Jerry Smith’s quiet corner of the universe lies down Willamette Street between Cappella Market and Tsunami Books. Like many Eugene hippie-folk, Smith is a private man; he doesn’t reveal much and, until now, has never granted an interview. Even now he tells me he’s been having second thoughts about this.
But despite this reclusion, Smith’s small health food company, Herbal Junction, has caused quite a stir among fermenters and foodies all across the country. Until only a year or so ago, Smith was the first and only known commercial brewer of the probiotic drink known as Jun.
Smith sits his small frame in a chair across from me in the tiny storefront and thanks an attendant as he’s handed a cup of tea. His usual blend. I’m given a small glass of Flower Power Jun — it’s golden colored and topped by a fizzy lace of white bubbles. There’s a musty smell of herbs in the air and a buzz of activity in the back room, where a few workers are blending teas. Smith says he wants to dispel the rumors.
Jun is, from a layman’s point of view, a drink similar in many respects to kombucha. A major difference is that the Jun culture prefers strictly green tea and raw honey to kombucha’s sugar and cooler fermenting temperatures. According to Smith, a true Jun culture is completely bacterial, whereas kombucha cultures are a mix of yeast and bacteria.
Maintaining the integrity of that pure, bacterial culture has become Smith’s life work and separates him, in that respect, from all other purported Jun fermenters. He even at one point collaborated with academics at Cornell University, who gave him tips on how to keep out wild yeasts. But it’s a constant battle, he says
“I’m trying to follow the sacred path of it,” says Smith. “I’m practicing what I was taught.”
It used to bother him that people were brewing, bottling and calling their cultures Jun, but Smith says he’s let that go. He recognizes the importance of drinking any healthful, fermented drinks, regardless of what people call them.
“I used to have a lot of mixed feelings about it,” says Smith, “but now it’s just gotten so out of control. I wish people would just do their own thing, make up their own names.”
Smith was given his first culture and taught to brew at the age of 25 by a Chinese herbalist living in Wonder, Ore. It was a 1,500-year-old culture that had been passed down through Tibetan lore. But Smith says he was young and inexperienced, and eventually he neglected the culture and threw it away. He came back to the herbalist for another but was turned away. Smith didn’t come across another one for years; then, during a period of illness, he was gifted one by a roaming Tibetan family. This culture was allegedly 800 years old, and it’s the one he uses today.
Smith says the original, 1,500-year-old unadulterated culture has been used in fermentation at the City of 10,000 Buddhas monastery in Ukiah, Calif. Heng Shun, a monk at 10,000 Buddhas, says he was around when Jun showed up there in the late 1970s.
“This was first introduced to some of the monks in the monastery by one of our lay-members from Eugene, Ore., at the time,” Shun says. “Several monks continued to use the tea for a couple of years.”
Shun’s description of the Jun gifter aptly fits that of Smith’s first mentor: a proficient Chinese herbalist, a lay Buddhist monk who had been living in Oregon. Shun says he believes that this person is now living in Hawaii.
Many of the Jun stories Smith can’t qualify. He says most of them are contrived from bits and pieces of truth he’s let out over the years, though now these stories have taken on myths of their own. He says he knows nothing about Loa Tzu ever possessing heirloom cultures, as one tale would have it, and he can’t speak to the tales about the anarcho-Buddhist Khampa monks-turned-warriors from Tibet who travel on motorcycle with swords on one hip and flasks of Jun on the other.
Smith can say that Jun is indeed consumed throughout the Tibetan highlands, and that a protégé of his who traveled to Tibet found monks walking from one mountaintop monastery to the next, with containers of Pu’er tea, yak milk and Jun strapped across their chests.
You’ve probably seen Herbal Junction’s 6-ounce bottles of Jun in stores like Sundance and The Kiva. The elixirs are packed with medicinal Chinese herbs whose healing properties are further enhanced in combination with the Jun. The Jun “opens the channels of the body,” Smith tells me, allowing other medicines to catalyze within the body; he says this is evidenced by his own healing process. At one point, Smith says, he was even contracted to brew a special batch with maple syrup for an ill Jerry Garcia, who was allergic to honey.
The stories of sacred elixirs like Jun will never have a clear-cut history. And that’s where the beauty lies: in the mystery of the sacred, preserved and known only by those who choose to sit, learn and commune with them.