Culture club

Tangy and healthy kombucha tea is alive...it's alive!

New York’s beverage du jour has a lot in common with the city itself: It’s cultured, alive and addictive. Fizzy, fermented kombucha (“kom-BOO-cha”) tea, a centuries-old Chinese drink that has recently gone bottled, is flying off the shelves of health-food stores and even beginning to show up in delis.

Often dubbed “mushroom tea,” though mushroomless, the tonic contains a live culture of yeast and bacteria—this fungus is the kombucha itself—that feeds on sugar and tea. Essential nutrients form during fermentation, such as active enzymes, probiotics, amino acids, antioxidants and polyphenols, all of which purportedly enhance digestion, increase metabolism, boost the immune system, aid in detoxification and control appetite.

A bit funky at first swig—the little slimy bits floating around are strands of the live culture—the taste, which favors cider vinegar, quickly becomes enticing. Although only trace amounts of sugar and caffeine remain after fermentation (along with a hint of alcohol), the tea has a bit of a kick. This clarifying buzz, partnered with its effervescence, makes it an apt replacement for soda or energy drinks. (As with most everything but water, kombucha tea should be drunk in moderation; pregnant women and children should avoid it altogether.) Here are three ways to sample the elixir’s zing for yourself.

Bottled

Two companies can be credited for mainstreaming kombucha: GT’s Kombucha ($3), which offers fruity concoctions such as Strawberry Serenity or Gingerberry, along with the basic Original; and Kombucha Wonder Drink ($3), which teases the taste buds with flavors like Himalayan Blend or Asian Pear Ginger. Available at Whole Foods, 4 Union Square South between Broadway and University Pl (212-673-5388, wholefoods.com); or Garden of Eden, 162 W 23rd St between Sixth and Seventh Aves (212-675-6300, edengourmet.com).

Dried

A toned-down experience from the traditional sparkling liquid is Yogi Tea’s Green Tea Kombucha ($8.58 for two packs of 16). Die-hard fermentists argue that heating kombucha past room temperature kills the living organism, which in turn diminishes probiotic benefits. However, the nutritious elements remaining, such as antioxidants and amino acids, still qualify dried kombucha as healthful. Available at yogitea.com.

Grow your own

As is the case with most locally grown whole foods, kombucha tea is most potent with a homegrown culture. An organic starter kit ($20) is all the adventurous will need. The process is simple and doesn’t require much space (a crucial point for NYC-sized apartments). In six to 14 days, you’ll have your very own home brew—and a culture that will last a lifetime. Available at happyherbalist.com.