When you read or hear about the wonders of probiotic foods, a little drink known as “kombucha” always seems to pop up, along with the more familiar yogurt and sauerkraut. But…
What is kombucha, exactly?
Does it taste any good?
Can you make your own?
Kombucha is a fermented, fizzy, sweet tea drink with a slightly tangy taste. It’s considered to be a probiotic drink because it’s brimming with friendly bacteria and yeast.
Now, for kombucha to “brew” (or ferment), it requires something called a “culture” – a cultivation of bacteria. Kombucha gets its starter-culture from a large, slimy, mushroom-like “mother” which is formed by bacteria and yeast.
And, this is fun: Every new batch of kombucha tea needs a mother and “she” is known as the kombucha SCOBY.
The Long History of Kombucha
Now, the wonders of kombucha are certainly nothing new. Ancient cultures have been fermenting things for thousands of years as a form of food preservation.
It’s thought that Kombucha tea first surfaced in parts of China and the area that is today known as Russia as far back as 220 B.C. It also has a long history in Tibetan and Korean cultures. Because it’s a tea drink, its Far East origins make sense.
When Kombucha finally did make a trek West, it was nicknamed the “Indian tea fungus” and was carried by German POWs who discovered it while imprisoned in Russia during World War I.1
Kombucha Reaches the United States
Kombucha gained further popularity in the 1960s in Switzerland when its potential health benefits were compared to that of yogurt. But it didn’t become a “thing” in the United States until the 1990s.
Today, kombucha’s popularity is soaring, along with a new understanding of the incredible benefits of probiotics and the importance of gut health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”3
In other words, the WHO agrees that good bacteria (or probiotics) do offer health benefits to the body.
Your gut contains billions of “friendly” bacteria that work hard to keep your gut balanced and healthy. It’s not about ridding the body of “unfriendly” bacteria (impossible) but about keeping those guys in check. You can think of good bacteria as your own personal bodyguards.
Here’s the problem: stress, illness, antibiotics, and a bad diet can kill good bacteria, leaving the door open for bad bacteria to run wild. So, the best way you can recharge your probiotic levels and help bring back gut balance is by taking a supplement or by consuming probiotic foods.
Since kombucha’s beginnings thousands of years ago, it’s been seen by some as a powerful health tonic. One major draw to consuming kombucha is its probiotic content.
It’s great to consume a diet rich in natural probiotic foods – like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi… and kombucha! When you make your own kombucha, you’re actually creating powerful, beneficial probiotics for your body.
And, science is now discovering that all human health may actually begin and end in your gut. For example, allergies, high blood sugar, autoimmune conditions, obesity, and even autism have all been linked to imbalances of bacteria living in the gut.4
Another health benefit of kombucha is that it contains polyphenol antioxidants from the tea that it’s made from. These polyphenols are already in existence in tea, but things get even better during the fermentation process, where these polyphenols get increased.5
The body needs these antioxidants to fight free radicals – molecules that can damage your cells. When kombucha is made with green tea it’s especially high in antioxidants – up to 6 times more than black tea! 6
What Does Kombucha Taste Like?
Kombucha can be a tricky taste to describe, and there are so many flavored kombuchas available today that it often tastes like ginger, raspberry, turmeric, or even coffee.
But at its most basic, kombucha tastes a little like a fizzy, tart apple cider. It may remind you a little of one of those sour styles of beer, but a little bit sweeter. It’s slightly fizzy, but it’s not as fizzy as soda.
What’s Actually in Kombucha?
Kombucha is quite literally fermented sweet tea – which can be broken down into the components of tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast. Flavors can be added later with the addition of various fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices.
The bacteria and yeast component of this mixture is known as the kombucha SCOBY, the mother culture. Every batch of kombucha requires it, but it’s self-perpetuating – that its, it will always form new starter colonies! So you can give these to your friends and family.
The very first time you brew kombucha you will need to source a SCOBY.
The Kombucha SCOBY
Now, the kombucha SCOBY is the reason your tea is able to become home to beneficial bacteria and yeasts, B vitamins, and antioxidants.7 The term SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast, meaning that the bacteria and yeast strains live in harmony, supporting each other.8
Of course, the kombucha SCOBY isn’t particularly attractive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: It looks like a big, overgrown, slimy mushroom. But this thick, gummy, biofilm is your mother-culture, and she is the goddess of probiotic health.
