The amber liquid, served in a small sherry glass, was as tartly biting as hard cider on a chilly day.
“Drink, drink,” say believers of Kombucha, a fungus-based tea.
Passed from friend to friend, sworn to by health food enthusiasts, embraced by the aging, the graying, sometimes even the dying, the Kombucha craze is spreading as fast as the gelatinous blob itself.
Grown under bathroom sinks and on tops of refrigerators in Spokane and North Idaho, the mushroom-like fungus ferments madly in bowls of ordinary tea and sugar.
After seven to 10 days, the resulting liquid (served strained and usually chilled) promises to make you regular, fade age spots, improve eyesight - even darken graying hair. As a bonus, a second fungus will grow in that time which can be peeled away and passed along.
In Spokane, potter Judith Keith has given dozens of Kombucha (kom-BOO-cha) “babies” to friends.
She has tended and drunk the tea every day for the past year. Her mother, sister and husband have joined her. An Athol, Idaho, friend, Carol SinClair, commented on how good Keith looked - clear skin, energetic - and began drinking it herself.
Like an estimated 3 million people in the United States currently cultivating Kombucha, they say this ancient folk remedy is good for what ails them.
The Food and Drug Administration, faced with millions of people drinking the ultimate home brew, is scrambling to determine whether it’s safe.
“We look into anything that has a potential for causing harm and when that something is being distributed pretty widely, there isn’t any question about being concerned,” said FDA spokesman Emil Corwin.
Paul Stamets, an Olympia mycologist who studied the fungus for a pharmaceutical company, says it’s not safe - certainly not safe enough to drink every day.
The potential for contamination by deadly molds is too great, he says. The effects of long-term use of antibiotics too problematic and the Kombucha’s promises too outrageous to be believed.
“I’m really concerned by the unreserved and widespread use of it for people mostly for reasons of vanity,” Stamets said.
“It’s a fad,” said Paul Bergner, who edits Naturopathic Physician for the American Association of Naturopaths in Portland. “It couldn’t possibly do everything everybody says it does.”
But in homes around Spokane, imbibers are saying MYOK mind your own Kombucha.
“What a lot of people don’t understand about natural living is that I’m responsible for my own body. It’s not like you go to someone to find a cure, you have to find it yourself. People who are into natural living are great experimenters,” said Bob Herman, who owns Lorien Herbs and Natural Foods Inc.
“It’s a decision an individual makes,” Keith concurs. “You’re either comfortable with it or you’re not.”
“Invite someone dangerous to tea” says the sign on Sally Pierone’s refrigerator.
The life-long Spokane resident and spiritual counselor smiles at the idea the tea itself may be dangerous. Since last November, she has drunk three small glasses a day, like wine or a cup of peppermint tea after a meal.
She has experienced no dramatic effects, only a feeling that it has improved the whole climate of her body.
“It’s like I’m California and the rest of the world is New York,” she says with a laugh.
Sometimes called the Manchurian mushroom, the culture is not a mushroom but a fungus.
It appears to be several yeasts living symbiotically with several bacteria that produce an antibiotic, according to Stamets, owner of Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, which sells instruction and materials for growing gourmet and medicinal mushrooms.
Laboratory tests show the Kombucha tea contains, among other things, acetic acid, fructose, sucrose, folic acid and vitamins B1, B2, B6 and B12 and up to 2 percent alcohol, Stamets reports.
Much of the current information being circulated on the Kombucha culture comes from two European books which report centuries of use as a folk remedy.
Most of the testimonials and studies cited were written prior to the 1930s as use dried up during the tea and sugar shortages surrounding World War II, said German writer Guenther W. Frank.
Frank’s book claims Kombucha, fermented in birch leaf tea, was used by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to cure his stomach cancer during his years in the Soviet prison. It also claims it was used by Ronald Reagan after he was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1980s.
Stamets, noting the number of unreferenced citations in the book, dismisses such claims as historical hype.
But not all the hype is historical.
Photocopied directions being circulated with the fungus in Spokane now say Kombucha restores hair growth, eliminates wrinkles, prevents cancer and can help everything from asthma to AIDS.
In a Kombucha discussion group on the Internet, (alt.folklore.herbs) testimonials appear almost daily.
Kenneth Piller, a Coeur d’Alene naturopath whose patients report using Kombucha, says they rave about it, saying they generally feel healthier with no side effects.
Individual users make far more modest claims. Keith says the tea seems to help suppress her cravings for sugar and caffeine. SinClair has applied the sheath to rough spots on her skin, which it soothed and smoothed. (Critics agree it probably does have some effects as a topical agent.)
Many users report it ends constipation and other bowel irregularities.
A professor at Cornell University who studies the medicinal properties of food reported the culture does appear to work mostly in the gastrointestinal track and because it is high in certain acids, may help the body absorb vitamin C and certain B complexes, according to the New York Times.
But much of Kombucha’s allure appears to be that it is free, shared by people who know and like each other.
“It’s a friendship thing, a love offering. You get one and pretty soon, you’ve got a baby and a mama and you give one away,” said Bob Herman.
In fact, the one thing both users and critics agree on is a mutual distaste for the commercial marketing of Kombucha in California and New York. (Newsweek cited one company that sold kits for $50, $15 for the chronically ill.)
Given the chance to sell it as part of his business 15 years ago, Stamets declined “because of the danger.”
“It’s not like a yogurt culture that you can tell goes bad. A lot of these contaminants are virtually invisible,” Stamets said.
Others, including a retired microbiologist from Cornell, say the culture probably contains enough antibiotic and acid to discourage such molds.
But Bergner, the Portland medical editor who also edits Organic Herbalism and who is writing a book on garlic, warns that the use of any medicine by healthy people can eventually cause illness itself.
Stamets warns that with an antibiotic that illness could be disastrous.
“With flesh eating streptococcus out there do we really need to develop new drug-resistant pathogens? When I see all these kombuchites. … I look at them as a breeding ground of new infectious agents,” he said.
“It needs to be studied more, that’s the bottom line.”
As the FDA pursues that study, in dark warm corners all over the country, Kombucha’s reputation and use grows.
“It would surprise me if they found anything unhealthy,” Keith says. “To me, it’s a gift from the universe.”
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