Kombucha sales are on the rise. Is this just another trend or there something to this stuff?  Since many of our clients ask about kombucha, I decided to sit down with the lovely Joan Karp, owner and cultivator at Mount NitaNee Kombucha, to get some of the most common questions about kombucha answered.  This local company has made it’s mark in Central PA and continues to grow. Here is what my dear friend Joan has to say:

Angie: What is kombucha?

Joan: I first encountered kombucha when I lived in Durango, home on summer break and a woman who swam at the pool where I trained invited me to join her for breakfast at her homestead – 2 teepees and an Airstream trailer! There her kombucha vessel sat with this mushroomy, somewhat foamy thing floating on top… and that was my first introduction to this ancient elixir. I wasn’t immediately enthralled with kombucha’s magic, if I’m being honest. I think my less adventurous palate and interest in real food at 19 kept me from falling in love.  I bumbled around for a few years and when I ultimately landed in Penns Valley 2 decades ago, kombucha reintroduced herself to me. It’s kind of prolific in these parts….local markets or Amish farm stands could hook you up with all sorts of old-timey, raw, cultured foods and beverages. The idea that kombucha is new to Central Pennsylvania is probably more a matter of one’s own experience than reality. It’s been here a while and people enjoy chatting about their at-home kombucha brews!

I fell madly in love with kombucha’s amazing flavors when I sampled it again as a woman now fully invested and interested in real food and vibrant health for herself and her family. Kombucha is an easy and delicious way to add bacteria and acid rich nourishment to my diet. I’m an athlete of sorts – or at least I think of myself as such – and kombucha has long been the refreshment I dream about at the end of many hours out in the hills riding. As far as “sports drinks” go, I’d take kombucha over anything where HFCS is an ingredient. Often when I’m hot and tired, kombucha is so thirst-quenching I crave it. I rarely drink anything besides water, so kombucha has become a lovely treat…akin to enjoying a glass of wine with a meal.  

Angie: What made you decide to start a kombucha business?

Joan: I actually didn’t set out to start a kombucha business. I had been growing it for my family and then sharing it sporadically with training partners and friends here and there. It was only after a dear friend lovingly and persistently insisted that I should do this as a legitimate business that I began. Otherwise, I know I’d still just be making it at home for myself and people I love. Truly, the kombucha business found me. Isn’t that always the best way?

Angie: When first stepping into the world of kombucha what would you like people to know?

Joan: 1.) Gut microbiome diversity is essential for vibrant and joyful living. Each of us has a rainforest in miniature in our guts – about 3 to 4 pounds of these silent tiny partners in life (even our skin is home to an assortment of their own highly adapted microbiomes) and maintaining a vibrant and thriving environment is essential to immune function, and even brain health we’re discovering. One of the most amazing bytes of information I’ve learned through study is that 90-95% of our serotonin is made in the gut. Be with that a moment. That is so powerful. But, as we all know, gut health is the root of all health. For years I’ve been reading, in terms of mitigating and reversing autoimmune disease, it all starts in the gut.

2.) Every kombucha benefits from the environment in which it is cultivated and every environment is unique. Unique wild yeast and bacteria exist in each culturing environment. Mine is different than yours. Which is different from the kombucha made by my friend. Certainly kombucha shares many similarities, but much of what makes it amazing is how it can help us introduce microbial diversity. Commercial brands of OTC probiotic capsules may have a couple of strains. Kombucha offers a much broader spectrum. And the kombucha I cultivate today in cooperation with Nature, will not be the same kombucha I bottle next week, or the month after that. The seasons change. The world is different. Kombucha is Nature and Nature isn’t stagnate. Nor is she homogenous. Our modern world is accustomed to homogenized everything. Nature IS diversity…and so is kombucha. The idea of homogenization flies out the window. I love this!

3.) When beginning to drink kombucha (or consume any live, cultured food or beverage) start small for a couple of days and be mindful about what you notice. More energy? Improved bowel function? Less heartburn? Slight headache? Runny stool? Begin with 4 to 6 ounces in the morning and pay attention to what your body tells you. Some people may experience a herxheimer effect if too much is ingested too soon, thus believing that kombucha isn’t for them, when in fact, it really could be for them, it’s just that they went too big too soon and their body is healing and purging.  If, after 2 or 3 days, you feel great, enjoy a bit more. I love kombucha in a large wine goblet with lunch or dinner nearly every day.

Angie: How is Mount NitaNee kombucha different – specifically from national name brands?

