All photos by Jared Oban
When kombucha hit a fever pitch in San Francisco last March, you'd think that the rancid, moldy, contaminated tea everybody was chugging held magical properties. I distinctly remember standing in line at one of those mom-n-pop health stores, as the cashier held up the line to explain that she'd beaten cancer by drinking a gallon of home-brewed kombucha each day. The woman she was lying to seemed enthralled, and had already piled her cart with every color of gluten-free superfood. These are the people I hate.
So I skipped the kombucha kraze, just like I skipped kale, açaí berries, coconut water, quinoa, and all the rest. Have you ever seen those elderly Parks and Recreation Rob Lowe-type health nuts? Powerwalking to their graves. Wouldn't you rather be dead?
Kombucha has its own list of palliative qualities, which range from boosting immunity to treating AIDS. I don't believe in any of this. The health benefits supposedly come from the slimy glob of yeast and bacteria in the drink, but there hasn't been any real research to confirm those health claims. On the contrary, earlier this year, a major kombucha brand was hit with a false advertising lawsuit for its claims of being a "powerful antioxidant," even though there was no evidence of antioxidants in the drink.
That said, kombucha does have one, single redeeming quality: It is mildly alcoholic.
This fact has actually come under fire in the past. The most popular brand of kombucha was pulled from Whole Foods shelves for apparently surpassing the 0.5 percent ABV that would technically place it alongside nonalcoholic beer, a classification that is based on the Volstead Act, the legislation that supported Prohibition. Around the same time, Lindsay Lohan—who was on probation and was mandated to stay sober—said kombucha was the reason her alcohol test came back positive. If it worked for Lindsay (allegedly), then I thought it might work for me.
Like most sane people, I'd never tried kombucha before. Or at least, so I thought. I learned while researching that there is a Ukrainian, rye bread fermented drink equivalent to kombucha called Kvass. Kvass has a similarly low alcohol point, which apparently was news to my parents, who have been serving me the shit since I was three years old. (Like other aspects of my Soviet background, this explains a lot.)
Because I live in San Francisco, there are between five and 40 health food stores within walking distance. I went to the closest one, where the friendly, bearded, and tattooed employee didn't bat an eye when I asked him which brand of kombucha would get me the most drunk. He explained that while the larger brands were under intense scrutiny for their alcohol content, the smaller brews usually fly under the radar. "The fermentation process," he said, "actually occurs after the drink is bottled. The longer it sits, the more likely it is to get you fucked up."
He pointed to the expiration date on the cap. It was today. "This might be your best bet; it's been sitting for a while."
He laughed at this, then said, "When its potent, you can taste the tang." He handed me a bottle with a black label, bearing the words "21 AND OVER" in shrink-wrap, and he pointed to the expiration date on the cap. It was today. "This might be your best bet; it's been sitting for a while." I bought it, along with 14 other bottles, none of which I intended to finish, and most of which I intended to puke up. Just like sophomore year.
Back home I laid out my bounty in straight, neat lines, with the bottles ranging in size, color, and flavor. A few looked like canned beers, and one came with a swing top. The rest looked like old medicine bottles, and smelled like medicine.
When I popped the swing top first and took my first whiff, I realized I'd have to use a thesaurus to find enough synonyms for "rank" and "foul." Truly disgusting stuff. I took a sip and was immediately reminded of Gatorade that'd been left uncapped in a shed, slowly collecting dust and insects (that someone had also dropped a urinal cake into for some reason). I took a few swigs and decided that it tasted exactly like what it was: old, moldy tea with artificial flavoring.
Still, having gone through a poverty-fueled Cutty Sark period, I've consumed worse-tasting things for the sake of getting drunk. This was certainly better than a number of try-hard craft beers I'd been forced to sample since moving to SF. I downed as much as I could in one good chug and heartily belched. So far, so good.
I moved onto the canned variety, delicately labeled "Rose Black." I cracked it, expecting noxious fumes, but got nothing. A sip told me immediately that this was neither fermented nor alcoholic. It was actually delicious, and tasted like tea steeped with rose petals. But there was no tang. No zip. It wouldn't get me drunk, and I sadly moved on.
