With a vinegary flavor and an aroma that resembles something like feet, kombucha, a fermented tea, is an acquired taste; many first-time sippers reel in revulsion when they first put lip (and nose) to cup. But the tea’s curative promise motivates many people to keep sipping: Drink kombucha, converts say, and you’ll reap the rewards of a longer life or even cure your insomnia.
Portlander Stephen Lee officially jumped on the kombucha bandwagon in 2001, the year he debuted Kombucha Wonder Drink, a flavored, carbonated, bottled—and thoroughly American—version of the ancient Chinese beverage. Lee, who co-founded the Portland-based Stash and Tazo tea companies, figured the world was ready for the unusual concoction. “Over the last 25 years, awareness of tea has grown dramatically, so the premise of another specialty tea was not surprising to people,” he says.
Still, Lee had to find a way to overcome kombucha’s reputation as being somewhat off-putting. Traditionally, it is made by placing a special culture of yeast and bacteria in a jar of already-brewed black or green tea, and then leaving it out at room temperature to ferment for about a week. Until recently, kombucha devotees had to make the tea at home, procuring the requisite culture from a friend or ordering it online. But home brewing can be time-consuming, the resulting drink can taste awful and brewing it incorrectly can produce molds that can cause illness.
Enter bottled (or canned) ready-to-drink versions. Before selling Tazo to Starbucks in 1999, Lee encountered traditionally brewed kombucha on his overseas tea-buying excursions. In 2001, encouraged by America’s growing interest in natural foods, he launched his flavored, bottled and somewhat sexier rendition. At the time, according to Lee, no other such product existed. Today there are more than 15 brands of cold, ready-made kombucha tea sold in the United States—even Red Bull launched one. These modernized teas come in sleekly designed containers, a marketing decision that helped shoot kombucha out of natural food co-ops and into high-end grocery stores.
More important, however, while some unflavored versions still smell distinctly footy, Lee’s are lightly spiked with ingredients like ginger and pear—and, thankfully, require no nose-holding at all.