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Chatting With Health Ade, A Local Kombucha Brewer Using SoCal's Bounty

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Trying to explain kombucha to the uninitiated can be a daunting task. Words like "fungus" and "fermentation" can be a turn-off to some, especially if it doesn't involve alcohol. But once you have your first sip of the refreshing tea, it's easy to be hooked. That's particularly true if said kombucha is as good as a new local offering: Health Ade. Their bubbly teas have that slightly sweet effervescence we've grown to love, but have added in local fruit juices to further pique our interest. Their seasonal offerings currently include flavors like pink lady apple and plum, but their original and ginger lemon flavors are equally as delightful.

We were first introduced to Health Ade at the opening party for the new Core Power Yoga studio in Encino, and have been intrigued ever since. The cool kombucha was incredibly refreshing after a sweaty hour of hot yoga, and the label boasting local California produce had us intrigued. So we decided to ring up one of the company's founders, Daina Slekys, to see how their probiotic-rich kombucha teas are made.

Slekys started the company along with her husband Justin Trout and best friend Vanessa Dew, who she met while working in corporate America. She hasn't looked back since.

LAist: It seems like a bit of a crazy endeavor to leave corporate America to brew what some people might view as hippie juice. How and when did you start the company?

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Daina Slekys: We launched March 26, 2012, but didn't really start in stores until this year. We started in Brentwood's farmers market, and now we're in 135 markets across L.A. including Lassen's, Rainbow Acres, Erewhon, and between 10 and 12 CrossFit gyms. We're also partnering with SBE to do kombucha cocktails at Mercato di Vetro.

People are really responding to the community and quality focus. The idea really is simple: You'll pay $7 for a fresh pressed juice because you know it's made right with fresh local ingredients compared to something like Naked. This is the same concept, but for kombucha. We are using all local, fresh ingredients. And we don't take shortcuts when brewing it.

What's the process like for brewing kombucha tea?

We do our flavoring with the highest quality fruits that are cold pressed, and our quality is controlled through brewing in small batches, just like you'd make at home in 2.5 gallon glass jars. Most other companies are using large stainless steel vats and plastic, and, of course, the problem is that kombucha is fermenting. If you put it in something like plastic, it can leech the plastic and that'll be in the drink. It might be sold to you in a glass bottle, but what is it being fermented in?

We also use authentic fermentation. Some people will add pastured probiotics forcing fermentation. The problem with that is that you're not allowing kombucha to be a natural probiotic. A lot of studies say that powdered probiotics are 80% dead. Saurkraut, kimchee, kefir, and kombucha all take time to ferment. It takes 14-21 days to fully ferment. We don't rush it.

What are the steps in the process, and how do you know when it's done brewing?

I've been making it for 16 years, so I kind of just know. But scientifically speaking you can tell by PH. You also can tell by sugar levels using a brix meter. You basically want to stop fermenting right when there's no sweetness left. If you let it go all the way, it'll taste like vinegar.

I always tell people that making kombucha is a simple process, but it's not easy. First you mix tea, water, sugar, and what's called a "scoby," which is the fungus that makes kombucha unique, in a glass jar with a starter, which is basically some of your prior batch of kombucha. Where you get your scoby is very important. You can find all sorts of people selling them on Craigslist, but you want a reliable source. You want to know where that thing has been.

That mixture then sits for primary fermentation for 7-14 days. We then add in fresh pressed juice for a little sweetness and flavor, and then it gets bottled in our single-serve glass bottles for secondary fermentation for another 7-14 days. Then it's ready to drink.

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Photo of Health Ade's founders, from left: Vanessa Dew, Justin Trout, Daina Slekys/Courtesy of Health Ade
When did you start drinking kombucha and why?

I started on kombucha 16 years ago. The benefits really are twofold: The first is the probiotics. Kombucha has 20-30 different classes of probiotics, and two or three of them are unique to kombucha alone. The major benefits [from those probiotics] are digestion. There are more bacteria in our gut than there are stars in the Milky Way ... When your balance of probiotics is off if you're drinking booze or eating processed foods, it can really have an impact on your health. These probiotics work in many ways: The first thing you'll notice is a change in is digestion. The second thing you'll see its increase in energy. The third thing is boosting immunity. Probiotics sustain immunity by helping suppress the bad bacteria. The fourth thing is metabolism. It can really curb hunger.

The second point of interest is the detox factor. There's an element in kombucha called gluconic acid. This acid is used by your liver to remove metals, alcohol and toxins. Your body already makes a family of gluconic acids. But whenever your liver is overloaded or under stress, the levels decrease. If you can supplement with kombucha, you can really clean yourself out. There are only a few foods that have that. Seaweed in its fresh form also has it. These acids are actually alkaline producing by the way they interact with your gut.

Who are some of the local farmers you partner with to make your drinks?

We try to make it as much an L.A. product as possible. Farmers' produce is one thing, but we also try to connect with the community for the employees. A lot of our employees come from Homeboy Industries. It's all made by hand in Glendora, which is what makes us different.

The farm that we work mostly with is Etheridge Farms. Gene makes the most fabulous fruits, and they're all organic. G Farms is another one we use for our granny apples. They're organic as well.

We sell at six farmers markets across L.A. every week: Saturday Calabasas, Sunday in Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Larchmont, Malibu, and we're starting Culver City in a few weeks. We connect with a lot of farmers right there, which is really great.

Health Ade's kombuchas are available at farmers' markets, in health food stores, and via delivery. You can find out more about Health Ade and their kombucha on their site.