Kombucha has been enjoying a surge in popularity over the last decade thanks to its tangy, effervescent taste and numerous purported health benefits. While kombucha’s benefits have long been appreciated by many cultures worldwide, only recently has the United States cornered the market on this delicious fermented tea. In fact, a 2016 report from market report firm MarketsandMarkets showed that North America claimed 39.4 percent of kombucha’s worldwide market share, with projections predicting a 25 percent market growth each year up to 2020. Between claims of anti-inflammatory and gut-healing properties, kombucha’s benefits are wide-reaching and only now being studied for in order to determine the fermented tea’s true potential as a health food product. We take a close look at the scientific and anecdotal evidence surrounding kombucha and provide instructions for easily brewing kombucha at home (no lab equipment required!).
Getting to Know Kombucha (and That Mysterious Floating Blob!)
If you’re just beginning to learn about kombucha and all its benefits, consider this a crash course in getting to know your new favorite fermented tea beverage. Kombucha tea is lightly fizzy (thanks to the wonders of fermentation) and has a subtly sweet taste that’s punctuated by a delicious tanginess. You may have seen images of a mysterious mushroom-shaped blob accompanying articles about kombucha (or at your fermentation-loving friend’s house) and wondered just what the heck that thing is. What you’re looking at is called a SCOBY (an acronym that stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a floating colony of helpful bacteria and yeast needed to give kombucha its carbonation and acidity. Other names for a SCOBY include kombucha mother (like the “mother” found in vinegar), kombucha mushroom, and the decidedly less-appealing kombucha fungus. Making homebrewed kombucha—or any kombucha for that matter—requires a SCOBY, which can be grown from scratch, borrowed from a fermentation-loving friend, or purchased.
Sweet Tea: Making Kombucha Magic
Besides a SCOBY, the other main ingredients in kombucha are tea and white sugar. The yeast feeds off of the sugar to create alcohol, and in turn the bacteria feeds off of the alcohol to create kombucha’s trademark tangy flavor (which is why kombucha isn’t wildly sweet despite the addition of white sugar). This process is important because it creates and maintains the correct pH level (between 2.5 and 3.5) to will prevent dangerous microorganisms from growing and ruining your batch of kombucha. According to Kombucha Brewers International, homebrewed kombucha is generally fermented for 10 to 12 days while commercially made kombucha takes two to three times longer to ferment due to the large amounts of kombucha being made at one time. In terms of kombucha’s longevity, store bought versions will be stamped with an expiry date. As long as kobucha maintains the correct pH balance, homebrewed kombucha can be stored for up to a year although its flavor will diminish the longer it sits.
Is kombucha considered an alcoholic beverage?
Kombucha does contain a small amount of alcohol as a result of the fermentation process, but for the most part it’s a negligible amount (less than 0.5 percent), which means kombucha can be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage in the United States. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau sales restrictions occur when kombucha alcohol levels meet or exceed 0.5 percent at which point kombucha must be labeled alcoholic and cannot be sold to minors.
Can you drink kombucha while pregnant or breastfeeding?
Although kombucha contains an extremely low percentage of alcohol, the American Pregnancy Association still advises that “no amount of alcohol has been deemed safe during pregnancy.” Err on the side of caution and save the kombucha for after baby’s arrival. Breastfeeding? You should be safe to consume kombucha again. According to Elizabeth Smith, patient services coordinator and breastfeeding specialist at University of Utah Health Care, “If Mom is feeling the effects of alcohol, she should avoid breastfeeding until she feels sober. But there’s no need to pump and dump as long as drinking is kept to a minimum.” Considering kombucha’s low alcohol content and the fact that it can be sold as a nonalcoholic beverage, it won’t get you buzzed or taint your breastmilk.
A Brief History of Kombucha
People have been making kombucha all over the world for at least a thousand years. Kombucha is thought to have originated in China during the Tsin Dynasty (around 220 BCE) where it was known as “The Tea Of Immortality.” Genghis Khan himself was rumored to carry a flask filled with a sour tea-like substance, and according to legend he spread his love of kombucha via the Silk Road far across what is now known as Asia and beyond. Other stories have attributed kombucha’s creation to Korean and Japanese cultures, which is why SCOBYs are sometimes referred to as the Japanese mushroom by kombucha brewers in Russia and other parts of Europe. Kombucha’s popularity in the United States is very new in contrast to other countries, although American enthusiasm for kombucha seems to be growing rapidly. In fact, kombucha sales in the United States are expected to reach an impressive $785 million by the end of 2018.
Are the health benefits of kombucha as miraculous as they seem to be?
Commercially made kombucha is often advertised as an all-natural elixir that promotes the health and well-being of all who partake in the tea, and fans of kombucha swear by its impressive antioxidant and probiotic content. Scientists are only just beginning to study the effects of kombucha in clinical settings, but for those who have been fermenting their own kombucha and drinking it regularly, the benefits are obvious. Hannah Crum is a commercial kombucha consultant, the founder of Kombucha Kamp, and the coauthor of the Big Book of Kombucha. She’s also a firm believer in the healing benefits of kombucha. For her, the gains associated with drinking kombucha are widespread. “Most commonly people report more energy, better digestion, clearer skin, and a general feeling of well-being.” That said, she adds the caveat that “some people experience none of these—or even side effects of consuming living foods if they are not used to them.” She says this is uncommon but acknowledges that every body is different. Crum has noticed many improvements in her physical health since falling in love with kombucha. She says it ultimately comes down to the fact that kombucha is a healthy food, “which means it contains nutrients that help the body thrive.” Reflecting on her journey with kombucha, she tells HealthyWay, “I noticed that it helped to alleviate digestive distress, maintain a regular system, and improve my skin’s appearance. Over time, I noticed other benefits such as regulation of my menstrual cycle as well as wound healing and skin softening.” Eric Childs is the founder and CEO of KBBK Kombucha, a Brooklyn-based business dedicated to providing top-of-the-line kombucha-brewing supplies and tutorials. What he loves about kombucha as a health food is the multiple sources of nutrients found in a single drink. He explains that “due to its complex makeup, kombucha offers all sorts of benefits: energy, immune support, detox, antioxidant support, digestion support, and overall healthy feeling after drinking it. This is due to the complex group of acids that are formed during fermentation along with the probiotics, as well as the main ingredient, which is tea.”
