While the word sounds like a fancy kung fu move, kombucha is actually a defensive drink that can help ward off health problems. Some devotees have gone as far as calling it the “elixir of life” for its role in curing a range of health issues from digestive disorders to arthritis.
The buzz has also made kombucha a very popular drink. Though its use has been documented for centuries, first originating in Asia, the fermented tea surpassed sales of $400 million in 2014. That’s quadruple the same 2009 figures, according to Euromonitor International.
With less sugar and calories than fruit drinks and soda, and an inherent colony of healthful probiotics, could the mainstream be onto something—or is it just another fad?
Just what is kombucha?
Kombucha is an ancient recipe for fermented tea that dates back thousands of years, believed to have been born in China during the Tsin Dynasty somewhere around 212 B.C. It was originally brewed as a “remedy for immortality” and reserved for nobility. In fact, historians attribute the name kombucha to a Korean physician named Kombu, who healed the Japanese Emperor Inyko with the magical tonic. (The added word “cha” means “tea.”)
However, as trade routes began to expand throughout Asia, kombucha became a more regular phenomenon, enjoyed by everyone from Japanese samurai to Russian peasants. It also had a heydey across Europe during WWII due to the rationing of sugar and tea, which are main components. Though its popularity stalled around the 1900s, this decade’s craze has been driven by an increased focus on probiotics, of which kombucha is a rich source.
In addition to the main ingredients of tea, sugar, and water, kombucha is defined by a starter culture. It’s often referred to as SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), which is a dehydrated mat of bacteria and yeast growth—it looks kind of like a slimy pancake. When combined with either black or green tea and sugar, the starter will digest the sweet stuff and, in turn, produce a potent mix of organic acids, amino acids, and probiotic microorganisms. This is where all the health claims begin to take shape.
The short list of kombucha’s potential health benefits
Although the benefits are still scientifically unproven, regular kombucha drinkers have been adamant about a number of positive effects, including:
- More energy
- Menopausal relief
- Dissolving gallstones
- Lowering cholesterol and blood pressure
- Improving digestive and circulatory systems
- Boosting the immune system
- Slowing down aging
And though there continues to be little collective scientific backing regarding kombucha, some independent researchers, scientists, and nutritionists have studied the chemicals and compounds that make up the fermented tea, which begins to hint at is powers.
Probiotics: By definition, kombucha is a probiotic beverage, since probiotics are all natural byproducts of the fermentation process. The resulting acids, enzymes, and probiotics in kombucha (such as gluconacetobacter, acetobacter, zygosaccharomyces, and lactobacillus) have been linked to a healthier gut and improved digestion, including heartburn and ulcer relief.
Glucaric acid: Kombucha is high in glucaric acid, which has been linked to liver health, and in turn, provides the opportunity for a healthier detoxification process for the body (it’s been said that kombucha can reduce overall liver toxicity by 70 percent!). According to some studies, glucaric acid has also been shown to reduce cancer risk. President Ronald Reagan famously used the beverage to aide in his own cancer battle, beginning in 1987. He lived until 2004, and when he passed, it was simply due to old age.
Antioxidants: Green and black tea naturally contain polyphenols, plant compounds that are packed with antioxidant qualities. Antioxidants are the body’s first line of defense against harmful free radicals and cellular stress, which has been linked to heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cognitive decline, cancer, aging, and some other serious illnesses.
Glucosamine: Glucosamine is also found in kombucha and is known to be a strong combatant against arthritis. Glucosamine is key to increasing the synovial hyaluronic acid production in the body; this acid enables tissue to better bind to moisture and also increases lubrication, which can make cartilage and joints more flexible.
How to brew your own homemade kombucha
One of the not so positive aspects of kombucha remains its high ticket price. The fermented drink can cost almost as much as a full meal at some retailers, which has led many to try and brew their own at home. However, because it involves live, active bacteria, it requires the utmost care when handling. Here is the detailed rundown on how to appropriately make the drink. But first you’ll need to purchase your own SCOBY, like this one.
Phase 1: Culturing the SCOBY
When your SCOBY arrives, it will be dehydrated. So, the first step is to bring it back to life. To do so, gather a large quart-sized mason jar with an opening of at least three inches in diameter, as well as a spatula, coffee filter (or piece of cloth damped with vinegar), a rubber band, and the following essential ingredients:
- 3/4 liter hot water (enough to fill the mason jar 3/4 of the way full)
- 1/4 cup organic white sugar
- 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
- 2 to 3 bags of regular green, black, or oolong tea
Then, follow these steps:
- Fill the mason jar with a small amount of hot water.
- Add the sugar, and mix thoroughly until it dissolves.
- Add the rest of the hot water until the jar is about three-quarters full of the sugar-water mixture.
