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Missing kombucha's more obscure days

Here we go again.

Every few months, a new craze bubbles up from the health food underground into the mainstream. From hemp milk to coconut water, acai to quinoa, there's always some new edible exotica that is going to save us from a future of disease, decrepitude and death.

The latest to move into the spotlight is kombucha.

A fizzy, fermented tea beverage made from a base of yeast and fungus and long popular in Asia, kombucha has many proponents who claim its blend of beneficial bacteria, enzymes, probiotics and amino acids fights all sorts of catastrophic illness, from cancer to kidney and intestinal issues.

The kombucha craze has been building for some time. Way back around 200 B.C., China's Qin dynasty supposedly declared it an "immortal health elixir" and, more recently, a 2007 headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette screamed "Kombucha fermenting a revolution in health drinks."

But lately it seems to have gotten more pervasive.

According to a 2010 CBS News report, kombucha sales had been doubling each year for the previous four years and it's an industry worth $150 million annually.

Manufacturers like Michigan's Unity Vibration are making a more liquored-up version of kombucha with an alcoholic content of 5 to 9 percent, more like beer or wine and less like traditional kombucha, which hovers in the 0.5 to 1.5 range. New York's Beyond Kombucha announced last month it's going to start making kombucha ales, ciders and sparkling wines. (The controversy over traditional kombucha's low but varying alcohol content prompted some stores, such as Whole Foods, to pull it from their shelves for a time in 2010 while the government said that any beverage exceeding the 0.5 percent alcohol level would have to be sold under the same restrictions as other alcoholic drinks. This caused many manufacturers to reformulate their product so it didn't go over the legal amount.)

Don't get me wrong. I really like the original kombucha, especially if it's flavored with ginger. I've been drinking it for years, though I admit its extremely tangy taste is an acquired one. I have no idea if any of the health claims made by its most ardent admirers are true -- the official line from the American Cancer Society's website is that "there is no scientific evidence that kombucha tea is effective in treating cancer or any other disease." -- but I like that its effervescence comes without the sugary downsides of soda or carbonated juices.

I also like that one of my favorite beverages will be available in more places, but what bugs me is that the word "kombucha" is now firmly on the American pop-culture assembly line, primed for overexposure. At first, it's cooler-than-thou shorthand for a healthy lifestyle. From there, it's a short hop to moronic pickup line ("Hey, baby, can I buy you a kombucha-tini?") and blaring ad tagline ("Ultra Frosted Gooey Sweet Insulin-Depleting Cereal -- now with kombucha!"). Then it's just one Dr. Oz mention away from jumping the macrobiotic shark.

Finally, the bandwagon-hoppers will hop off to the next thing.

Personally, I can't wait. I'm already missing the days when you could belly up to a bar, ask for a kombucha and get a look like you are a monkey on meth.

In the meantime, maybe I'll have to move on to something else. After all, chia seeds aren't just for Chia Pets anymore.