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Kombucha: a sweet business brewed with fermented tea
Two Northeast Ohio food producers are making money with a health drink that goes back a few millennia
This story is part of a special series.

Vivian Goodman
Kombucha is essentially sweetened black tea that's fermented. Two Northeast Ohioans are producing local brands and finding wide acceptance for the beverage. It's said to promote good health although there's no scientific evidence.
Courtesy of Vivian Goodman
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In a food culture where everything old is new again, interest in fermented food and drink has bubbled up.

We meet a couple of Northeast Ohio entrepreneurs cashing in on the trend in today’s Quick Bite.

WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports they’re creating new interest in a beverage that goes back thousands of years.

LISTEN: Two for Kombucha tea

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Kombucha is fermented black tea made with sugar, bacteria, and yeast.

The drink born in China more than 2,000 years ago is an acquired taste: tart, and somewhat vinegary. 

Devotees say that doesn’t matter because it makes them feel great.

But there’s no scientific evidence of a myriad of health claims including boosting immunity, improving digestion, and preventing cancer.

A healthy tip
Akron massage therapist Bill Bond had been suffering from chronic stomach trouble when he first heard about Kombucha from a client. 

“She would tip me in Kombucha, store-bought Kombucha. That was probably in 2006, 2007, and we started sharing that love for this fizzy, fermented beverage that nobody knew about in those days.”    

Today, Kombucha is giving him a healthy business, and a calmer stomach.

“When I’ve overdone it, when I feel full, Kombucha when I have it after a meal, it just settles my stomach, and I can feel that happening literally as I drink it.”   

Low overhead
Bond got started by making Kombucha at home and sharing it with friends and family, like his brother-in-law Mark Slyder

“When he brought it over I tried it, and I asked him how he made it, and he went through the details. And eventually I asked him how much it costs to make. And we started a business right away.”  

A vegetarian restaurant on S. Main Street hosts the low-overhead operation.

“We work out of Ms. Julie’s Kitchen. It’s simply making the tea, letting it sit on the shelf, and then bottling.”

Their raw, unpasteurized product has some hoops to jump through.

Label regulations, inspections from the FDA, in fact we had one last week here. We’re always ensuring that we’re following every guideline. The government does a good job of following up with us as well.” 

Bucha Bill Kombucha’s main outlets are farmers’ markets. 

“Ohio City, Shaker Heights, the Highland Square. We’re in Greenhouse Tavern up in Cleveland, the West Side Market, and you can buy it here at Ms. Julie’s Kitchen.”  

The label means health
Another local Kombucha maker recently got her product into the Wellness Cooler at Heinen’s.

Debbie Sablack’s sanitizing bottles at Chagrin Valley Kitchen where she leases space to make Valens Kombucha

“Valens in Latin means ‘in good health.’ ”

Sablack got interested in Kombucha as a quick nutritional fix. 

“I’m a vegetarian that doesn’t like vegetables.”  

She needed more pep

“And for me it really gave, I think it’s from the B vitamins, but I could instantly feel the energy within 20 minutes of drinking Kombucha.”  

A quest for better taste
She didn’t like what she found on health food and grocery shelves. 

“It honestly did not taste that great. It has a slight vinegary taste.”   

So she experimented at home adding the artificial sweetener Stevia. 

“Kind of my whole purpose was to take a healthy drink and make it actually taste good, and I think I actually succeeded with that, so.”   

The Valens Kombucha label lists, electrolytes, active enzymes and antioxidants. “What it’s known for,” says Sablack, “is to replace your gut flora with good bacteria.”   

But the American Cancer Society says there’s no scientific evidence that Kombucha promotes health, and warns of serious side effects in those with compromised immune systems.

Debbie Sablack suggests going slowly.

“I would start out with one serving per day just to see how it affects you.”  

Sablack wishes she could make a stronger case about the health benefits.

“There really is very little research and claims are unsubstantiated. There really isn’t a large brand out there who it’s in their best interest to do large studies on it.”   

How they got started
Winning a contest sponsored by Toledo’s Center for Innovative Food Technology helped Sablack launch her brand.

Bucha Bill opened his business with just a SCOBY, a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.  

Alive and floating in a gallon of sweetened tea, the mother culture looks like a weird mushroom or a lumpy pancake. 

He’s consumed the SCOBY in smoothies. 

“When I mix it with strawberries in a blender it almost tastes like yogurt.”  

But he only sells the tea, in flavors like lavender, lemon basil, and ginger peach, in beer bottles.

Pays to be local
Bucha Bill sells six-packs on his website for $30. Sablack’s Valens brand retails at $3.59 a bottle. 

“Actually I’ve found in the stores where I’m right next to the national brands, “says Sablack, “it actually sells better.”   

Bucha Bill thinks he benefits, too, from being local, and part of a growing kombucha community

“I’m just a big home fermenter gone commercial, so there’s a part of my business online that actually sells starter culture kits for people that want to start up.”   

His home brew kit includes the original SCOBY floating in a gallon jar of tea.

Bucha Bill and Debbie Sablack of Valens may both be on to something big. The market research firm SPINS reports sales of Kombucha grew almost 30% last year.

(Click image for larger view.)

l. to r. Bill Bond aka Bucha Bill, and his brother-in-law and business partner Mark Slyder.
Debbie Sablack of Valens Kombucha won a Center for Innovative Food Technology contest to get her brand launched.
Bucha Bill Kombucha comes in beer bottles.
Debbie Sablack produces her Kombucha at the Chagrin Valley Kitchen. She obtained her bottling license there.
Bucha Bill says his original mother culture, or SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) is in its 350th generation.
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