EUGENE &

It may seem as if kombucha &

pronounced kum-boo-cha &

is a funky-named new fad on the fickle health drink scene, but devotees are actually imbibing a fermented tea that's been around for thousands of years.

Though they don't have the backing of the federal Food and Drug Administration, the brew's believers say kombucha is a veritable cure-all: Its acids and beneficial bacteria known as probiotics are touted to improve digestion, detoxify the body, rejuvenate skin, suppress appetite and expand energy. One maker claims that the elixir cured his mother's breast cancer.

And local shoppers are snapping up the tart drink in increasing numbers.

"The mainstream is starting to pick it up," said Ron Leppert, grocery manager at Sundance Natural Foods in south Eugene, where at least 900 bottles of raw kombucha are sold each month.

Leppert said a bottle of raw unpasteurized kombucha along with a couple of carrots every morning gives him a boost that's better than coffee.

"It's the kind of energy that feels like it's from nutrition rather than caffeine," he said. "It just feels good in my stomach. It's powerful goodness."

Much like sourdough or yogurt, kombucha is made from a culture that is kept growing and alive, said Steve Lee, the founder of Kombucha Wonder Drink, a carbonated organic tea blend made in Portland. The fermentation process means the drink has a slight alcohol content, generally less than .05 percent.

Kombucha Wonder Drink is pasteurized, a process that raw kombucha fans say kills the probiotics that give the drink its health benefits.

Lee, however, said the organic acids in the culture remain, retaining the product's effectiveness without raising concern over the safety of unpasteurized products.

While declining to give exact sales figures, Lee said his company sells well over — million bottles a year throughout North America, and sees particular popularity in New York City, Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest.

More than $34.8 million worth of kombucha-based drinks were sold between April 2006 and April 2007, up from just $15.2 million in sales the year before, according to SPINS, a national natural foods information publication.

"It's the fastest-growing beverage in the natural food industry," Lee said.

While the future of kombucha appears to be expanding, its history remains unclear. Kombucha is brewed on every continent, save Antarctica, and may have originated thousands of years ago in the Himalayan mountains, Lee said.

The recorded history of the drink dates back to the Qin Dynasty in China, around 250 B.C. The tea reportedly helped heal the disorders of the emperor of Japan in 414 A.D.

Kombucha Wonder Drink got its start in 2002 after Lee, a former Tazo Tea employee, brought back part of a culture from Russia, given to him by an old woman who could trace the strain back to 1939 in Siberia.

"It's a very intriguing product; there's so much mystery to it," Lee said. "There's the idea of how old is this kombucha that I'm drinking?"

Raw kombucha, with culture strains remaining in the bottle, packs a strong flavor punch. Fermentation provides natural carbonation. It is served cold and blended with fruit juices, such as guava or gogi berry.

While cold bottles are the most popular way of partaking, kombucha also is available in green tea bags made by Eugene-based Yogi Tea.

Those not interested in spending $3 or more for a daily bottle can purchase cultures from the Internet and brew their own at home.

On the Net: Kombucha Wonder Drink: http:www.wonderdrink.com/; Kombucha Tea at Home: http:www.kombuchatea.co.uk/; Yogi Tea: http:www.yogitea.com/