History Of Kombucha: Where Did It Come From?
It might seem as if kombucha is the latest craze in the modern hipster lifestyle, but it has actually been a popular health drink and medicinal liquid for more than two thousand years.
Kombucha in China (1600-200 BCE)
Some of the earliest documented references to what is believed to be kombucha cite the powers of something called “Immortality Tea” and “Long Life Elixir” during the Qin Dynasty in China (221-206 BCE). Unfortunately, not many documents survived from that era, as Emperor Shi Huangti, famous for starting the Great Wall construction project, also became infamous for suppressing literacy, and even had thousands of books burned. The remaining history of early Chinese medicine was only kept in the scrolls in the Imperial library. However, since kombucha is directly linked to black tea, and since black tea was first developed in China during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), it’s likely that people had been making kombucha for at least eight centuries before these first notes were written in the Imperial scrolls.
A Multiplicity of Medicinal Mushrooms
Other than the sheer length of time involved, during which many historical details have been lost, some of the confusion about the true origin of kombucha comes from the fact that the kombucha fungus has always been confused with the medicinal mushrooms that have also been used in China and around the rest of Asia for well over two thousand years. Although the kombucha organism known as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Community Of Bacteria and Yeast) is indeed a fungus, it’s not a mushroom (though mushrooms are a type of fungus).
The Chinese word for kombucha is hong cha jun (红茶菌), which translates to “red tea mushroom.”
There’s another red mushroom that is famous for its healing power which was also very well known in the 3rd century BCE: the Ganoderma mushrooms G. sichuanense and G. lucidum, called lingzhi (靈芝) in Chinese and reishi in Japan and the United States. Like the kombucha fungus, these mushrooms were associated with immortality and miraculous medical benefits, curing a wide range of ailments. And like kombucha, the mushrooms were used to make a dark-colored tea-like liquid.
Kombucha in Korea (200 BCE – 400 CE)
The Korean peninsula is in the far eastern regions of China, across the East China Sea from today’s Shandong Province, where the Shang Dynasty ruled the Yellow River Valley for centuries. Since this is where the first tea plants were cultivated, and therefore where the kombucha fungus would have first been noticed and nurtured, it’s likely that both tea and fungus made their way to the peninsula as part of trade missions. The Korean rulers of the Gojoseon Dynasty were often in conflict with the Chinese Emperors, however, so there is little record of any such trade missions. At the very least, Chinese influence and Chinese medicines would have reached the northern part of the peninsula at the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) when the Chinese Emperor incorporated that area (now North Korea) into the greater Chinese territories.
In Korean, the word for kombucha is hongcha beoseo-tcha (버섯차), or “tea mushroom tea.”
Kombucha in Japan (400 CE – 894 CE)
During the Kofun period in Japan (250 – 538 CE) the Japanese rulers began establishing relationships with the Chinese and Korean empires across the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Trade good started flowing in both directions, and there’s no doubt that tea would have been part of those shipments. Buddhist monks traveling between the countries would have also introduced tea to the local monasteries, and for many years this valuable beverage was only consumed by monks, and by members of the Imperial Court.
At this time, the Japanese already had a health drink called kombu-cha made out of dried powdered kelp (“kombu”) mixed with green tea (“cha”) and hot water. To complicate things further, histories mention a Korean doctor named Komu who brought the lingzhi mushroom with him on a trip to visit Emperor Inkyo of Japan at the beginning of the 5th century CE, and who made a tea out of the miraculous mushrooms to cure the Emperor’s digestive problems. Or did Komu bring a SCOBY with him, along with a supply of black tea? The details aren’t clear.
At the end of the 9th century, Japan broke off relations with the outside world, but three centuries later the country opened up again, and the Buddhist monk Eisai brought green tea plants back to cultivate in Japan. Because green tea is an excellent source for making kombucha, it’s very possible that kombucha was used as a health tonic in Japan from then on.
In Japan, kombucha is called kōcha-kinoko (紅茶キノコ), or “red tea mushroom.”
Kombucha in Russia (150 BCE – 1850 CE)
Tea, and kombucha, traveled west as well as east. During the Han Dynasty, China set up trade routes along the famous Silk Road. Most of the tea that went west was black tea, as it was easier to store over long periods, unlike the more delicate green tea. Through these long-distance trading caravans, black tea traveled to what is now modern Russia and Ukraine from Constantinople up through the Black Sea, and also went across the Mediterranean to Italy, France, and England. Perhaps due to cultural or dietary differences, kombucha was not something that was immediately popular in Western Europe, where even today the appearance of “mold” on food (other than cheese) is generally an excuse to throw that food away.
By contrast, the peoples of Eastern Europe had a well-established tradition of using fermentation to store foods, and kombucha joined the long list of foods like sauerkraut and kvass (a drink made of fermented rye bread) in many countries. Although documented evidence of čajnyj grib (чайный гриб) (literally “tea mushroom”) only dates back a few hundred years in Russia, the centuries-old popularity of black tea almost ensures that people were drinking kombucha for much longer than that. You can learn more about the history of fermented foods in this article. The Holy Trinity Of Fermented Foods.
