6: STRANGE BREW

With its fizzy, acidic zing tempered by a sweetness that draws comparisons to spoiled juice, kombucha is a beverage best described as an acquired taste. Fortunately for the handful of ready-to-drink brands that have been popping up in the grab-and-go coolers of natural food stores, the fermented tea enjoys a small but passionate following. In Russia and Asia, the drink is a centuries-old folk remedy

With its fizzy, acidic zing tempered by a sweetness that draws comparisons to spoiled juice, kombucha is a beverage best described as an acquired taste. Fortunately for the handful of ready-to-drink brands that have been popping up in the grab-and-go coolers of natural food stores, the fermented tea enjoys a small but passionate following.

In Russia and Asia, the drink is a centuries-old folk remedy used to promote general well-being or treat conditions ranging from bronchitis to hangovers. Devotees there and in the United States have generally created their own kombucha at home, combining sweet tea with a specific yeast culture and brewing the mix for as long as 12 days.

Now, companies such as Millennium Products, Kombucha Wonder Drink and Carpe Diem are creating convenient, consistent brews, launching new flavor extensions and, most importantly, infusing these drinks with an upscale, good-for-you image that could be positioning this beverage for growth.

“The more extreme and offbeat the product, the more hard core their fan base is going to be,” noted John Craven, president of BevNet.com. “I think the question is whether [kombucha's] fan base has numbers that would be material to anyone right now.”

Many shoppers will be turned off by the flavor. But the brew contains a potent blend of probiotics, amino acids, polyphenols, antioxidants, live enzyme cultures and organic acids — food components that, individually, are attracting a loyal following.

“In the past three years, we've experienced a dramatic increase in demand for our products,” said G.T. Dave, who founded Millennium Products in 1995 as a teenager, after crediting kombucha for his mother's success in her battle with cancer. “I'd attribute that directly to the overall growing health consciousness of the average consumer.”

Dave added that kombucha is a good source of probiotics for shoppers who wish to avoid dairy products like yogurt or kefir. It's also still a dietary staple in many Asian and Eastern European countries, so it's unlikely to intimidate first- or second-generation immigrants from those regions. For other shoppers, it may be best to let them approach these drinks on their own terms, rather than offer samples.

“The majority of people who drink [kombucha] for the first time either dislike the taste or they're not crazy about it,” Dave noted. “But many do recognize that it's a different kind of food that works with the body. It's not the kind of product that you could just put out there at a Wal-Mart or Food 4 Less and expect it to fly off the shelf — but it's increasingly on the radar of people that do yoga, shop at health food stores or work out regularly.”