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Breaking It Down: Kombucha and Probiotics
Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Thanks to the fermentation process the tea undergoes, kombucha is teeming with healthy probiotics. So what does that mean for your health as a kombucha drinker? Scientists have begun exploring and publishing on kombucha’s positive effects on immunological, endocrinological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and urogenital aspects of health, and their findings support both Crum and Childs’ observations.
In the Beginning (Before Tea Becomes Kombucha)
Given all the excitement around kombucha, fermentation, and probiotics, it can be easy to forget about the antioxidant-rich tea that is the base of all kombucha. Green tea, in particular, has been researched extensively for the effects its antioxidant levels have on human health. Polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants found in green tea, work by neutralizing harmful free radicals and the damage they can have on cells. Clinical studies have shown a strong correlation between green tea consumption and lowering LDL cholesterol. Other studies have concluded that green tea has a positive effect on several different types of cancer (including breast, ovarian, colorectal, lung, and pancreatic cancer), IBS, diabetes, and liver disease.
Kombucha and Bacteria
Preliminary studies have shown kombucha that had been allowed to ferment for 21 days possessed some antibacterial and antifungal properties against Staphylococcus epidermidis, Listeria monocytogenes, and Micrococcus luteus. While studies like these need to be replicated, kombucha definitely holds promise as a potentially powerful antibacterial and antifungal treatment.
Putting It All Together: Making Kombucha at Home
If the thought of home fermentation seems overwhelming, the following tips should help to assuage your kombucha-making fears. Childs shares three excellent pieces of advice KBBK Kombucha gives to all beginners: First of all, it’s important to “source a clean full-spectrum SCOBY from a reliable source. There are too many at-home SCOBY growers putting out low-quality SCOBY to the market. Make sure your source is good so you start in the right place. This is true for those wanting to start from a commercial bottle of kombucha.” Keeping with the theme of quality ingredients, his second tip is to “Use high-quality pure ingredients. The kombucha symbiosis wants pure cane sugar and camellia sinensis tea (black, green, white, pu-erh, oolong). Anything outside of this will change the genetics of your SCOBY and make you something different.” Finally “Keep your environment as steady as possible. Temperature and other environmental items make or break your brew. Get your environment dialed in and keep it there.” If making kombucha tea still seems stressful but you’re ready to give it a try, you can always sign up for a free e-book and DIY guide from Komucha Kamp. This in-depth tutorial will provide plenty of help and guidance for anyone curious about kombucha and the home fermentation process.
Kombucha Tea Recipe
To make kombucha tea at home, you’ll need a kombucha starter culture (also known as a SCOBY). As mentioned above, it’s important to use a SCOBY from a trusted source such as Kombucha Kamp or KBBK Kombucha.
Yield: 1 gallon of kombucha
- 1 SCOBY
- 6 bags of green, black, or oolong tea
- 1 cup of pure white cane sugar
- 1 cup raw bottled kombucha
- 1-gallon heatproof jar
- Clean cloths
- Rubber band
- Clean bowls
- Antibacterial soap
- Boil 4 cups of chlorine-free filtered water.
- Add the tea bags to a 1-gallon heatproof jar. Pour the boiling water over the tea bags and steep for 15 minutes.
- Remove the tea bags and add the sugar, stirring to dissolve.
- Fill the rest of the jar up with cool chlorine-free filtered water. At this point the tea should be lukewarm (about 100°F). If the tea is still hot, cover the jar with a clean cloth and set aside until lukewarm.
- Wash hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap.
- Carefully place the SCOBY in the lukewarm tea and pour the raw kombucha on top.
- Cover the jar with a clean breathable cloth and secure with a rubber band, storing away from direct sunlight at warmish room temperature (about 80°F).
- Let the sweet tea ferment for anywhere from 7 to 21 days, tasting the tea after 5 days to see if it’s heading in the right direction.
- As soon as your kombucha tastes delicious, it’s time to reap the rewards of your hard work. The first thing you need to do is reserve 1 cup of the kombucha for your next batch by pouring it into a clean bowl.
- Remove the SCOBY (with clean hands) and place in another clean bowl. Cover it with a clean cloth (cleanliness is an important component of kombucha making!).
- The remaining fermented tea is the kombucha, ready for drinking (and flavoring if you’d like).
- Use your SCOBY and reserved kombucha to begin the process all over again!
Love kombucha but aren’t interested in fermenting your own? Luckily there are many options when it comes to commercially made kombucha. Our favorites include Synergy Kombucha and Kombucha Wonder Drink, both of which are tasty and unpasteurized (meaning they still contain all the healthy probiotics and antioxidants).
A Happy Kombucha Conclusion
While kombucha shouldn’t be considered a magic bullet for fixing all of your health concerns, it definitely offers many benefits in terms of antioxidants and probiotics. Kombucha’s benefits are being studied extensively and the evidence seems to speak for itself. Regularly including kombucha and other fermented foods in your diet is a definite plus when it comes to feeling healthy and energized.