Of all the fermented foods and beverages kombucha is possibly the weirdest and most difficult to get your head around. The very idea of fermented tea seems a bridge too far for some reason. The sight of fermenting kombucha does nothing to help this. Look at it up close and tell me it doesn’t look like a scene from an apocalyptic film with an alien overlord hovering above.
All acquired tastes require a level of adventurous curiosity, or a good introduction, to ensure the first taste encourages another before the appeal of the product reveals itself. Often the result of that first taste is largely based on expectations. If you were only told that kombucha is a fermented tea what would your expectation be? I know mine were not good, even though I had been a beer brewer for a few years before trying it, and was very comfortable with the idea of fermenting things.
If, however, you were told less of what kombucha is technically, and more about the balance of sweet and tangy sour complementing the underlying floral tea flavours, the spritsy refreshing carbonation and dry finish offering great refreshment, your expectations would be framed differently and you would be more likely to appreciate the drink since your expectations would be referenced as good rather than bad.
What are its origins?
As with many fermented products, the origins are somewhat obscure. Kombucha is thought to have originated in Manchuria (modern northeast China) around 200 BC. From there it seems to have found its way into Russia, from where it was taken to Western Europe by German prisoners of war following the First World War. The current explosion of interest is due to renewed interest many fermented products relating to gut biodiversity and the health benefits of probiotics.
How is it made?
Kombucha is made by fermenting sweet tea. Normally green or black tea is used but rooibos is also common in South Africa and has the added benefit of being caffeine free. The sweet tea is fermented by a host of yeasts and bacteria collectively referred to as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) forming a biofilm which is the floating pancake thing you would have seen in any fermenting komucha.
Sugar is the food for the yeast and bacteria, which gets converted into alcohol, carbon dioxide and, through further reactions, into acetic acid giving the distinctive tangy flavour. The amount of sugar and control of the fermentation process will determine how much alcohol is produced and also how much residual sweetness remains after fermentation. The residual sweetness balances the acetic acid and will vary based on recipe or personal preference. Sugar can come from basic cane sugar, or another sugar source such as honey or fruit. Fruit additions are common in many commercial or homebrewed versions for extra complexity and to introduce additional interesting flavours – and often to somewhat mask the base flavour of the kombucha.
Is Kombucha good for you?
In the world of natural remedies kombucha has often been touted as some kind of miracle drink with some even going so far as to suggest it can cure cancer. The fact is that there are almost no human studies on the benefits of kombucha. It is however (mostly) made from green tea and contains a range of bacteria which may have a probiotic function and there is a wealth of research on the health benefits of these. Studies suggest drinking green tea can reduce cholesterol, help control blood sugar, and reduce the risk of certain cancers. Diversity in gut biome has been linked to many ailments including heart disease, cancer, depression and dementia.
The interactions in this regard are complex and much still needs to be understood, especially about improving the gut biome. It is unlikely that simply supplementing with probiotics will make significant differences. Probiotics do however assist with digestion, inflammation and weight loss. It’s fair to expect that kombucha would deliver some of the same health benefits but it is far from certain and limited in its potential. Importantly, the strains of bacteria in kombucha are different to those in most medical probiotics, so kombucha should not be seen as a replacement for these supplements.
It’s important to be aware of the potential risks involved as well. As with all fermentations, there is a risk of the batch getting infected which could make you very sick if you consume it. To mitigate this you could buy your kombucha from a reputable brewer or, if you are keen to make your own, be sure to do sufficient research to understand the process and potential problems and to undertake and monitor your brewing closely.
Remember that, since this is a fermented product, it will contain some alcohol. For most commercial versions this will be less than 0.5% which is basically non-alcoholic but this can go up to as much as 3% ABV for home brewed batches. One final consideration is the acidity of kombucha which can cause acidosis if consumed in excess or by regularly drinking over-fermented product (with too much acetic acid). All of these potential risks are easy to manage, and the brewing of kombucha is a very simple process, so don’t be discouraged from trying to brew your own. As with all home cooking doing it yourself means complete control to tailor the flavours to your own preferences.
Why is it so delicious?
Given the refreshing and satisfying yet complex flavour profile kombucha is a great alternative to alcoholic drinks even showing good potential to pair with food. Also, with its relatively low sugar content, kombucha is a great alternative to soft drinks. It may not be the miracle cure some have claimed, but it is a wonderful and versatile drink and once you have acquired the taste for it you find yourself craving its sweet and tangy flavours.