89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan found a business in Ypsilanti that produces something that's been around for thousands of years. Now, with more flavor offerings and product lines, its popularity is only growing, thanks in part to a local compamy that has, for the most part, remained "Hidden In Plain Sight."
Nestled between two auto repair shops along Ecorse Road in Ypsilanti is a 4,800 square foot warehouse known as “Unity Vibration.” The business specializes in making the ancient tea known as Kombucha.
"It’s been around for thousands of years. It originated in Asia, and then made its way to Russia and sort of the rest of the world by trade and war and that kind of thing."
Kombucha is a fermented tea that contains alcohol. Its popularity continues to grow around the country and here in Washtenaw County. More than a decade ago, Rachel Kanaan and her husband Tarek were living in California and, in 2008, began selling Kombucha out of the back of their van. When the economic recession hit, they decided to move back to Ypsilanti where they once lived. Together, they kept brewing the tea and sold their product at local farmers markets. In 2012, the couple made a giant leap forward by investing in the Ecorse Road warehouse. Today, they have nine employees.
"We are walking through our dry goods and conditioning room warehouse. We’ve got kegs here, we’ve got product conditioning. As part of our brewing process we don’t force carbonate anything, we allow it to condition naturally in the bottle, so that lends better flavors and better healthiness to it," said Tarek.
The process to ferment the tea usually takes between two and three weeks. That includes using culture that resembles a jellyfish called a SCOBY. That stands for “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast.” Other ingredients often include sweetened tea or traditionally green or black teas. Rachel says, in all, Unity Vibration produces 12 different kinds of teas.
"This is Pineapple Ginger…so we juice the ginger and we juice the pineapples. And that’s added to the tea at the time of bottling," said Rachel.
Unity Vibration sells about 20,000 bottles of tea each year--the Pineapple Ginger is the bestseller. Other flavors include Grapefruit and Peachtree. The company distributes its products to 15 states. But tea is not their number one product--they also produce Kombucha Beer and sell 210,000 bottles a year. It contains between eight and nine percent alcohol. Rachel says the best seller is the Bourbon Peach but other flavors are popular, as well.
"Here’s KPA, Kombucha Pale Ale. A beer drinker that likes hops will gravitate toward this and probably like this. This also has, besides a cascade hops, this also has grapefruit rind and juniper berry. So, we tend to sour and bitter things with other things. Besides hops, we like to use herbs and fruits and other things," said Rachel.
As part of an unconventional fermentation process, Unity Vibration performs a Buddhist ceremony at least once a week around the tea and beer tanks. They start off with tingshas. Two small flat alloy disks with a leather strap in between that you hit and resonate together. A meditation bell is also used.
Jorge: That’s like one of those fancy bells that you see at church sometimes.
Rachel: Exactly. Or Temple. And so, for us, it’s not so much about being Buddhist, though I am Buddhist. It’s more about a vibration that creates oneness.
Then, Tarek takes hold of another of the instruments used in the ceremony--metallic, Tibetan singing bowls created by Buddhist monks.
Tarek: It kind of slows you down and gets you in a state of meditation as well. It’s relaxing. It’s like a bell as well.
Jorge: It really calms you down, doesn’t it?
Jorge: It’s peaceful.
The Kanaans say they believe Kombucha is becoming more popular, in part, because of probiotic and energy health benefits. Dr. Darren Schmidt is part of the Nutritional Healing Center of Ann Arbor, which views Kombucha as a holistic alternative to many of the more commercially available products you find on the pharmacy store shelves.
"Well, it all comes down to having a healthy gut basically. So, if you backtrack, if you have an unhealthy gut then you can get autoimmune issues, you can get arthritis, you can get skin issues and then you can get bloating when you eat other sugars or carbs, for example, bread. And then with the altered or dysfunctional digestion, then you can end-up with brain fog, body fatigue, inability to concentrate," said Schmidt.
There are certainly a variety of opinions when it comes to Kombucha. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you limit Kombucha consumption to 4 ounces a day. The Mayo Clinic has previously reported there is not enough tested evidence to determine if Kombucha tea delivers on its health claims. Emily Haller is a nutritionist for Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan.
"Currently, with Kombucha, there are no human clinical trials. However, we have in vitro and in vivo studies to show that there are benefits to Kombucha. And those are antimicrobial, there are anti-oxidants properties, there are vitamins and minerals in Kombucha that we know are important. So, there are health benefits in those liquids, just how much they help us in humans, we don’t have that type of research," said Haller.
But, the medical community does have some research to rely on.
"There have been some toxicity studies on Kombucha and it’s relatively safe for healthy people. There is definitely concern for people who have a compromised immune system. So, we don’t recommend that someone with a compromised immune system drink Kombucha. Women who are pregnant and lactating are also advised to avoid Kombucha because of the small alcohol content in it," added Haller.
Haller says it’s generally safe to purchase Kombucha products from a commercial producer but there is some concern if you buy it from a homebrewer. For those interested in learning how to properly brew Kombucha at home, Unity Vibration offers a once-a-month Kombucha Brew 101 session in its tasting room.
"Hey, nice to see you."
On a Saturday evening, a group of 13 signed up to take the course. Sam Birkenkamp of Ann Arbor is among them.
"I own a loose leaf tea company and also brew beer as a hobby and this felt like a natural extension to both of those interests. And to kind of broaden my horizons as far as everything that tea can offer," said Birkenkamp.
Zach Shender decided to take the class after noticing more and more Kombucha products at local stores.
"I definitely think its getting popularity, you’re finding it in all kinds of stores now," said Shender.
Unity Vibration products are found in 120 outlets in Michigan, including Whole Foods, Plum Market, and restaurants like Sidetrack in Ypsilanti and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. So, while you may not have noticed the “Hidden in Plain Sight” warehouse, the products themselves grow more visible by the year. The Kanaans say they plan to further expand the business and intend to remain in Ypsilanti.
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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org