Joan: This is a great question and there are some lovely national brands to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude because they have helped to normalize the idea of kombucha. GT’s had been around for some time and from all that I’ve read is intentional about their process and has really helped grassroots kombucha grow. Then there are others like KeVita, owned by Pepsi, which may not really be “kombucha” in the most sincere sense. Are you getting a raw kombucha, authentically cultivated? Or are you getting a sparkling water to which essences of tea and probiotics have been added? Label reading is incredibly helpful. I picked up a chain boutique grocery store’s kombucha when I was out running errands a few weeks ago. It tasted simultaneously like drinking vinegar AND an undiluted fruit sugar syrup. A powerful punch of intense sour and intense sweet wrestled in my mouth before finally submitting and going down, but it was rough. 2 servings in this less than pint-sized 14 oz glass vessel packed 14g of sugar per serving. That’s 28 grams in what easily appears to be a single serving bottle! I didn’t come close to finishing it. The flavor profile was just far too robust for what I’m looking for in kombucha. Those of us who are local cultivators are not required by the FDA to provide nutritional labeling until we reach an exorbitant sales number, but if you’re at a local market and can speak face to face with the cultivator, we know our process and the how’s and why’s behind what we do. I’ve done the math on mine and considering residual sugars and how I’ve chosen to augment it with fruit or herbs, Mount NitaNee Kombucha comes in between 4 and 9 grams of sugar in a 16 oz vessel.  

Angie: So, is all kombucha the same? If I try one, I’ve tried them all?

Joan: Good question – and no! Kombucha is not a singular experience. What I cultivate and what I like in terms of taste will vary – maybe even stridently – from what another person cultivates or likes. Kombucha is not kombucha is not kombucha. Some prefer sour. Excellent. Grow and enjoy sour kombucha! Some prefer sweeter. Excellent. Grow and enjoy sweeter kombucha. Some prefer fruity or herby or savory. Wonderful. Kombucha is versatile and alive. It will change with the seasons and the temperature and the environment. It has the potential to BE so much. Kombucha is not soda. It is not G*torade. It is not juice. It is not tea. It is its own unique gift. What I cultivate might be your very favorite – and for that I’m thankful – but it might not be – and that’s ok too. But sampling one kombucha does not define the entirety of the kombucha experience. Everything from the quality and type and amount of tea selected, to how the cultivator steeps it, to the environment in which it is cultured, to the length of time it is cultured to the type and amount of fruits or herbs or roots in a secondary fermentation process ultimately combines in a gently-bubbling chilled glass of magic. No two will ever be the same. No two of mine are ever fully the same. I embrace this. It’s one of the things I love most about kombucha: it changes.

Angie: Where can I find your kombucha?

Joan: You can find my kombucha in Penns Valley at Burkholder’s Country Market, The Inglebean Cafe, Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks, Pizza Heaven, and Sense of Balance Pilates Studio. I’m also at Sunset Natural Foods in Lamar. In the State College area you can find MNKombucha at The Barn at Lemont, Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe, and on the Friends and Farmers Online Market. Additionally, and my favorite way to build community and connect with neighbors is the weekly delivery route: patrons access my order form on our Facebook business page, and then we delivery a 64oz growler of deliciousness to their door every week. It’s a subscription of sorts. We try to provide favorite flavors, and sometimes, because we are still doing EVERYTHING by hand and we don’t always have a bevy of stock, we deliver a surprise! This has been, hands down, one of the best parts of this business. My daughter, Helen, is my order and delivery coordinator, so it’s pretty awesome that gut-health is delivered to your door by someone so authentically awesome! If you have questions, please email us at mountnitaneekombucha@gmail.com

A final bit of information about Mount NitaNee Kombucha (and water kefir!) is that I have chosen to begin the certification process with Pennsylvania Certified Organic. I’m new to everything that comes with running a business, and certainly to this specific process, but timelines being what they are, somewhere in the next 6 weeks or so I hope we are certified (or at least very close to crossing the final T’s). I hope the wonderful people who purchase my kombucha and follow my social media and who stop to have conversations with me find value in this certification and have a fuller appreciation for where my heart is. I want to continue to learn how to cultivate kombucha in a way that honors the process and honors my patrons’ desire to consume a delicious and beneficial and mindfully sourced kombucha.

Happy gut. Happy life. Tend the garden within.
Joan Karp, owner and cultivator at Mount NitaNee Kombucha