Eco-conscious American expat Lance Thomas is introducing fermented kombucha tea to Cambodia. Writer Joanna Mayhew finds out more about the Kombutea Brewing Company’s fruity concoctions, with photography by Rudi Towiro.

What is kombucha tea?
The best way to describe it is a sweet tea that’s being fermented with pro-bacteria and yeast. When you get tea and sucrose [together], the bacteria and the yeast will actually eat this and spin little microfibers of cellulose. This, altogether, is fermenting the sugar and blended tea into what’s known as kombucha. The second fermentation is when you can really start experimenting a lot with other flavours. It’s a pretty big process – probably 20 days from putting the tea into hot water until it’s in the bottle, ready to go.

Are there benefits to drinking it?
Regular kombucha drinking is known to be an immune system builder. It’s making your body a lot stronger for you to be able to fight off things by yourself. There are studies that show all the vitamins in it – tons of strains of probiotics that actually stay with you when compared to yogurt, which has fewer strains. I always just say drink it for the taste, first of all. It’s something very unique and different: sweet, sour, tangy. 

Are there side effects?
Yes. We tend to eat a lot of pretty bad things. So when your body first comes in contact with a really strong pro-biotic, it’s like this little war going on in your body. I always tell people not to drink more than a glass a day until they figure out if it’s for them. If you’re an Angkor Beer-chugger kind of person and you start drinking this stuff, you’ll probably feel some effects. [It’s] nothing serious, a bloated stomach or a headache. You’ll wake up the next morning and be alright. It’s a good pain. 

How did you become interested in it?
I’ve been brewing kombucha for three years. The majority of my brewing has been done in Costa Rica, where my friends [and I] invested money into a permaculture organic farm. We grow cacao, turmeric, avocados. There are no rules on the farm, just to accept people for who they are. It’s a non-money system, so we try to barter everything we can with our neighbours. It’s a community that wants to just live right and be good people and take care of the earth so that our children can have the same place. Anything we could take from the farm and make concoctions out of, we would do. Volunteers would come and unleash amazing things in the kitchen, and I would learn so much from them. We constantly had projects working, thousands of experiments – 95 percent of the time they were amazing. 

Is there a market for it here?
The market for kombucha is always going to be people who know and like it. Right now it’s expats, because they’ve been away from it for so long and now they know I’m here. I really don’t try to market it. No jingle, no little tag line, nothing like that, so I hope that works. It’s something you have to find on your own. I don’t want to push it on anyone. Now I’m trying to experiment with the Southeast Asian flavours, so mangosteen for example. Every now and then I’ll have this experiment that goes great, like ginger, turmeric and honey, because you would never think of turmeric in a drink, but with the right amount it works perfect. The most popular is just ginger honey, using honey from here, which is very [unique and] specific to this region. 

What’s your company’s ethos?
I want to keep it local. My honey source is local; [I’m] also [partnering with organic enterprise] Discovery Farms. We’re working on making our own corks, so we don’t have to import. It costs less, and it’s better for the earth to go that route. The greed has gotten out of control, so I want to keep it local. I want to know the people I do business with on a personal level and know they’re in the same ballpark. Being able to meet this community of people working locally, it’s like an extended version of the farm within an urban setting. They’re trying to be as green as possible and promote that, and this country needs that more than anything.

What’s been the biggest challenge?
Glass bottles aren’t made here. Every bottle that comes this direction is imported, and it’s awful because they don’t recycle glass either. And it’s the perfect holding vessel. So I figured I’d spearhead that operation, and start doing the recycling thing myself. It’s a very basic operation, [but] vinegar is the perfect cleansing solution. You don’t need soap, don’t need anything that’s harmful, no chemicals. So it’s very, very sanitary.

What keeps you motivated?
I’ve been able to meet all kinds of people interested in it. New studies just came out about ways you can use this beyond a drink. The cellulose is so strong when it’s dried out that it’s a very unique substance. You can make your own shoes, clothes. They’re doing research now to be able to use it for organs, you can skin graft onto it and use it as a patch. There’s just so much to learn, and I’m fascinated by it. I like knowing that I’m getting better at it. [It’s] tons of work, but I’ve done tons of work for companies that I hate, so I can handle this. I was working 95 hours a week building banks inside of Walmarts. If I can do that, then I can do something I like 95 hours a week. More than anything, I just want enough to live modestly and be able to go back to my farm every now and then and help out. 

For more information, see www.facebook.com/cambodiaskombuchatea