What Is Kombucha Tea?
Kombucha tea is the English name for a healthy beverage that was first brewed in China over two thousand years ago. It is a fermented tea that is created through the action of a specialized group of microorganisms commonly referred to as a SCOBY: a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. These microorganisms evolved to use the nutrients found in the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the small brushy shrub whose leaves people have been picking, drying, and brewing for thousands of years to make what we call “tea.” Black tea, green tea, oolong tea, and so on are all made from the Camellia sinensis plant, and any of them can be used to make kombucha tea. “Herb tea” (or “tisane”) made out of other plants is not normally used to make kombucha tea by itself, though different herbs can be added in combination.
A Brief History of Kombucha
It’s difficult to get the exact date for the origin of kombucha, but it’s likely that it goes back as far as the development of tea itself. Documentation of the beginning of tea culture can be found in the history of the Shang Dynasty in China dating back to at least 1200 BCE. Later in Chinese records a brew called “Long Life Elixir” or “Immortality Tea” is mentioned, along with the health benefits of drinking that brew. However, there were many different types of natural medicines used then, and traditional Chinese medicine still uses a wide range of mushrooms, herbs, and plants to treat and cure disorders and health problems.
Kombucha is not a mushroom, though many of the traditional names for it use that word. The yeast that forms part of the colony are classified as a type of fungus; mushrooms and molds are also fungi. The three types of fungus are very different, however, and often compete with each other. It might be more correct to use the word “fungus” instead of “mushroom” in the different names for kombucha, but since to most people a fungus is a bad thing, using the word “mushroom” seems to be more common.
The translation of one of the Chinese words for kombucha is “red tea mushroom” or “red tea fungus.” When kombucha arrived on the Korean peninsula some time around the 2nd century CE, the name the Koreans gave to the fermented kombucha tea translates as “tea mushroom tea.” Once it crossed over to Japan, kombucha became known as “red tea mushroom,” kōcha-kinoko. The Japanese already had something they named kombu-cha, made from a mixture of dried seaweed (kelp, called “kombu” in Japanese) and green tea (the Japanese word for tea is “cha”) boiled in water. This was a medicinal drink as well. It’s not clear whether the Japanese started using kombucha as a medicinal tea, or whether they stuck with their own home-grown brew.
Kombucha Spreads West
Kombucha traveled south and east from China to Korea and Japan, but it also went to the north and west, following the old trading routes across the mountains and the desert-spanning Silk Road. It’s likely that the kombucha SCOBY was not a trade item, since it’s fairly hard to dehydrate successfully, but since black tea was a popular product in trade from China to India to Eastern Europe and then Western Europe, there’s no doubt that the natural yeasts and bacteria in the SCOBY followed the black tea and developed wherever tea was brewed.
Whether the kombucha SCOBY was welcomed as a potential healer, or tossed out in the trash, isn’t clear. When people see mold and fungus as always bad, they’re less likely to accept that certain types of fungi might be good. Another aspect of kombucha’s cross-cultural spread is that some cultures have always been more open to making and eating fermented foods in general. The process of fermentation looks, to people who aren’t used to it, like you’re just letting something spoil. Putting a dish of sweet black tea in a corner of the kitchen and letting a funny-looking white substance grow all over the top of it might not seem like a good thing to do – until you try it for yourself, and taste the results.
Kombucha and Kvass
One of the places that kombucha was an instant hit was Eastern Europe, where people were already brewing their own fermented drink called kvass, made out of stale rye bread left in sweetened water. They quickly adopted the habit of drinking strong black sweetened tea, and the production of kombucha from that same tea.
Both kvass and kombucha are probiotic drinks that have a wide range of health benefits from the vitamins and organic acids produced by the action of yeasts and bacteria during the fermentation process. While kvass does not create a long-lasting SCOBY culture like kombucha does, it has many of the same sweet and tangy flavors.
Both kombucha and kvass are still popular in Eastern Europe today. The French botanist Alexandre Guilliermond wrote about kombucha at the beginning of the 20th century, noting that the yeast called Medusomyces gisevii was a popular household medicine in the region that is now Latvia. The German Botanical Society published an article about kombucha in 1913, and after the shortages and supply problems caused by World War I were over, kombucha spread across Europe, becoming briefly popular in Italy.
In the United States, kombucha arrived with the immigrants who knew the fermented drink in their native land, but they could only continue brewing it if they had access to tea. A second wave of popularity started in the 1960s and 1970s, when people began the “back to the land” movement, and supporters of natural foods and health foods campaigned against the processed foods that had become popular during and after World War II. People started planting their own gardens, raising chickens in their back yards, drinking raw milk, looking for organic food, baking their own bread, and brewing their own beer and wine.
California, the heart of much of the counter-culture movement, probably started today’s kombucha craze. No longer found only in the corners of “crunchy granola” kitchens, kombucha is a national trend that’s been picked up by international corporations, and more and more people are starting their own small-scale kombucha brewing businesses to keep up with the demand.
