Fermenting Unrest

One dad’s descent into home-brewed kombucha.

Author by Ethan Watters
Art Credit: Anuj Shrestha

I’m a sucker for food trends. I get my dietary health advice primarily from tabloid headlines, and I usually believe only information that confirms my preexisting tastes and biases. “Drinking more coffee leads to a longer life,” says CNN. Got it. Red meat “can be part of a heart healthy diet,” proclaims Fox News. Great! “Adding Red Wine To Hot Chocolate Is The Answer For Everything,” reports the Huffington Post. I knew that all along.

Kombucha was a little bit outside of my comfort zone, but suddenly the headlines became unavoidable. This fermented tea drink, people were claiming, could trigger weight loss, improve digestion, increase energy, prevent cancer, and turbocharge my immune system. I tend not to implement tips for healthy living unless they simultaneously allow for a vice, but I figured this one was worth a try.

So, one lunchtime a few months ago, I shelled out $6 for a bottle of the stuff. My first impression was that kombucha tasted horrible: a bubbly tea with a vinegar hit that assaulted the nose first and then the tongue. After lunch that day, though, I couldn’t help but notice that I felt great. Normally I go through a post-lunch slump where I can barely read my Twitter feed, much less get anything done, but that afternoon my mind was sharp and I experienced what I can describe only as an all-over body tingle.

I used my newfound energy to get on the internet and try to figure out what was happening to me. My first search query was “Can kombucha make you high?”

Turned out lots of other people had described a similar kombucha-borne euphoria, and there was no shortage of theories floating around as to why. Since it’s a tea-based drink, I could have been reacting to the caffeine—although that seemed unlikely, given the three cups of life-extending Peet’s coffee I had already downed that day. Other online experts suggested it was the vitamins: The little microbes that break down the sugars during kombucha’s fermentation process are known to create vitamin B12, the same mood-enhancing compound that celebrities like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie once got injected into their butts on TV. If it’s good enough for B-list celebrities, as I always say, count me in.

An even more interesting theory came from the new science connecting gut health to mental health. Apparently, 60-90 percent of the body’s serotonin is created in the gut. If the kombucha was improving my gut health, perhaps those little microbes were spiking my feel-good neurotransmitter output.

After a few hours of research, another question came to me: Who cares? For functional drinks that claim to elevate mood or increase energy to be effective, belief is key. The physiological and the psychosomatic are impossible to tease apart. The distinction might matter for a cancer drug—feeling better doesn’t make a tumor disappear—but for a drink that claims to improve your mood, well, your mood is all that matters.

Within a week, I was buying a kombucha on my way to work and redosing at lunchtime. I began to talk about the effects of kombucha—first to friends, then to acquaintances at dinner parties, then to people sitting next to me on the bus. I became, for a time, a kombucha evangelist. I felt it was a public service.

There was a problem, though: This stuff is damn expensive. I was on a two-bottle-a-day habit, which, at $6 per bottle, is north of $4,000 a year. It was still cheaper than therapy, but I had to wonder whether or not my good mood was worth the price of a vacation to the casinos of Macao.

And then I learned that you can make kombucha at home.

I didn’t even have to go to the dark web to find a dealer. For just $50 and a few clicks on Amazon, a kit came to my door in less than a week. It included a jar, tea, sugar, and a scoby. The scoby, a round, gelatinous puck that looks like those moon jellies you find washed up on the beach, was of great interest to my kids. “What the heck is that?” they wanted to know. I didn’t know, exactly, so out came my computer.

Unfortunately, I misspelled scoby on my first search, so now my 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter both know that a scobi is—and I quote directly from Urban Dictionary—either “one badass mother fucker” or a “Russian alcoholic.” Armed with this important knowledge, we tried again and learned that the scoby is a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”—it is, in fact, an acronym based on those very words. One site encouraged us to think of it as the coral reef of the bacteria and yeast world.

As instructed, we put the scoby in a jar of sweetened tea, covered it, and left it in a dark, dry corner for 10 days. My son, who plans to be a tech billionaire but will probably fly drones for the NSA, liked the experiment of making kombucha, but was only mildly interested in the final product; even when it was sweetened with fruit juice, he wasn’t a fan of the taste. My 13-year-old daughter took one look at the gelatinous mass floating at the top of the jar and opted out of trying it. My wife, a medical doctor, also demurred.

My 6-year-old firecracker of a daughter was the real convert. She downed our homemade kombucha like it was a juice box and began to ask for it each morning. Her mood, normally ebullient, had turned up to 11. This is when I learned that many brands of kombucha get pulled off the shelves because their alcohol content is too high.

Fortunately, before anyone could call Child Protective Services, our kombucha experiment went south. As soon as I pulled the fourth batch out of its dark hiding place, it was clear that some kind of black mold had taken over. I’ll drink bacteria and yeast, but I draw the line at mold. I poured the lumpy liquid into a flower bed in the backyard, where it’s no doubt morphing into some new life-form I’ll have to battle in the future.

Me, I never got quite as buzzed as I did from that first kombucha, and my taste for the stuff has waned. I’m now down to a couple of bottles a week. I did read an interesting article recently about yerba maté, though: Apparently it has “the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea and the euphoria of chocolate.” Sounds like my kind of drink.


Originally published in the first print volume of Woolly, which you can buy here

'Tis the season to get cozy.
Sometimes you need to throw on a fresh coat of nail polish.
Co-living spaces fight loneliness.

About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.