The ‘hipster’ home-brewed probiotic tea drink, Kombucha, is what we are exploring this time. It is sexy, healthy, curative, and gastronomic too.
Kombucha is a fermented and sweetened tea often made with black or green tea. It is largely classified as a functional beverage, meaning that it is a non-alcoholic drink that contains vitamins, amino acids or other nutrients associated with health benefits. The process of preparing kombucha can vary but generally involves a double fermentation process wherein a SCOBY (a pancake-shaped symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) aka mother aka mushroom is placed in a sweetened tea mixture and left to ferment at room temperature for 1-3 weeks, and then bottled for 1-2 weeks to contain released CO2 and encourage carbonation.
The exact origin of kombucha is uncertain, though it likely originated in China and spread with tea along the Silk Road. However, it is believed that Kombucha originated in Northeast China (historically referred to as Manchuria) around 220 B.C. and was initially prized for its healing properties. Its name is reportedly derived from Dr. Kombu, a Korean physician who brought the fermented tea to Japan as a curative for Emperor Inkyo. Eventually the tea was brought to Europe as a result of trade route expansions in the early 20th century, most notably appearing in Russia (as “Kambucha”) and Germany (as “Kombuchaschwamm”). Despite a dip in international popularity during WWII due to the shortage of tea and sugar supplies, kombucha regained popularity following a 1960s study in Switzerland comparing its health benefits to those of yogurt.
Initial popularity was due in part to consumers who believed that the beverage was a powerful health aid for serious medical conditions. It is widely brewed in parts of eastern Europe, particularly in rural Russia, and is common in China, Japan, and Korea. Studies conducted through 2010 suggested that the health benefit anecdotes associated with kombucha have occasionally been overblown by the media and industry figureheads. the beverage contains similar benefits to plain tea and fermented foods, including probiotic benefits that encourage gut bacteria diversity and aid digestion.
In the United States kombucha initially gained popularity during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as it was hoped that the drink could increase T-cell counts and support compromised immune systems. However, it fell out of favour following a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1995 that linked the drink to two cases of severe metabolic acidosis, one of which was fatal. With greater awareness of probiotics and the possible health benefits of fermented foods, it resurged as a health product in the early 21st century, and home-brewing kits and commercial brews were soon readily available in many places.