What’s more, the home-brewing movement just grows and grows. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the millions of people around the world who want to get the health benefits of drinking kombucha and enjoy the fun of making a delicious drink with the help of a weird-looking blob.
Kombucha’s Health Benefits
The old Chinese name for kombucha, “Immortality Tea,” is based in what’s now being proven as scientific fact. This fermented brew contains antioxidants, probiotics, vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients that help keep your body in balance. It’s especially good for the digestive system, which medical researchers are now showing has a huge impact on your overall health. Many people even call the digestive system the body’s “second brain” because what happens inside your intestines can actually send messages to the rest of your body, changing the way your body acts and reacts, just like the brain does.
Kombucha’s healing and stimulating properties come from many things, but one main component is the group of organic acids that the SCOBY produces.
- Gluconic acid helps to keep the body’s internal balance of healthy yeasts in place. Sometimes an overgrowth of yeast occurs in the digestive system, causing a disorder called Candidiasis that can create rashes on the skin or in the mouth, or yeast infections in other parts of the body.
- Malic acid is a natural detoxifier and also helps regulate the digestive system. It can boost the metabolism and help the body fight off bacteria.
- Lactic acid supports the immune system, helps regulate digestion, and provides the body with the compounds it needs to ward off pathogens.
- Acetic acid has been used for centuries as an anti-microbial compound. It can also help lower blood pressure, and studies are now being done on the way that it can be used to help control the body’s glycemic index, something that has great potential in the fight against diabetes.
Kombucha tea also contains probiotics including Saccharomyces boulardii (recommended for preventing gastrointestinal diseases and inflammation) and Bacillus coagulans.
There are also many kombucha health myths that claim drinking kombucha tea will cure everything from cancer to warts. While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that seems to support some apparently miraculous cures, don’t look at kombucha tea as the answer to all of your health problems. It’s most effective when you use it to develop and then maintain a healthy functioning system in your body.
NOTE: Before you start drinking kombucha regularly, be sure to talk to your medical provider if you have any questions. This is especially important if you are currently taking medication, if you’re pregnant, if you have had immune deficiency diseases in the past, or if you are currently dealing with a serious health problem.
So What Does It Look Like?
The SCOBY looks somewhat like the mushroom than many people call it. It’s flat, slightly shiny, and a mushroom-color white or cream, often with spots or splotches of light brown. A new SCOBY, usually called a “baby,” starts out as a transparent film on the top of the fermenting kombucha tea. As the colony grows larger, the SCOBY turns opaque. Every SCOBY will eventually spread out to the edges of the container it’s growing in.
The SCOBY “mother” will always create new “babies” as long as there is enough food for the yeasts and bacteria. Each new baby creates a colony that floats in a layer on top of the liquid. Since the mother SCOBY is usually also floating at the top of the container, the baby layer generally becomes part of the mother below. After a while, the layers tend to grow together, so it looks like the SCOBY is getting thicker and thicker.
As the SCOBY ages, the yeasts will start to fall out of the bottom and form strands or clumps that are light to dark brown. Sometimes the yeasts will get caught between the layers, and create darker patches. Extra yeast and dead cells fall to the bottom of the container.
The color of the SCOBY will change depending on the type of sweetened tea that it’s fermenting. Strong black tea has tannins that stain your teeth when you drink it (just like coffee does) so it’s no wonder that the black tea will start to turn the SCOBY darker as well. Sometimes people who use ingredients like hibiscus flowers or rooibos, which make a red tea, find that the SCOBY has taken on some of that color as well.
What About the Tea?
Most kombucha tea is a light brown color, if it has been make with sweet black tea. There are many types of tea used for kombucha and these will create kombucha that is pale yellow, light green, or a darker brown. When other flavors are added, these can also change the color of the tea. A popular method of adding flavor to kombucha is to add fruit juice, either directly into the freshly-brewed kombucha tea right before drinking, or as part of a process called second fermentation. Obviously, if you add bright-red cranberry juice to your kombucha, you’re going to end up with a red beverage in your glass!
But What Does Kombucha Tea Taste Like?
The basic flavor of plain, fresh kombucha tea is similar to a tart unfiltered apple cider, or diluted apple cider vinegar. Some people stop the fermentation of the tea and remove the SCOBY when the tea is still fairly sweet, while others like to ferment the kombucha until it’s quite sour, and add sweeter flavorings later.
The flavor also changes depending on what types of tea you use to brew the sweetened tea mixtures the SCOBY feeds on, what type of sugar you select, and which additional ingredients you use to flavor the kombucha tea after the SCOBY is removed.
Once you get your first taste of sweet-tart kombucha tea, you’ll want to try it again. It’s easy to make kombucha at home so why not get started today?