I have a dear friend (who shall remain unnamed) who credits kombucha with curing her lifelong bout with flatulence. Knowing nearly nothing about the fermented elixir, but thankful for its effect on my friendship, I was intrigued when offered a sample at Whole Foods recently. Now, this wasn’t just any sample. It was a sample of what appears to be a new tea trend brewing in town: kombucha on tap.


A Brief History

Kombucha isn’t a new phenomenon. Its roots trace back to the Qin Chinese Dynasty of 221 B.C., where it was known as the “Tea of Immortality.” It spread across the globe, possibly inheriting its current name from a Korean doctor who used it to treat Emperor Inyko in Japan. The doctor’s name was “Kombu;” the Japanese word for tea is “cha.” Thus, Kombucha.

The tea’s supposed health effects have been cited throughout the centuries: It’s been known to improve energy levels, mental acuity, metabolic disorders, allergies, cancer, digestive problems, hypertension, HIV, chronic fatigue and arthritis. I even read that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn claimed it helped him survive the Siberian slave camps of the former Soviet Union.

Those in the know have brewed it at home for years. Its commercialization is a new marvel however, and it’s no surprise it’s been happening here in the town where companies like Tazo Tea, Stash and Oregon Chai were born.

Steve Lee, co-founder of Tazo and Stash, may be partly responsible for that. According to the web site touting his latest potable, Kombucha Wonder Drink, he discovered it on a business trip to Russia. By 2001, he’d bottled his own version, ready for the retail market.


Eva Sippl, owner of Herbucha, moves the
kombucha culture from one tub to another.


A Mushroom Misnomer

For mainstream tea drinkers like myself, kombucha is an acquired taste. It’s not a drink to be slowly sipped with a scone at your side. It’s more of a health tonic: a living culture of microorganisms. It’s often erroneously referred to as a mushroom tea because of the shape and color of the blob that forms on top of the tea after it ferments. The blob is actually a culture, which consists of several species of yeast and bacteria. Once it’s dunked in a sweetened black, green or herbal tea, it goes to work—leaving a beverage rife with vitamins, minerals, organic acids and enzymes in its wake.


On Tap, Around Town

While the tap trend has been going strong in the Bay Area for some time, it’s just gaining ground in Portland. All the ingredients are here to practically guarantee that it becomes more than just a passing fancy: a captive audience of kombucha fans and a community that’s high on sustainability and economy. By putting the tea on tap, it's accessible at a lower price point and eliminates the need for bottles and labels, offering an eco-friendly, affordable option for those who want to refill their own containers.


Townsend's Brew Dr. Kombucha on tap at Whole Foods

The list of draught purveyors is expanding, but there are a couple who have a headstart:


Townshend's Tea

My introduction to draught kombucha came by way of Townshend’s Brew Dr. Kombucha. On tap at Whole Foods (Pearl District, Fremont and Hollywood), the tea has been wildly popular, outselling their draught beer. The tea tender at Whole Foods in the Pearl describes the draught wave as the “cherry on the top” of an already awesome product.

Owner Matt Thomas says Whole Foods had been selling draught kombucha in their California stores and was looking for a Portland purveyor to try it here. Townshend’s became the first Oregon recipient of the store’s Local Producer Loan Program—funding that’s helping the company dramatically expand its production capability.

Thomas is hoping the loan also helps the company expand their market into bars and restaurants. He explains, “Bars and restaurants already have the taps for their draught beer. If they’re not using them, or using them less, during their lunch services, they could use them to serve our kombucha.”

Brew Dr. Kombucha is also available on tap at the Alberta Street Co-op and the Southeast Grind Coffeehouse. Courtney at the Alberta Street Co-op says kombucha is one of their best sellers, “Kombucha as a category is one of our biggest sellers in the store. We have a whole cooler for it.” When Townshend approached them about selling it on tap, they were happy to create a space for it in the store. Courtney continues, “It’s really no different than offering bulk oils or grains. It made sense to offer bulk kombucha, because Portlanders love it. Plus, we like to support local vendors.”

Brew Dr. comes in four flavors: Nutritonic, Superberry, White Rose and Clear Mind.

 

Herbucha

Eva Sippl started making kombucha when she was living in Germany in the 1980s. An alternative health practitioner, Sippl says her love of herbs and natural healing influences her recipes.


Eva Sippl with kegs for Red and Black Cafe

Sippl’s tea, Herbucha, is made from two-thirds herbal tea, one-third green tea and various herbs that promote flavor and health benefits. Current flavors include:

  • Uplifting: enhances well-being
  • Detox: cleanses the body of toxins
  • Immune Support: strengthens the immune system
  • Relax: promotes relaxation
  • Glüh: warms you from the inside with mulling spices

Sipple says kombucha is a healthy alternative to soda and beer. “It has a grown-up flavor and it gives you a buzz,” she says. 

No one’s been able to explain the buzz, but I can testify that I’ve felt it after downing a few ounces.

Herbucha earns the badge of being the first kombucha on tap in town (to my knowledge). The Red and Black Café in Southeast Portland has been serving Uplifting there since last August.

Besides the green benefits associated with the draught tea, Sippl says that the kegs may offer health benefits, too, “The stainless steel kegs are light and air-tight, ensuring the tea’s antioxidants stick around longer.”


Now, Fill 'Er Up

Alberta Street Coop
1500 NE Alberta Street
Townshend’s Brew Dr.: by the pound - $2.89; by the ounce - $.19

Red and Black Cafe
400 SE 12th Avenue
Herbucha (Uplifting): glass (12oz) - $3.25; pint - $4.00

Southeast Grind
1223 SE Powell Boulevard
Townshend’s Brew Dr.: 12oz - $3; 16oz - $4; 20oz; $5

Whole Foods (Pearl District, Fremont, Hollywood)
Free tastings of Townshend’s Brew Dr.
Fill your own container: pint (16oz) - $3.30; bottle (22oz) - $6.40; growler (64oz) - $19.00; by the ounce - $.20

For more information about Townshend's Brew Dr. Kombucha (on tap and in bottles), visit the web site at www.townshendstea.com/brew-dr-kombucha.

To learn about Herbucha and where you can purchase it (draught or bottled), visit the web site at www.herbucha.com.