Dining With Denise Neil

Kombucha tea trend hits Wichita – right in the gut

Marty Spence recently introduced kombucha, a fermented tea, on tap at her Songbird Juice Co.
Marty Spence recently introduced kombucha, a fermented tea, on tap at her Songbird Juice Co. The Wichita Eagle

Fermented tea. It sounds like the stuff stomachaches are made of.

But actually, say devotees of kombucha, the results are the opposite. The drink is the star of a health trend in Wichita, and those who sell the fizzy drink say that chief among its many health benefits is gut health.

Kombucha, or “booch,” as it’s sometimes called, has been sold bottled in Wichita health food stores for a long time. But in the past couple of months, two businesses have started selling the drink on tap.

Songbird Juice Co. at 1142 Bitting in Riverside just added a custom refrigerator fitted with four taps from which customers can self-serve kombucha. It’s always available in four different flavors, most recently clove, mango, white grape peach and turmeric lime.

And Prairie Harvest, a health store at 601 E. Main St. in Newton, just added three kombucha taps. The store also rotates through flavors and most recently had blueberry, lavender and “mule mix,” brewed to taste like a Moscow Mule cocktail.

Both stores are buying their kombucha from Lisa Bledsoe, the owner of Tea-Biotics in Lenexa. Her kombucha is palatable and fizzy and doesn’t have the tart, vinegary flavor associated with home-brewed kombucha. She has a long list of flavors and sells it by the keg to other businesses.

The tea is full of probiotics and antioxidants, and health food aficionados say it boosts energy and immunity in addition to promoting gut health.

Kombucha, which originated in Asia and Eastern Europe, is known as the “elixir of life” and is made by adding yeast and live bacteria to sweetened tea. The tea ferments in an open container for one to two weeks as the bacteria and yeast turn the sugar to acids. Fermenting the drink produces alcohol, but not enough to notice. Kombucha sold in stores must be below 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.

Marty Spence, who owns Songbird, said she’s been drinking kombucha for two years, and her initial introduction came from an extra-tart batch of home brew. The tea makes her feel better, she said, adding that her kids love it, too. It’s fizzy and satisfying and is a good alternative to drinking soda, she said.

Figuring her customers would love it, too, Spence added taps to a refrigerator and started driving to Kansas City to buy kegs of it. She bought six kegs on her first run and sold out in two weeks. On her last visit, she bought 10, and next time she plans to get at least 15. The tea has been so popular, she’s planning to make runs to Kansas City every two or three weeks.

“People are catching on,” she said. “And it does make you feel better.”

Spence sells the tea by the 16-oz. bottle ($4) or half-gallon ($12) and also offers a $4 flight that lets customers sample small servings of each flavor. The color and fizziness of the kombucha, and the flight server she’s devised, make it look like a beer flight from a craft brewery. (Some bigger cities have “Booch Bars,” she said.)

On a recent Monday afternoon, Songbird was buzzing with customers standing in line to fill kombucha containers. The scene is similar in Newton, said Prairie Harvest owner Aaron Gaeddert.

He sells it for 19 cents an ounce and allows customers to bring their own containers.

“People are going crazy for it,” he said. “It’s kind of trendy at the moment.”

Patrick Garrett, an alternative medicine practitioner at Family Health & Wellness in Newton, is a kombucha expert who often puts on seminars around town on home-brewing kombucha.

The drink helps replace good bacteria, yeasts and acids in your body, its proponents say.

“The bulk of our bodies should be bacteria, and we do lots of things to sterilize in the U.S. We have a fear of bacteria; we don’t eat fermented foods,” he said. “Kombucha is a great way to constantly inoculate yourself with good bacteria and yeast.”