What exactly is kombucha?

 

You’ve likely seen bottles of kombucha on the shelf at your local grocery store, or maybe even your local health food store. It usually resembles a bottle of slightly cloudy tea, with terms like “probiotic” and “gut health” prominently displayed on the labels. Frequently touted as a health drink, kombucha devotees believe the beverage has all sorts of curative properties thanks to the live bacterial cultures swimming around inside.

Kombucha has been around for at least 200 years, but its origin is unclear. The name comes from the Japanese word for “kelp tea,” which is a completely different beverage, unrelated to the kombucha we know today.

So, What Is It?

Kombucha has gotten extremely popular in the U.S. over the last decade, but it started gaining traction in the early 1990s as a health tonic that was believed to stimulate your immune system.

As with almost any modern cure-all, there is some disagreement in the medical community about whether the drink provides any real health benefits. There is even some evidence that it can be hazardous if it is not correctly made or gets contaminated somehow.

Regardless of benefits or risks, some people just really enjoy the taste of kombucha. Many people choose it over soda when they want something fizzy. It has even begun popping up on tap in trendy bars as a refreshing non-alcoholic alternative to beer. 

How It’s Made

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Photo by Klara Avsenik on Unsplash

Kombucha is fermented, much like beer or sake. Although it is typically not an alcoholic drink, it can contain small amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process. It begins with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, referred to as a “SCOBY” or a “mother.” It’s a living culture that resembles a large squishy disc like a mushroom cap and is similar to the “mother” that you’ll find in bottles of unfiltered apple cider vinegar. In fact, according to Sandor Ellix Katz’s book “The Art of Fermentation,” kombucha mothers and vinegar mothers contain the same organisms, like acetobacter, and some researchers have concluded that they are in fact the same thing. 

The SCOBY is the key to making this funky drink. New SCOBYs form as a thick gelatinous film on top of kombucha as it ferments — meaning you can obtain one from someone else who brews their own, or grow your own from a bottle of pre-made kombucha.

A SCOBY is added to a large glass jar or container along with water, sugar, black or green tea and some starter liquid (which can also come from a previous batch or from a bottle of pre-made kombucha). This starter liquid will give your mixture a nice infusion of extra bacteria that will help kick-start the process of fermentation. The yeast feeds on the tea and the added sugar and the friendly bacteria will keep any dangerous bacteria from thriving in the liquid and contaminating your batch. The tea imparts a smooth flavor and a small amount a caffeine.

A typical home-brewed kombucha is made one gallon at a time and takes seven to 10 days to ferment. Larger operations tend to do things a little differently. South Florida-based Non-Prophet Brewing Company, for example, uses six-gallon tanks and allows their batches to ferment for four weeks at a time.

According to Non-Prophet’s founder Chris Montelius, “Some other companies use really large fermenters and ferment hundreds of gallons at a time but we found that the flavor wasn’t the same when we scaled up too much and opted to use lots of smaller fermenters instead.”

Montelius believes getting the size and fermentation time of the batch right is key to making the most flavorful complex kombucha. “The larger the batch, the more one-dimensional I found the flavor to be — like playing a single note on an instrument,” he says. This method of using several small tanks allows them to produce about 720 gallons of kombucha per week.

The Final Product

The fermentation process creates a unique drink that is a little bit fizzy, lightly sweet, and has a sour, somewhat vinegary taste that some people love and some loathe.

 

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The yeast eats away at all the sugar, a process which can leave behind small amounts of alcohol as a byproduct. In turn, the bacteria feeds on the alcohol and breaks it down, ensuring that most ready-to-drink batches of kombucha won’t have much more than about .5 to 1 percent alcohol by volume. Of course, that depends on several factors, like how long the brew is fermented and how much oxygen is available to it. 

All of the good bacteria that’s added in the beginning will be thriving and multiplying in this environment, and that’s what is behind a lot of the purported health benefits of the drink. Like with any other ferment, drinking kombucha with live bacterial cultures may promote colonization of these good bacteria in your intestinal tract, which could have some impact on your gut health. 

There’s still not much definitive evidence to support the health claims that many people have made about kombucha, but that isn’t stopping the trendy drink from popping up on tap in breweries and getting stocked on more shelves. If drinking it doesn’t make you more healthy, for now it may at least make you a little bit more cool.


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