Kombucha is like yoga. Once a hallmark of an alternative lifestyle, it’s now something your mom has on her Healthy Lifestyle board on Pinterest.
Kombucha dates back nearly 2000 years to the Tsin Dynasty, where it was consumed regularly for general health. It spread through East Asia and into Russia, where it is still enjoyed today under the iteration Tea Kvass.
Kombucha infiltrated the Western hemisphere after WWII, but for decades the only people drank it were hippies and beatniks. That is until recently, when Kombucha suddenly morphed from freaker juice to household elixir. Now it’s worshipped by Whole Foods junkies, yoga practitioners, and detox fiends alike. A few months ago I found it on the shelves of the Chinatown Walmart.
Despite its newfound popularity, lots of people don’t really know what Kombucha is. Devotees describe it as a miracle elixir that will make you live forever. Haters think it’s poison.
In reality, Kombucha is made by fermenting tea and sugar with a probiotic culture called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The SCOBY spends about two weeks eating the sugar and converting it into amino acids, probiotics, and enzymes. The result is a sweet-and-sour beverage that’s good for digestion, energy, detoxification, hangovers, and immune health – but everyone is affected by it differently, if at all.
At the time of writing, L.A. County is home to 6 major Kombucha breweries, each scrambling for an edge in an increasingly-saturated health-drink market.
With so many brands of a (not very well understood) product emerging on the market, it’s hard to know what to drink. For your consumer protection, I set out to review all the L.A.-based booch brews that have made it to the big time.
I assign grades to each brand based on flavor, ingredients, and commitment to maintaining Kombucha’s health benefits. In particular, I note whether the product is certified organic. I also evaluate marketing tactics used to distinguish each brand. Finally, since Kombucha is a health-food supplement, I include how I felt (physically) after consumption.
Whenever possible, I chose a ginger-related flavor to avoid comparing apples and oranges (or rose hips and cranberries, as it were).
- Búcha – Torrance
I am immediately drawn to Búcha’s bottle, a tall, slender little number that looks like a light sconce in a fro-yo bar.
There are several flavors of Búcha, each more exotic than the last: Masala Chai, Yuzu Lemon, Guava Mango, Grapefruit Sage. Since Whole Foods is out of Lemongrass Ginger, I go with Verbena Rose.
According to the label, this drink is going to taste like the exotic sensuality of Morrocco. But it doesn’t. It tastes like a shitty Mountain Dew.
No one could identify this as Kombucha in a blind taste-test – the signature vinegar taste is completely absent. Instead, my tongue is coated in a sticky, thick mass of fizzy pink…stuff.
I check the ingredient label. There’s a whopping 24 grams of sugar per serving, clocking in at nearly one hundred calories per drink. In addition, Búcha’s bottles are clear, not tinted, which exposes the Kombucha to UV rays and ultimately damages the culture.
The schtick: Each flavor has been hand-crafted by a team of experts who convene monthly at a “taste panel” to bring you gastronomic delight.
Búcha thinks of itself as the kind of beverage you sip in a jasmine-scented room after midnight. It wants to be intoxicating as an orchid; as captivating as a sexual encounter with a woman whose name you can’t pronounce. It is, more accurately, a teenager on a night out trying to not call attention to her braces.
Búcha is certified organic.
How I felt:
I only had two sips, so I’m not a fair judge.
- Kombucha Dog – Lincoln Heights
Beefy. That’s the word that comes to mind when I take my first sip of K-Dog’s Ginger Kombucha. Maybe I’m picking up psychic energy from the cock-eared puppy on the label, who probably is jonesing for some jerky. Or maybe it’s because this Kombucha is really, really strong.
The most important thing to know about this Kombucha is that it’s delicious. Strong, spicy, and full-bodied, this flavor will make ginger lovers rejoice.
Kombucha Dog uses cold-press juice to flavor its Kombucha instead of processed sugars or pasteurized juice. According to Juice Press, a leading New York juice company, cold-pressing juice works to “liberate the nutritional enzymes from the fibers of the produce.” Which means you’re getting more health benefits than you would from pasteurized or concentrated juice.
The bottle is tinted for UV protection, shaped like a beer, and has the most wonderful schtick: the guy who founded the company is a professional dog photographer, and his labels are printed with portraits of dogs that need homes. So if you love the pooch on your booch, you can contact the company and they’ll guide you to the adoption center. According to Kombucha Dog’s website, over 65 dogs have found a home since the company’s inception.
As cool as the label is, I am troubled by the lack of printed nutritional information. Many people turn to Kombucha to aid digestive disorders, so it’s important that consumers know just how much sugar (an intestinal irritant) they’re drinking.
Kombucha Dog is in the process of receiving it’s organic certification.
How I felt:
Not very different. feel much different. BUT I still dream about that taste.
- Better Booch – Huntington Park
Okay, full disclosure: I used to work for Better Booch, so my review is a little biased. BUT I don’t work for them anymore, so I promise my interest in their company is purely academic.
