon Brewing & Taproom helped with their first glass bottles and 10 Barrel Brewing Company “taught us how to deliver,” said Danek. Nearly all of the local breweries also offer kombucha either on tap or in the bottle.

Danek thinks drinking kombucha is in some ways similar to drinking a beer. It comes in a pint glass; there's a head on it. “It's more festive. You feel like everyone else,” said Danek.