As in China and Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe also have their own “magic mushroom” with immense healing potential, the birch mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) called chaga in Russian. A tea made with this mushroom is very similar in appearance to kombucha, and it’s likely that there has been some mingling of the history of the two due to the similarity of form and function.
Kombucha in Europe and the US (1850 CE – present)
The only thing that prevented people from enjoying kombucha in Europe would have been a shortage of black tea, or a shortage of sugar. Both were fairly expensive, especially for the majority of the population, and it’s possible that one reason there’s not a lot of detail about the history of kombucha in Eastern and Western Europe prior to the 19th century is that it just wasn’t possible to get the ingredients on a consistent basis.
Once sugar and tea became easier to buy, more people started drinking tea, and more people started learning about kombucha. Doctors and local healers in Eastern Europe were the first to use kombucha as a medical remedy, and by the end of the 19th century the stories about kombucha’s effectiveness were spreading. During World War I, when the prisoners of war from Russia were sent to Germany, Hungary, and France, those prisoner would have taken their tea traditions with them. Between the wars, as more people began migrating westward and across the Atlantic ocean, the culinary and medical traditions of Eastern Europe became more well known in the rest of Europe, and across to the United States.
The “Miracle Tea” of Japan, the “Wonder Mushroom” of Latvia
From the very beginning there has been a question about exactly when, and where, kombucha got started, so it’s not surprising that as kombucha’s popularity spread, its legends spread as well. Many of the people who first tasted kombucha in the first part of the 20th century believed that it came from Japan. In fact, one of the early names for kombucha in Germany was “Fungo-japon.” On the other hand, if the person who was drinking kombucha got their supplies from Eastern Europe, they might have used the term “tea kvass” to reflect its heritage and the fermentation traditions of that region.
Whatever name it went by, kombucha was getting a reputation for curing problems with digestion (everything from hemorrhoids to constipation) as well as other general systemic maladies like rheumatism. As scientific methods improved, and testing became more specific, kombucha was connected with beneficial effects like reductions in inflammation and as a cure for headaches.
You can read more about the proven health benefits of kombucha here.
Kombucha Science, Kombucha Fiction
The specific components of a kombucha SCOBY were isolated starting in the 1950s, and researchers soon began to examine the effects of different bacteria and yeast strains like B. gluconicum, B. xylinum, and Acetobacter ketogenum. Russian researchers confirmed that kombucha has anti-microbial properties that help suppress the growth of “bad” bacteria, and a study was done in the Western Urals that linked regular kombucha consumption to lower cancer rates.
By the 1970s, some people in the medical field were treating everything with kombucha, it seemed. Gout, obesity, kidney disease, high cholesterol, rheumatism, impotence, and even cancer appeared to be prevented or cured by kombucha. However, many of the results were not easy to document or reproduce, and there were immediately arguments about whether it was the kombucha that led to the cure, or some other factor. Today, for every person claiming a health benefit from kombucha, there’s another person who brings up evidence disproving that claim. To learn more about some of these claims, read this article. Kombucha Health Benefits: The Facts, The Fiction, And The Science
Kombucha has gone from being a little-known homemade ethnic drink to a multimillion-dollar commercial enterprise. In the 1980s and early 1990s the techniques for brewing homemade kombucha were spreading through the DIY and “back to nature” communities, along with the growing popularity of home-based gardens, organic vegetables, backyard chickens, and raw milk cheeses. It was particularly popular during the HIV/AIDS crisis; people looking for a miracle cure were eager to try something that had a 2,000-year-old tradition for being just that.
Like anything that gains enough popularity, kombucha quickly went from the kitchen countertop to the commercial production facilities of corporate giants like Red Bull and Coca-Cola. Smaller brewing and bottling companies also got into the game, such as GT’s Kombucha (now Synergy Drinks), which was started by a 15-year-old and his mother, who credits her recovery from breast cancer to her home-brewed kombucha. A more recent company, Lev’s Original Kombucha (based in California), credits their recipe and inspiration to the founder’s own family roots in Uzbekistan. These days, new brewing companies are starting up every year in every corner of the country, and the popularity of home brewing only continues to increase. To learn how to brew your own kombucha at home, read this article. Brewing Kombucha on a Budget: The Penny Pincher’s Guide
In 1995, kombucha lovers had a bit of a scare, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tentatively linked two deaths to the drinking of kombucha, but that was never proven, and most people dispute that connection now.
Another scare came in 2010, when the Food and Drug Administration classified unpasteurized kombucha as alcohol, due to the fact that the liquid continues to ferment inside the bottle. This led to changes in procedures and labeling, and today more kombucha is now pasteurized than before, or marked and sold as an alcoholic beverage.
What’s the future for this ancient beverage? There’s no decline in its popularity, either in the store or in the homebrew communities around the nation. Sales of kombucha continue to increase by 20-30% each year, and the number of people brewing their own “booch” at home is growing even faster.
Are you one of the new brew crew? If not, why not? It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s good for you. Get started today!