I went for another brand, this one flavored with "tangy cherry." It smelled about right; the carbonation bubbled up my nose, thick and intoxicating, making me scrunch my face. I took a hit from the bottle and immediately regretted trusting my nasal palate. I could distinctly make out the cherry powder they'd used to offset what was clearly intended to douche a vagina. I spit it out and set it aside.
I popped a few more glass bottles and sampled around. Most of the flavors weren't too bad, ranging from what tasted like sour NyQuil to an outdoor puddle of urine. Although I'd probably only had a few ounces, I could already start to feel the different bacterial strains start to duke it out in my intestines. According to the label on one of the bottles, each full serving would provide me with billions of live cultures. I'm guessing that you're not supposed to mix and match bacteria like that.
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I decided to stop fucking around and drink the expired black label that the health store guy had bequeathed me. One sip told me this was decidedly and unquestionably alcoholic. I pulled three good swallows. The chia seeds provided fun texture.
For the next hour I toughed it out, trying to drink as much as I could stomach from each individual bottle. The lighter, springier flavors went down fast, and I could already feel my stomach bloating.
After drinking about quarter of a gallon, I stepped out for a smoke and surveyed my level of intoxication. The sun and cigarette left me a little dizzy, and I could already feel a small queasy voice in the back of my throat getting dressed for later. Although I was a little mismatched, I was nowhere near tipsy, much less drunk. Mostly I felt like a gassy waterbed, which all things considered, wasn't too bad. I blew into a Breathalyzer and scored a big, fat zero. Not drunk.
Resolving to give my stomach bacteria some more friends to work on getting me wasted, I powered through a handful of amber bottles. The last splash of each was gritty and a little slimy, like a smoker's spittle. The queasy feeling in my throat became more intense. I really had to pee.
I imagined 15 different liquids sloshing around in my stomach, little bacterial navies firing tiny protoplasmic cannons in a micro-campaign to assert dominance over my insides.
To my uncomfortable surprise, after downing something like 40 to 60 ounces, my urine was dark—and despite not having eaten anything all day, something was bubbling out of me in a long, sickening wet fart.
Around the two forties mark, I realized that, while I wasn't drunk, I was definitely going to puke. Although I'd gotten over the absolutely rancid and putrefied taste pretty quickly, the now-nonstop belching kept hitting me with a new combination flavor. I imagined 15 different liquids sloshing around in my stomach, little bacterial navies firing tiny protoplasmic cannons in a micro-campaign to assert dominance over my insides. OK, maybe I was a little drunk. I blew into the Breathalyzer, and stared as the screen lit up 0.01. Triggered by the minor success, I careened into the bathroom to empty my war-torn gut into the toilet, headfirst.
The first wave came easily, as half a bottle and a handful of chia seeds poured out. I rested my head against the seat. The battle inside me subsided. Nothing else was coming out. My breath smelled acrid and stale, and my tongue felt furry. I briefly wondered if I could get a yeast infection in my mouth.
I tried to chug the rest of the remaining bottles and quickly realized my experiment was done. My body was finished being filled up with fetid liquid, and my BAC was back to zero. In total, I'd consumed roughly three-quarters of a gallon of kombucha, and kept the majority of it down. Translating to real alcohol, that's a little less than a single beer. And I puked. What a lightweight.
I poured the remaining kombucha into an empty bottle of water, and discovered that one bottle contained a big chunk of something slippery and brown. This is called scoby, a colony of bacteria and yeast, a piece of which was now floating somewhere in the recesses of my body. I put it out of my mind.
That night, I tried to sleep, but my body had been commandeered into a gas factory. Every 20 minutes I'd have smelly, noxious air pumped out in one direction or the other. The next day at work, I spent a quarter of the day shitting, and another quarter working from my phone as wet, deafening farts shook the only good bathroom in our office.
So, final verdict on drinking almost a gallon of noxious fermented tea just to break a blood alcohol level of 0.01? I wouldn't recommend it.
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