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TRUE Believer

In 10 years, G.T. Dave has come to dominate the kombucha tea market. He claims the drink helped save his mother, but how much of his pitch is science and how much is New Age hype?

January 06, 2008|Mayrav Saar | Mayrav Saar is a writer in Los Angeles and co-editor of Mediabistro.com's Fishbowl LA. She can be reached at magazine@latimes.com.

Somewhere in Vernon, among rendering plants and metal furniture factories, G.T. Dave, a 30-year-old Beverly Hills High School dropout, and the 45 employees of his steadily growing beverage company, Millennium Products Inc., lovingly tend to a repulsive organism that's reproducing like mad in a room with purple walls.

We can't tell you exactly what it looks like. Or really anything about it. The fastidious and secretive Dave won't let us see it.

The organism, a gelatinous melding of bacteria and yeast, is essential to the production of kombucha, a fermented tea that tastes a little like cider vinegar and has been credited with health benefits as varied as clearing up acne and boosting the immune systems of people with HIV. These claims aren't backed by scientific research, but that hasn't prevented supporters from latching on to kombucha as a cure-all--or kept Whole Foods and other national retailers from stocking GT's Kombucha, available in two varieties and 13 flavors, on their shelves. (It sells for $3 to $4 a pop.)

"We went from carrying a few bottles that people weren't quite sure what to make of, to whole shelves of the product that we could barely keep in stock," says Marci Frumkin, marketing director for the southern Pacific region of Whole Foods Market. Another Whole Foods executive, senior global grocery coordinator Perry Abbenante, associates Dave's products with "amazing sales," adding, "GT's Kombucha is one of our top beverage brands."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Kombucha tea: A graphic accompanying a Jan. 6 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on G.T. Dave, a purveyor of kombucha tea, said that the formula for fermentation is C6 H12 O6→ 2C2 H5 OH + 2CO2 (sugar yields ethanol + carbonic gas). This is the formula for one type of fermentation. G.T. Dave's fermentation formula for kombucha tea is C6 H12 06→C6 H10 07 + 2CO2 (glucose yields glucuronic acid + carbonic gas).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Kombucha tea: A graphic accompanying a Jan. 6 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on G.T. Dave, a purveyor of kombucha tea, said that the formula for fermentation is C6 H12 O6 2C2 H5 OH + 2CO2 (sugar yields ethanol + carbonic gas). This is the formula for one type of fermentation. G.T. Dave's fermentation formula for kombucha tea is C6 H12 06C6 H10 07 + 2CO2 (glucose yields glucuronic acid + carbonic gas).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 03, 2008 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 7 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
The graphic accompanying an article on kombucha tea ("True Believer," Jan. 6) said that the formula for fermentation is C6 H12 O6 aUi 2C2 H5 OH + 2CO2 (sugar yields ethanol + carbonic gas). This is the formula for one type of fermentation. G.T. Dave's fermentation formula for kombucha tea is C6 H12 06 aUi C6 H10 07 + 2CO2 (glucose yields glucuronic acid + carbonic gas).

For his part, George Thomas Dave insists that good vibes are essential for good business. A positive attitude--about kombucha's effects and everything else--is crucial to the base organism's well-being, he says.

"People's energy has an influence on the quality of the kombucha," he says, sitting near the door of a Beverly Hills coffee shop. Dave doesn't order anything. Not even water. His dark hair is shiny. His build, medium and athletic. His teeth are a brilliant white, and his hazel eyes sparkle. He drives a BMW M5. He's everything you'd want in a health food ambassador. "We had one employee who was suffering from depression. He had a heart attack, and in all the batches [that he was involved in], the quality dropped."

New Age nonsense? Let's see: Dave says he selects employees based on their energy and Zodiac signs. And there's more. The clairvoyant who analyzed the dirt around his factory told him he was destined for greatness.

Dave seems utterly convinced of his own sales pitch when he reveals the driving motivaton behind his calling:

"I got into this because kombucha saved my mom's life."

G.T.'s parents, Laraine and Michael Dave, began brewing kombucha in their home in 1992, when G.T. was a freshman at Beverly Hills High. The wife of a local juice-store owner had given Michael a kombucha culture she said she had received from a monk. (Before companies such as Millennium Products came along, kombucha was mostly a grown-at-home endeavor with cultures passed from person to person.) She told the couple how to ferment the organism in a mixture of tea and sugar, the most common method of deriving a drinkable beverage. Dave's parents and older brother, Adam, immediately took to the stuff, harvesting "babies" from the white gelatinous culture every 10 days, fermenting them in seven large glass bowls on their dining room table and marveling at the weight loss and feeling of well-being they attributed to this ancient Chinese blob.

But G.T. thought it was weird.

"Everyone who came over always asked, 'What's that smell?'" Dave recalls. "You'd take off the lids, and it burped at you. I thought, 'Everyone thinks we're the Addams Family.'"

His opinion of the concoction changed dramatically in 1994, when Laraine was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy, followed by about a year of chemotherapy and radiation. But she credits kombucha with helping her beat the disease and preventing it from spreading--a point that is stressed in the marketing of GT's Kombucha.

Dave is convinced that kombucha arrested Laraine's cancer by boosting her immune system and flushing toxins from her body.

"My mother is and will always be my everything," says Dave, who is single and living with Laraine until his new house on the Westside is finished. "The concept of her not being in my life shook me up. The idea that a health food helped her really spoke to me. It inspired me to think that something like this could help other people."

At that time, Dave had gotten his GED, left high school and started taking business classes at Santa Monica College. His dad suggested that Adam bring kombucha to market, but he was a history student at UCLA at the time and never demonstrated a head for business. However, the youngest Dave brother took to kombucha like a calling.

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