I sought a job at Better Booch because the product is, simply, better. It bills itself as “LA’s Premier Kombucha Tea-” a big statement given all the other brands in this city. But Better Booch really does live up to its name. Better Booch is fizzy, delicate, and just slightly sweet.
The schtick: BB doesn’t use juice or added sugar to flavor their tea. Instead, they start with premium organic loose-leaf teas hand-crafted by the renowned Art of Tea (also LA-based). Each of their six flavors is brewed with a separate tea blend made from herbs, rose petals, marigolds, dehydrated apples, etc.
According to the label, each bottle contains 10 grams of sugar. The actual amount is a little less, since fermentation continues even after the beverage is bottled.
My friends who hate Kombucha love this drink. My friends who love Kombucha love this drink. It doesn’t have the cloying sweetness of soda, nor is it overly acidic. It tastes a little like Champagne; a little like a hard cider. There are no creepy floating strains of probiotics. It just tastes – pure.
One drawback is that the bottles look a little too much like the Health-Ade bottles (see below). Not sure if this is a real problem, but it is unfortunate.
Another problem is that the company is not certified organic. As I learned during my stint as the Booch Babe, the organic certification process is prohibitively expensive for start-up companies. I have been assured that the product is 100% organic, raw, and unpasteurized. But until the USDA label is a reality, Better Booch is at a disadvantage.
How I felt:
- Health-Ade – Glendora
Health-Ade is the American Apparel of the L.A. probiotic scene – you either love it or you hate it, but you definitely spend money on it. One person I spoke with said it was “the most incredible Kombucha ever.” So I went in with some pretty high expectations.
And…it was okay. Not great. Not terrible. It lacks the full body of Kombucha Dog and the delicate sweetness of Better Booch. The carbonation level was closer to flat than bubbly.
Health-Ade adds cold-press juice to their brew, and that’s exactly what it tasted like – vinegary tea mixed with weak lemon juice. The result, for this flavor at least, was medicinal. But at 4 grams of sugar a bottle, I really can’t complain.
The schtick: Health-Ade, like American Apparel, is all about being made-in-LA. They’ve made an effort to keep their production in the greater Los Angeles community, so they stake out weekly farmer’s markets and source their fruits from a local farm. Some of their employees are hired through Homeboy Industries, which is tight. Health-Ade stages health and wellness “lectures” at Whole Foods where people can see how Kombucha is made and what, exactly, it is.
Health-Ade is certified organic, gluten free, and non-GMO.
How I felt:
My appetite disappeared, which was good as it was late afternoon and that’s the time I like to binge on tortilla chips.
- G.T. Dave’s – Vernon
G.T.’s is the IKEA of Kombucha. It’s convenient, consistent, and pretty corporate.
The company is hush-hush about its brewing practices. After a market-wide Kombucha recall in 2010, GT Dave’s rolled out Synergy, its “Enlightened” line, which contained a probiotic culture that was reformulated to contain less alcohol. They added in a supplement called GBI-30, essentially modifying the genetics of the culture. This was back before everyone was freaking out about GMOs, but it’s worth noting if you’re trying to steer clear of foods made in a lab.
GT’s label is also vague. The ingredients are: “100% G.T.’s Organic Raw Kombucha (Organically Produced), and 100% Pure Love!!!” This tells me nothing. The sugar content is inaccurate – it’s essentially impossible for it to have 2 grams of sugar per 8 ounces for reasons elaborated in this article.
Moreover, from a drinker’s perspective, it’s hard to palate the little brown globs of SCOBY that coagulate at the bottom.
Basically, GT’s is cool as long as you stick to the flavors that require I.D. for purchase – those are going to be raw and chock-full of probiotics.
I LOVE GT Dave’s Gingerade. It’s beyond tasty. Also, this brand gets props for being ubiquitous – so that even in the airport I can get my fix.
The schtick: Inspirational quotes on the side of every bottle. There’s also an opportunity to “tell your story” on their website.
GT Dave’s is certified organic.
How I felt:
Exactly the same.
Grade: B+; extra points for bringing Kombucha to the masses.
- Reed’s – South Central
Reed’s has a reputation for excellent natural sodas (try the ginger ale and the root beer). It makes sense, then, that they treat Kombucha as a somewhat healthy soft drink.
The schtick: Each bottle is 60 percent Kombucha and 40 percent juice, making it highly approachable for soda drinkers and Kombucha newbies. Unfortunately, it also means a higher sugar content and a lower probiotic count. There are 11 grams of sugar per serving, and 1.6 servings in a bottle. They also use juice concentrate, which means that the juice has lost most of its nutrients during pasteurization.
The result? Reed’s Kombucha tastes like a wine spritzer. It might be a good choice for someone who hates the taste of Kombucha but needs probiotics, or for someone who is trying to find an expensive alternative to soda. At any rate, this is not my cup of fermented tea.
Reed’s is certified organic.
How I felt:
No idea. Didn’t finish.
So there you have it, Angelenos. My hope is that this guide will help you find the perfect fermented tea to keep you cool this summer. Happy digesting!