About this time last year, an angry-insect bite forced me to divert my vacation to the emergency room. The ER doctor offered the following advice as he prescribed two antibiotics: “Since you are taking antibiotics, take some probiotics, as well.”

This seemed like reasonable advice so I proceeded to the health aisle of the grocery store. There, I was met with an overwhelming assortment of probiotics, some of which were rather expensive. Some folks prefer to get their probiotics from food and drink, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchee or kombucha.

Probiotics contain bacteria that are beneficial to the human digestive system. When antibiotics eradicate friendly bacteria in your gut, they can be replenished by probiotics. Kombucha is a mixture of black or green tea and sugar that has been fermented with a Symbiotic Colony of friendly Bacteria and Yeast, referred to by Kombucha makers as a “SCOBY.” The scoby, sometimes referred to as a tea fungus, resembles a soggy cloth or vinegar mother. It consists primarily of acidophilic yeast and acetic acid bacteria embedded in a cellulose layer. The fermentation of black tea creates considerable amounts of vitamins B1 and B12.

The history of kombucha can be traced back to the Manchurian Tsin Dynasty in 220 BC. The beverage was prized for its health and energizing properties. In 414, the Korean physician Dr. Kombu brought kombucha to Japanese Emperor Inkyo and cured his digestive problems. The doctor’s name was combined with cha, Korean for “tea,” and the term kombucha was born. Kombucha eventually made its way to Europe and started catching on in the United States in the 1990s when people looking to boost their immune system were making their own kombucha by sharing scobys. Today, kombucha is so popular that it’s available in most grocery stores, and Pepisco has picked up the Kevita brand.

Most Kombucha is classified by the Tax and Trade Bureau as a soft drink since it contains less than 0.5% alcohol. This is in the same range as fresh-squeezed orange juice and freshly baked bread. Kombucha is lightly carbonated and blended with various fruit and citrus juices. Since the fermentation renders it a bit acidic, it has a tangy, crisp taste. Some have a trace of sweetness. Regular kombucha is fermented from slightly sweet tea and thus has very low alcohol. Hard kombucha starts with significantly more sugar and often is fermented a second time and then aged in tanks for an additional few weeks. There are some out there with alcohol as high as 9%.

If you are looking for kombucha in a store, the alcohol content, if over 0.5%, will be labelled on the bottle or can. The hard kombucha is usually displayed in the beer section and must be kept refrigerated. Kombucha may contain a trace of caffeine since it is fermented from tea. Some folks may need to start off with small quantities of kombucha to adjust to the new bacteria. I have not really seen hard kombucha in grocery stores around here yet, but they do have the regular varieties. I found most of the ones I tasted at the Roanoke Co-op and the Deschutes at Mr. Bill’s. My angry-insect bite healed, and I now enjoy exploring the many flavors of kombucha.

Tasting Notes on Hard Kombucha

Available locally

*Prices and availability may vary

Deschutes Humm Zinger Radler

Bend, Oregon

Deschutes teamed up with Oregon kombucha maker Humm to create this product. It’s called a Radler, which means it’s a combination of beer and fruit soda. Radler was invented in Germany in 1922 when an innkeeper named Franz Kugler had a horde of cyclists riding on a trail through the woods descend on his inn to slake their thirst. When Kugler started running low on beer, he started blending it with a lemon soda he had been trying to get rid of. The parched cyclists found this drink, known as Randlermass (Cyclist Liter), quite refreshing. Deschutes has combined an ale hopped with Cascade with Humm grapefruit kombucha to make this quaff. The brew displays a light golden color with just a bit of haze. The aroma is similar to a citrus vinegar. The flavor is light and crisp, not hoppy, with a bit of an acidic tang and a clean citrus finish. A very refreshing thirst quencher. 12 IBU’s, 4.3% ABV, $12 per six-pack cans.

GT’s Synergy Organic Kombucha Mojito

Beverly Hills, California

This refreshing brew is concocted from Maqui Berry, lemon, mint and tea. The company sprang from the founder, who calls himself GT Dave. He was gifted a scoby mother from the Himalayas in the early 1990s. In 1994, GT’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he started making kombucha at home to help her heal. After she recovered, GT started making kombucha commercially. The tasty brew has a dark, hazy pink color and aromas of vinegar and citrus. The flavor is sprightly and crisp with nice acidity and a sparkling fizz. The seal on the cap warns that the product contains alcohol, but it’s less than a “lite” beer. 3% ABV, $4 per 16 oz. bottle.

GT’s Synergy Organic Kombucha Third Eye Chai

Beverly Hills, California

This tasty brew is made with aromatic chai spices. Some of the friendly bacteria present are listed on the label by scientific name. This one has a hazy golden color with sprightly fizziness. Vanilla and nutmeg aromas are present, leading to a nice brisk palate that features vanilla flavors and bracing acidity. Think of cider vinegar meeting a cream soda, except fresher and less sweet, and very invigorating. GT’s makes a multitude of other flavors, such as Cosmic Cranberry and Mystic Mango. 3% ABV, $4 per 16 oz. bottle.

Wild Tonic Hard Jun Kombucha Tropical Tumeric

Cottonwood, Arizona

Jun is a cousin of kombucha in which honey is used in place of sugar, promoting less of a vinegar note in the taste. Here, inflammation-inhibiting turmeric is used in conjunction with black pepper to aid absorption. Sugar, pineapple and ginger contribute to the flavor profile. The nose is fresh and clean, and the palate has a pineapple note with a bit of heat from the pepper and ginger. Bracing. 5.6% ABV, $7 per 16 oz. bottle.

Wild Tonic Hard Jun Kombucha Blueberry Basil

Cottonwood, Arizona

This brew displays a light golden color like a pale ale homebrew and sprightly carbonation. The nose is fresh and bright and exhibits notes of blueberries. The taste is just a bit sweet, but I think the basil makes the blueberries taste more like a fresh fruit cocktail. Very pleasant and refreshing. 5.6% ABV, $7 per 16 oz. bottle.

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