- Add the distilled white vinegar.
- Soak the tea bags in the sugar-water-vinegar mixture.
- While steeping the tea bags, cover the mason jar with a coffee filter or with a cloth slightly dampened with vinegar, and then secure the covering with a rubber band.
- Set aside for about ten minutes or until the tea solution has cooled down. Once cooled, remove the tea bags.
- Add the SCOBY to the cooled down liquid, and then cover the jar again with a coffee filter or damp cloth and rubber band.
- Place the jar in a warm spot (with a room temperature of at least 75 degrees Fahrenheit and no direct sunlight) where it can remain undisturbed for around 21 to 28 days.
- After 14 days, check if the top of the solution has started to develop a milky white film.
- On Day 21, check if the white film has attained a more stable form, like a white mushroom cap. If not, let it sit until it has formed. It’s very important to make sure the white cap has no greenish, blackish, or orange coloring, as those are indications of unhealthy mold formation. This is a possibility if the solution is contaminated, and if so, you need to discard the contents of the jar, clean it thoroughly, and start over from the top.
- Once a healthy cap has formed (this is called the “baby SCOBY”), transfer it into a clean jar and add roughly 2/3 cup of the remaining tea solution. At this stage, it’s not technically kombucha; there are some further steps you need to take to brew it.
Phase 2: Brewing a basic kombucha
To brew the kombucha tea, it requires carrying out the same steps in Phase 1 but using fresh ingredients. This time, instead of using the dehydrated SCOBY, soak the "baby SCOBY" in the new tea solution. Do so for at least five to seven days, and then it will be ready to drink. You can go for even longer, which will produce a higher nutritional content, but also result in a less favorable taste.
The finished product will have some froth, and a beer-like smell with a slightly bittersweet taste. You should also expect to see some bits and pieces of the bacteria floating in the liquid, which is a common part of most fermented drinks. Simply strain your homemade Kombucha tea before drinking.
Find a kombucha recipe that makes you happy
While you can very well drink kombucha by itself, if you require a sweeter taste, simply add one to two parts apple, coconut, or pineapple juice to every eight or nine parts of tea. Or, try one of these tasty recipes to make it even more flavorful and exciting.
Ginger Mango Kombucha
- Puree 1 cup frozen mango and 1-inch fresh ginger in a blender, and freeze in an ice cube tray.
- Add two frozen cubes to the mason jar of fermented kombucha.
- Cover and allow to ferment another one to three days depending on taste.
Blue Raspberry Kombucha
- Heat 1 cup fresh blueberries and 1 cup fresh raspberries in a small saucepan over medium heat until juices are released.
- Puree heated berries in a blender or food processor.
- Spoon the berry puree into an ice cube tray.
- Add two cubes to the mason jar of fermented kombucha.
- Cover and allow another 1-3 days of fermentation to achieve the desired taste.
Pina Colada Kombucha
- Add 3 Tbsp. pineapple juice concentrate, 3/4 tsp. coconut extract, and sliced pineapple to jar of kombucha.
- Shake the jar to mix and and allow 24 hours for the flavor to infuse into the drink.
Apple Cinnamon Kombucha
- Add sliced apples, a cinnamon stick, and 2-3 Tbsp. apple juice concentrate to kombucha jar.
- Shake the jar to mix and and allow 24 hours for the flavor to infuse into the drink.
Be smart about your home-brewed kombucha
In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report about their findings regarding an unexplained illness that claimed the life of an Iowa resident. The report concluded that the cause of death was a home-brewed kombucha made with a contaminated SCOBY. Apparently, this has been the only CDC report linking an improperly brewed kombucha to a fatality. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the potential dangers posed by brewing kombucha tea if care is not taken—so, always be sure to look for mold!
Another concern regarding kombucha cropped up in 2010 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration alerted kombucha manufacturers that the sale of the beverage would be under the same regulations as alcohol. The fermenting process naturally produces alcoholic content, though to legally be sold, it has to be under the legal 0.5 percent limit. This is still a concern for home-brewed varieties that don’t follow the same protocol as mass-produced options.
Regardless of these unique situations, home-brewed kombucha continues to draw attention. Practitioners should be educated on the process and be knowledgeable of the potentially toxic and alcoholic content before drinking the solution. Another safe option is to use a pasteurization process. The tradeoff, however, is that the good bacteria or probiotics to which the health benefits of kombucha tea are attributed also die along with the harmful ones when pasteurized.
Adding kombucha to your diet
Fortunately, the health benefits of kombucha have not been lost over time. It can present a range of effects for each individual drinker, depending on the ingredients, fermentation time, and other personal touches, which has made it difficult for science to test one exact recipe. But while we wait for the experts to catch up, there’s no stopping this thousand-year-old tradition.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont