Food crazes come and go quickly these days. When a weird, gastronomic concoction makes a splash, a starring role in a snappy Buzzfeed listicle often follows within days—and then its 15 minutes of fame is already halfway through.
But some culinary trends endure—especially when they have to do with health. Wheatgrass first popped up in the ’90s, and it’s still around. Kale first came on the scene in the early aughts, and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. And there’s another wellness-food fad that appears to have major staying power: Kombucha, and other beverages loaded with good-for-your-gut bacteria.
Like liquid gold, probiotic-rich drinks are winning over the hearts (and stomachs) of consumers everywhere because of their inherent health benefits and refreshing flavors. The front-runner for most in-demand beverage of 2016 is fermented, all-natural, and—despite the fact that it goes for $4 a pop at Whole Foods—really easy to make. If you don’t know, now you know: Kombucha and kefir water are the drinks du jour, even if they are a bit hard to swallow at first.
Brian Tortora, Thrive Market’s director of culture, is now a devoted kombucha drinker, but the first time he tried it? He balked. “I thought it was the most disgusting drink ever!” says Tortora. “I swore I would never touch it again … but then I started drinking it at parties instead of wine and beer. Now, I’m definitely addicted to the ’booch—it’s always in my fridge.”
We’ll dig into just what makes these super-elixirs so enticing, the differences between the two, and how to make them in your own kitchen.
What is kombucha?
Even though it seems like it’s just gotten crazy-popular, kombucha isn’t new. The first records of the fermented “Tea of Immortality” come from China in 221 BC during the Tsin Dynasty. It was consumed as a folk remedy for everything from arthritis to cancer, eventually spreading through Asia and Eastern Europe before its popularity seems to have stalled around the early 1900s. Now people drink kombucha because of the probiotic bacteria that develop during the fermentation process (we’ll get to that in a moment).
These bacteria are like the kind you’d find in yogurt, sauerkraut, or kimchi—fermented foods naturally produce live active cultures that encourage better digestion and can improve health overall.
Kombucha is essentially fermented black or green tea. But you can’t just leave an old cup of sencha on the counter and come back a few days later expecting to find a miracle health drink—the fermentation process is kickstarted by a symbiotic colony of bacteria known as a SCOBY.
A SCOBY, sometimes called a starter culture, looks a little like a flat, slimy pancake—not exactly appetizing. But it is absolutely necessary for making kombucha, because it’s full of all the beneficial bacteria. When combined with black tea and sugar and left alone, the starter digests the sugar and produces a range of organic acids, amino acids, and probiotic microorganisms.
The products of the fermentation process are what give kombucha all of its health benefits—namely friendly bacteria cultures.
Health benefits of kombucha tea
Because it’s made from antioxidant-rich green or black tea and has probiotics, kombucha is pretty dang healthy. Unfortunately, most of the studies examining its effects haven’t yet been substantiated on humans. But until they are, it’s probably still safe to say that a kombucha every so often can only be good for you.
Fights free radicals
Green tea is basically one of the healthiest drinks on the planet. Loaded with polyphenols, powerful compounds that act like antioxidants in the body, it can prevent free-radical cell damage. And because kombucha is often made from green tea, it boasts the same helpful polyphenols.
Supports a healthy liver and detoxification
Drinking kombucha seems to have a strong effect on liver health and detoxification. In studies performed on rats, researchers found that regularly drinking kombucha reduces overall liver toxicity by up to 70 percent. That means that the liver can function optimally, and clear toxins we’re exposed to (either through our diets or the environment) more easily. Anecdotally, kombucha is known as quite the hangover helper—perhaps because it encourages the liver to stay strong.
Kills bad bacteria and helps good bacteria
Kombucha newbs are often taken aback by the drink’s vinegary, sometimes sour taste. What’s shocking their tastebuds is acetic acid, the key ingredient in apple cider vinegar and a byproduct of the fermentation process. As in ACV, the acetic acid in kombucha is antibacterial, and may have enough antimicrobial power to rival antibiotics.
The good thing, though, is that unlike antibiotics (which can kill off harmful and beneficial bacteria), kombucha encourages the growth of healthy microbes in the gut.
Lowers blood sugar levels
Over time, consistently elevated blood sugar levels can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and even diabetes. Keep yours in check by sipping on some kombucha: In a study performed on diabetic rats, drinking the ’booch slowed down the digestion of carbs, in turn reducing blood sugar levels. Sip some during a carb-heavy meal to prevent a future sugar-crash.
Positively affects cholesterol levels
Green tea drinkers are 31 percent less likely to develop heart disease—but if you’re really concerned with heart health, start brewing some green tea kombucha. Studies have shown that drinking it daily seriously improves the markers of both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels in about 30 days.
How to make kombucha, step-by-step
If you enjoy the taste, there’s no reason not to drink kombucha a lot: It’s easy and really inexpensive to make! All you need a few supplies and a little patience. You’ll need to buy your own SCOBY (we recommend this one), but the good thing is you can use it over and over again, every time you make a fresh batch. Follow along, and check out our video below!
Step 1: Rehydrate the SCOBY
Your SCOBY will come dehydrated, so you’ll need to revive it. Start by dissolving ¼ cup organic unbleached white sugar with a little hot water in a quart-sized glass mason jar with a large opening.
We know what you’re thinking: sugar!?! Normally we don’t recommend the white stuff, but don't be afraid to use some here—it's the sweetener that will maintain the most consistent pH level, which is crucial. Plus, the culture feeds on the sugar, so by the time it’s fermented the actual sugar count will be pretty low. Don’t even try to use honey or maple sugar; it just won’t work, and you’ll ruin your SCOBY. Once the sugar is dissolved, fill the jar about ¾ of the way full with more hot water.
Next, add in distilled white vinegar to fill the jar. This keeps the pH on the acidic side, and stops mold from forming in the liquid.
Then, add two green, oolong, or black tea bags to steep. If you'd like to use herbal tea, mix it with green, oolong, or black tea to maintain an optimal pH level. Steep for 10 minutes, or until the liquid has cooled to room temperature. Then add the dehydrated SCOBY and cover the jar with a coffee filter or cloth secured with a rubber band to keep bugs and particles out of the mix.
Store the jar in a warm place out of direct sunlight—about 75 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer—and let it sit. A new culture may start to form, first appearing as a white haze, then forming into a white disc. As long as it doesn’t turn green, black, or orange, there’s no need to worry about mold. If it does begin to change colors, toss it and start over.
After 21 to 28 days, the culture should be perfectly reactivated and ready for brewing. Although you can drink it, the liquid left in the jar isn’t technically kombucha—it’s starter tea. Set some aside to use in your first batch.
Step 2: Let it brew
If a new culture didn’t form, no big deal—it can take a few tries. You can use the rehydrated culture, known as the mother (the new culture would be the “baby”). Cultures last for months, and you’ll know when it’s time for a new one when it basically just stops working.
To brew your first kombucha, follow the same steps you did for rehydrating the SCOBY—mix sugar with hot water, add about a cup of your starter tea, throw in a couple tea bags, and add the mother (and baby) culture. Unlike when you start the culture, the brew time for kombucha is a little more variable: 5 to 7 days is fine for a sweeter flavor, but a longer brew time yields a stronger, more intense drink with a higher nutritional value. To give it a fruity flavor like the kind sold in health food stores, and a few tablespoons of fresh-squeezed juice to your drink.
Each batch of kombucha is likely to produce a new culture, which you can either throw away, compost, or gift to friends!
What is water kefir?
Kombucha is great, but the taste isn’t for everyone. Although some become converts like Tortora, others never warm up to the vinegary, sour taste. According to kombucha dissenter and editor Mark Parq, it’s downright disgusting: “Not a fan. I tasted it, and immediately disliked it. I don’t care how healthy it is—I think it’s better for me to drink water instead.”
If you’re in Parq’s camp, but still want to jump on the probiotic beverage trend, try water kefir—an easy-to-make, lacto-fermented bubbly drink that’s similar to soda, but far healthier. It isn’t quite as popular as kombucha yet, but trust us, it’s just might blow ’booch away.
Health benefits of water kefir
You might already be familiar with milk kefir, a sippable yogurt that’s loaded with probiotic bacteria. Milk and water kefir grains (small starter cultures that look like crystals) look similar, but they have very different origin stories.
The process of making milk-based kefir originated in Eastern Europe, and its name is derived from the Turkish word that means “feeling good after eating”—yes, there’s an entire word for that! But the origins of water kefir can be traced back to Mexico, where it’s used to make a fermented beverage called tepache from pineapple, brown sugar, and cinnamon.
Kefir has more beneficial bacteria than kombucha does, so it certainly improves digestion. And if you’re allergic or sensitive to dairy, water kefir is a great option! Here are some of the other ways does your body good:
Kills bad bacteria
Kefir’s lacto-bacteria that fight against infection-causing germs. In fact, there’s a probiotic called Lactobacillus kefiri, which is unique to kefir, that’s been proven to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. And kefiran, a type of carb only found in kefir, also has antibacterial properties when exposed to germs like Streptococcus.
Strengthens immune system
Like in kombucha, water kefir’s beneficial bacteria promote digestion and overall gut health. The final product is a diverse source of probiotics with over 30 strains of bacteria and yeasts—and that’s a good thing!
Could prevent cancer
In a study performed on human breast cancer cells, kefir extract reduced the number of cells by 56 percent. Although these findings are preliminary, it’s a sign that probiotics can inhibit tumor growth. This could be because they break down the formation of carcinogenic compounds and stimulate the immune system simultaneously, performing a kind of one-two punch on destructive compounds.
How to make water kefir, step-by-step
Making water kefir requires less waiting than brewing kombucha, but it’s just as inexpensive. We recommend using a starter kit like this one, which comes with dehydrated water grains.
Step 1: Rehydrate the grains
Just like when you activated the SCOBY for kombucha, you’ll add the dried grains to a cooled mason jar of dissolved sugar water. Remember, the bacteria and yeast cultures in the grains feed on white sugar, so subbing in maple syrup or honey here won’t work. Cover the jar with a coffee filter or dish towel, secure with a rubber band, and let it sit in a warm spot for 3 to 4 days. When they’re ready, the grains should be plumped up and translucent. Strain them out, dump the water, and get ready to make your first batch!
Step 2: Make the kefir water
Use a ratio of 1 cup water to 1 tablespoon sugar to prepare the new sugar water. Add grains to the water, cover, and let it sit in a warm spot for 24 to 48 hours. You’ll know it’s done culturing because you’ll see little bubbles in the liquid, and it’ll turn cloudy. Don’t culture longer than 48 hours—it won’t make your drink any stronger, and it’ll just make it come out too pungent.
Step 3: Flavor it
Water kefir has a semi-sweet taste; enjoy it as is, or add some flavor. We love mixing in natural fruit juices, dried fruits, or fresh fruit to give it a fruit soda feel.
Step 4: Make more and share!
Kefir grains need to remain in sugar water constantly to thrive, so make sure that you’ve got another batch of water ready to culture when you finish your first—basically, once you activate the grains you’ll be constantly making a new batch of water kefir in order to keep the grains alive. You can bottle and store water kefir by pouring it into Grolsch-style bottles or other tight-sealed containers. If you added fruit juice and bottled it, the kefir will continue to ferment a little. That’s OK, but it can cause a buildup of pressure in the bottle, so be sure to “burp” it (open the lid to release some of the gas) or tightly secure the lid so it doesn’t pop off.
Once you activate the grains, you’ll have a pretty steady stream of water kefir coming—perfect for sharing!
Which is better?
Kombucha and water kefir are both great for you, and definitely better than soda! They’re low in sugar, provide beneficial probiotics, and come with plenty of other health benefits. While kombucha seems to have more nutrients like enzymes and antioxidants, water kefir wins when it comes to probiotic bacteria. It really comes down to your flavor preference—but considering how easy and cheap it is to brew each at home, you should try both!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho