Road Tested || The Great Maui Kombucha Roundup
I read once that Garrison Keillor admitted he really couldn't properly vacation, as far as work was concerned...and this much to his wife's chagrin. (Which wife, I don't know...nor do I know how that man ever scored more than one.)
His point was that writing wasn't the sort of work that he could leave behind--like eating for most of us, or exercise for some of us, he had to do it every day, even when he was supposed to be taking a break.
Reading that as an angstily ambitious middle schooler, my first thought was "I hope that's true about me, too."
So it is with great gratification that I find myself, even on a family holiday, wondering when we might be leaving the beach so I can go home and, you now, write about the beach. Or, more properly, what the beach made me think about. You know how it goes.
But writing's not the only thing that I can't take a break from.
It seemed likely that there would be at least one regional kombucha brewer, somewhere in Hawaii. I did a little poking around the internets and unearthed only one...emailed them to suggest we meet up...heard nothing back. (This I chalk up to "island time," rather than recalcitrance. In New York, this would mean "don't bother me," but here I suspect it just means they fully intend to get around to it.)
Lucky for me, our gigantic family group required fresh groceries nearly every day, and because we are without exception health-food fussbudgets, that meant we went not to Safeway, but to Whole Foods, the farmers' market, and (best of all) Mana Natural Foods in Paia, not far from the guest house where we were staying for our first week here.
It was at this slightly grimy, gloriously autochthonous grocery story that I began to understand that Maui excels in nothing if not in local kombucha.
...yes of course I listed them all below.
Full disclosure: I actually tried this before going to the grocery store, at a little Italian restaurant on Makawao Avenue. We'd just flown in; I was grumpy as hell; while looking for a cocktail that would put me quickly to sleep, I found this on the drinks menu, instead.
Though pretty mild in flavor, it packs a wallop. Don't drink on an empty stomach, or even a half-full one.
In another bout of synchronicity, we found that Maui Kombucha is made not far from where we were staying. So my sister, brother-in-law, and Little Boo went to the source.
You pull into the parking lot of what suffices for an "office complex" here, across from where the food trucks park on Baldwin Avenue. All the way in the back corner, next to the world's smallest Cross-Fit gym, there's a little tasting parlor, painted the precise color of the Pacific just before it turns to foam. Along with raw vegan food (such as J.P. might be proud of), they offer a rotating selection of kombucha--lavender, jasmine tea, and ginger were on tap, the day of our visit.
I love a boozy kombucha, no question. But this one makes it hard to form a strong opinion about the flavors.
I did notice that they open up a lot when you drink them in a wide-mouthed glass.
(It always gives me a feeling of transgressive pleasure to imbibe kombucha from a cocktail glass. The little things.)
The island's most ubiquitous bottled kombucha. Tastes like Vitamin Water.
Okay, not a Maui-made kombucha. Not even from Hawaii...it's made in Gardena, Ca. But I first tasted it here so that's what you get.
I'll be looking for this one, when I get back to the mainland. It's probably the best "exemplar" kombucha I've ever found--that is to say, if someone's never tried kombucha before, this is what they should drink. It's assertive without being overly sour, has a nice round fizz, and it has a good amount of flavors that all still manage to taste like kombucha.
The original flavor had that ideal "apple cider vinegar" taste that, when you describe it, makes newbs shrink back...but it was only a suggestion, not formaldehydey at all; the ginger flavor was punchy; the pink lady apple flavor was my favorite because it tasted like Martinelli's, that standby of conservative evangelical celebrations and kids' tables at Thanksgiving.
Plus, it comes in a cute bottle.
This one is sold at farmers' markets and at Rodeo General Store. It's strong-tasting...lemon ginger blew my hair back and puckered my face. I didn't get any pictures, though, because I was hot on the trail of...
Just to let you know up front, there is no pretense of unbiased opinion here. Even if you hate kombucha, you're going to like this one, because you're going to like Cory and Tiffany.
Srsly...how do you not like these kids?
Cory, who comes originally from Bainbridge Island, was working as an outdoor adventure guide all over the world when he had what some might call a quarter-life-crisis, though it took place a few years late. He came to Maui to manage a friend's vacation property for a couple years while taking stock, and managed a scuba shop on as a side gig. While helping at a church Thanksgiving event, he met the lovely Tiffany, who had come to Maui seeking surf, sunshine and grad school.
You can imagine how the rest of that story went.
The kombucha part started earlier, while Cory was living in Alaska with a gnarly old backwoods dude who said "Hey, you should try this cloudy, vinegary liquid I keep with a giant slimy mushroom floating in it. It's good for you."
Alaska, Cory tells me, is full of this kind of lore--more people than not drink tea made of lichens to cure colds and infections, and go out in spring to harvest the new-growth tips of spruce branches for medicinal use. Also, as Cory admits, he was an adventure guide:
"Anything somebody offered me to drink, I probably would have tried."
Of course, as a Pacific Northwesterner, strong dark coffee ran as thick as blood in Cory's veins. So, however, did the tendency to panic attacks. From the first one he experienced, he recognized what he had seen run in his family--sending his heart, lungs and sweat glands into a mounting fight-or-flight response that his brain knew was irrational, even as it intensified.
That first shot of kombucha, he remembers, hit him with all the energy and mental clarity he expected from coffee, with none of the volatile jitters that threatened to throw him off balance. It was a new, natural way for his body and brain to wake up.
Hence, I imagine, the name:
He went from a shot in the morning to a few throughout the day; by the time he left Alaska, he was toting along his own SCOBY. (And distributing it wherever he could convert someone to it.)
Tiffany was, like many brewer spouses, not so much a convert as an accepting partner. But then she got diagnosed with celiac disease. The need to detox her system and replenish her beneficial bacteria has made her a wholesale convert to the booch. Even more so, once Cory quit his job at the scuba dive shop to brew and market Awaken Tea Kombucha.
"I'm just really happy to see him doing something creative, something he loves."
True to form, life moved fast after they opened their door to change: within a week of Cory quitting his dive shop gig, they got pregnant. But that, they told me, just stimulated their drive to succeed. Awaken Tea Kombucha can now be found at Rodeo General Store in Kihei, Hawaiian Superfoods in Kahului, Choice Health Bar in Lahaina, and at the Upcountry Farmers' Market in Pukalani.
It's not a matter of being inherently more courageous or committed or industrious than other folks, they insist frankly. It works because it has to.
"It really takes faith for us, and simply doing our best as well as being a little ideal that our community values and rewards those who do what is right. I suppose it does have to work because we've invested so much of our own resources, time, and talents that we refuse to accept failure."
You see why I like these people.
You should buy Awaken Tea booch wherever on the island you find it, of course. But by visiting them at the farmers' market, you get the all-inclusive experience: meeting Cory and possibly Tiffany, if she and baby Iver have come for their visit yet. (Just be prepared to witness lots of sweet sixteen-style PDA.)
You can get the lowdown from Cory on all kombucha's health benefits, general and individual.
You can learn about the wider world of kombucha business...Cory is an avid member of Kombucha Brewers International, and just attended KKon 2014. (Yes, that's a thing. All booch-heads clap and say amen.)
And you can enjoy an advance tasting of whatever new flavors he has on tap.
It's not as boozy or acetone-y as others I've tasted...it goes down as light as champagne and as smooth as honey. According to Elijah, who sells fantastic coconut water kefir a few booths down, this is how you know it's really good for you. Kombucha that makes you tipsy, he tells me, is indicative of too much acetic acid, which inflames your digestive tract. ...I don't need to tell you what that means.
(Okay, true confessions: I researched his information and couldn't totally verify it. I even consulted with Tiffany and here's what she told me:
"Kombucha is a non-alcoholic beverage meaning it has less than .5% alcohol. Moderation of all things. That's my sort of answer. The problem with most health claims is that there are basic needs for human survival and there are specific vitamins, minerals and nutrients each human needs to be nourished. However, each person has an individualized way of metabolizing their fuel and processing it. With all of the different organs, cells, blood types, and food sources out there--it just got complicated."
Fair enough. What's not complicated is how good Awaken Tea Kombucha tastes.
Update: Tiffany explains the whole acetic acid thing. Bottom line: it's not what you think it is, and you should keep drinking kombucha.
And okay, if you can handle a little schmaltz? The medicinal value far exceeds its vitamin, mineral or beneficial bacteria count. Now when I think of Awaken Tea Kombucha, I remember making friends with two great people who airlifted my vacation feeling to the transcendent level--they made me feel at home.
(Cue the soprano saxophone.)
Kombucha--bringing people together.
(You can hang out with Tiffany and Cory, too, by following their Facebook page. It has news, recipes, promotional surprises, contests, and a real taste of what life is like on their island.)