Long before U.S. hipsters discovered it, kombucha was a staple in Russia. It’s making a comeback
Boris Korkin still remembers the three-liter jars of a fizzy, tart drink that would sit on the windowsills of the crowded, five-room communal apartment in central Moscow where he grew up with his mother after World War II.
The concoction was made from an odd-looking blob of bacteria and yeast referred to in Russian as a chayniy grib, or “tea mushroom” — which is also the name given to the beverage itself. When bottled with sugar and tea and left to sit for a week, the solution would ferment to produce the very slightly alcoholic drink he guzzled as a child.
“We drank it because it was all we knew. It’s what we had, and everyone had it,” Korkin, 72, said. “On special occasions, we’d pour it into fancy decanters and put it on the table.”
In the West, the drink is known as kombucha, and it is having a moment. But long before it swept into popularity in the United States, it was a staple on many Soviet kitchen tables. For Russians such as Korkin, it was a home-brewed alternative to the carbonated soft drinks such as Coke and Pepsi available in the West and unobtainable in Russia until the 1980s.
When Coca Cola and its sugary, carbonated counterparts came to Russia in the last days of perestroika, the fermented tea drinks slowly lost their popularity.
“Nobody wanted this stuff in the 1990s because they all wanted Fanta or Coke,” Korkin said.
Today, kombucha is making a comeback in modern Russia, thanks to some young entrepreneurs who believe the drink can overcome its grandmotherly image.
“I think my generation had a bit of PTSD from our grandmothers forcing us to drink kombucha when we were kids,” said Ilya Devedzhian, 35, the founder of Moscow-based Karibu Kombucha, one of a growing number of Russian brands. “But I think we’re ready to see it differently now.”
When his two sons were young, Korkin made the drink for them using the same method he had learned from his mother growing up in the communal apartments. The tea mushroom, a rubbery, slippery disc known in the United States as a scoby, sits in a container with the sugar and tea for five to 10 days before it reaches the desired degree of tartness and fizz. The scoby can then be passed on to others or reused for the next batch.
Korkin’s children, like many raised in the Soviet Union and early post-Soviet years, drank it on hot days like it was a refreshing soda.
A few months ago, Korkin sat down to share a meal and a shot of vodka with his son, now 30, who was visiting from his home in Dublin, Ireland. As he poured each of them a shot of vodka, his son asked for something to chase the liquor down. Korkin brought out his latest batch of chayniy grib and leveled off a glass for his son.
“Dad, this is kombucha! It’s really popular in the West,” his son told him.
It was the first time Korkin had heard the word kombucha. The fact that the drink was being bottled and sold in the West was less surprising to him than the fact that his son had forgotten the drink from his childhood.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Good God, I’ve been making this stuff for like 100 years and you don’t even remember,’” Korkin said.
Korkin, who still makes kombucha at home in his kitchen, said his scoby is probably 12 years old. It was a gift from a neighbor who presented it to him after he had taken a hiatus from making the brew for several years after his sons had grown up.
“My mushroom isn’t that old,” he said. “I have a friend who has used the same mushroom for at least 38 years!”
Kombucha sales have grown exponentially in the United States and Europe. Globally, it’s promoted as an “elixir of life” and touted as having health benefits for the digestive system and detoxifying properties.
The fermented tea is believed to have originated in northeastern China around 220 B.C., where the drink was considered to have medicinal value. Eventually, the fermented kombucha recipe made its way north and west, arriving in Russia several hundred years ago.
Globally, kombucha sales were valued at $1.06 billion in 2016, according to a 2017 report by Zion Market Research, a consulting firm. The report estimated that sales could climb to $2.5 billion by 2022. North America is one of the fastest growing markets, where sales of fermented drinks were $556 million in the United States in 2017, according to Bobbi Leahy of SPINS, a consulting and research firm specializing in natural and organic products.
PepsiCo even got in the game, purchasing the KeVita kombucha brand in 2016. KeVita started in 2009 in Ojai and quickly grew to one of the top-selling fermented drink brands in the United States, according to Kombucha Brewers International, a business group that organized the fifth annual KombuchaKon conference in Long Beach in February.
Kombucha was popular in crowded Soviet prison cells, where inmates were known to brew it and share it with their guards. In 2015, Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in “Lord of War,” was caught brewing kombucha in his Illinois prison cell, where he’s serving 26 years for trying to sell missiles to a Colombian militant group. Bout’s 26-year sentence was extended by 40 days for what the prison said was brewing an alcoholic substance.
The fermentation process of making kombucha produces a small amount of alcohol, an issue that has raised legal challenges in the United States.
Kombucha’s reputation as a digestive aid is once again catching on in Russia, where healthy lifestyles have become trendy among the millennial generation, particularly in the urban centers of Moscow, St. Petersburg or Yekaterinburg out on the edge of Siberia. Studies by the Higher School of Economics show that Russian youth are drinking and smoking less than their parents do, and instead turning to vegetarian and vegan diets. Where older generations drank vodka and cognac, a new generation is turning to local breweries that make cider and local beers.
Kvass, another fermented favorite made from rye bread, remains popular among generations of Russians. It can be bought commercially in plastic liter bottles in any grocery store and is often sold straight out of the tank on street corners in the summer.
The do-it-yourself trend popular in places such as Brooklyn, N.Y., has caught on here also, as have organic farm-to-table groups and grocery chains promoting locally produced vegetables and other products.
The healthy living crowd is the market that fermenting enthusiast Devedzhian hoped to tap into when he started Karibu Kombucha last year.
Five years ago, Devedzhian was working in New Jersey for an ocean cargo management company and came across bottled kombucha in his local grocery store. He began drinking it again after a 20-year hiatus and discovered that he liked it more than he had remembered as a child.
When he returned to Russia, he began brewing his own kombucha at home, using only Russian products, including the tea leaves. He brought a large batch to a mushroom festival in 2016 held outside Moscow for mushroom collecting enthusiasts, and it was popular enough to give him the idea of producing it commercially.
He named it Karibu Kombucha after the reindeer from the northern parts of Russia.
“Our tea comes from Krasnodar in southern Russia, which is the most northern place on Earth where tea grows,” Devedzhian said. There are no caribou in Krasnodar, a port city about 840 miles south of Moscow. But Devedzhian felt the image of the reindeer connected consumers with the Russianness of his kombucha.
Karibu kombucha is sold in stores in three flavors: classic kombucha with green tea; blackcurrant with juniper; and tarragon with pine. He’s working on a fourth flavor, buckthorn tea with sage.
It’s also sold in Devedzhian’s vegan food stall called Mokh, the Russian word for moss, that he opened in January 2017 in Moscow’s Danilovsky Market. The location is a renovated, former Soviet covered market with dozens of booths serving a variety of ethnic and regional cuisines, and popular with Moscow’s urban hipsters.
Karibu Kombucha has competition from at least two larger kombucha makers based in St. Petersburg. Devedzhian said he’s confident enough in the market that in the spring, Karibu Kombucha moved into a bigger production site in Moscow, where it will produce twice the output.
Devedzhian said he was surprised to learn that two bars in Moscow had started making a kombucha cocktail using Karibu Kombucha.
“I think we Russians like our kombucha a bit fizzier and stronger than the Americans,” he said. “It’s got to be tart for us, and not too sweet, the way we remember it as kids.”
Ayres is a special correspondent.
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