As it turns out, a SCOBY is actually a living entity, so it needs food to survive. Your sweet tea is the food it craves. When a SCOBY is placed into sweet tea, it sets about “eating” all of the sugars. This results in an increase in:
Friendly bacteria and yeasts
Carbon dioxide (the fizz)
Some of this ethanol is converted into acetic acid, which gives kombucha its tang, but trace amounts may remain.9
Different Kinds of Kombucha SCOBY
There are actually different types of kombucha SCOBY out there. What makes them different is their origins.
1. The Vintage SCOBY
The best way to get your hands on a vintage SCOBY strain is through family and friends. You should also ask them for at least ½ cup of starter tea (some of their just-made kombucha).
These vintage or heirloom SCOBYs can also be passed down through local fermenting groups.
2. The Homegrown SCOBY
If you can’t source a SCOBY directly, there is one way you can grow your own – from a store-bought bottle of kombucha.
You will need to look for a brand that makes a raw, unpasteurized, and unflavored kombucha. Additives and pasteurization can inhibit the growth of your SCOBY.
Here’s what to do next:
1. Pour 16 oz. of the store-bought kombucha into a glass bowl.
2. Cover the bowl with fabric or cheesecloth, and secure it with string.
3. Store the bowl in a dark place at room temperature.
It will usually take between 1 and 3 weeks for a SCOBY to form. It should grow to about a ¼ inch in thickness.
3. The Tibetan SCOBY
As its name implies, the Tibetan SCOBY strain originated in Tibet and is traditionally brewed with Pu-erh tea. It produces a dark, earthy, but mild tasting kombucha. And it’s a great option for first-timers.
The Tibetan SCOBY can take a little longer to ferment, but it won’t turn vinegary as quickly.
4. The Island Girl SCOBY
The Island Girl SCOBY originated on Sanibel Island, Florida, and it is usually made with oolong tea. This creates a smooth, well-balanced kombucha, but it ferments the slowest of all kombuchas. Patience is key with this SCOBY.
How Can I Source a SCOBY?
Now, as the SCOBY is self-perpetuating, it will always form new starter colonies. Consider giving these away to your friends and family, so they can start their own mother. It’s a beautiful zero-waste process. But if you’re beginning your very first batch, you’ll need to source a living, activated SCOBY.
The best way is from getting an heirloom variety from friends or family who brew kombucha. But if that isn’t an option, you can also reach out to a trusted fermenting group online. They may also have a good variety of kombucha SCOBYs on hand.
Aside from making your own from a store-bought bottle, you can also purchase a SCOBY. Amazon has a variety of both live and dehydrated ones available. Dehydrated SCOBYs will need to be revived in a fresh batch of sweet tea. Read reviews to ensure you’re buying from a trusted seller.
DIY Kombucha Recipe
All of this brings us to perhaps the most important question – how to make kombucha. Now that you have your SCOBY sorted, you’re ready to go!
Here is your DIY kombucha recipe.
Makes one quart
- ¼ cup of white sugar
- 2-3 cups of spring water (you don’t want minerals in your kombucha)
- 2 black tea bags
- ½ cup distilled white vinegar or, ideally, “starter” tea from a previous batch
- A living activated SCOBY
1. Combine hot water and sugar in a large glass jar, and stir until the sugar dissolves. The water should be just hot enough to be able to steep tea.
2. Steep your tea bags in the mix.
3. Cool the mixture to around 68-85ºF. The longer the tea bags are left in, the stronger your tea will taste. Remove them after about 10-15 minutes.
4. Add your starter tea (or distilled white vinegar).
5. Add the SCOBY.
6. Cover with cloth and a rubber band, or a custom brewing cap.
7. Keep the jar at room temperature (68-85°F), untouched, and out of direct sunlight for 7 to 10 days. Then begin tasting the kombucha daily. When it reaches a balance of sweetness and tartness that tastes nice to you, it’s ready.
8. Pour the kombucha (strain if necessary) into a bottle for refrigerating. Consume your kombucha within a month.
9. Save the SCOBY, and some liquid from the bottom of the jar (starter tea), to use for your next batch.
Note: The longer your kombucha ferments, the tangier and less sweet it will become.
Storing your SCOBY
Now that you know how to make kombucha, you’ll need to understand how to store a SCOBY properly.
- Even if you’re not ready to make your next batch of kombucha, start a fresh batch anyway to STORE your SCOBY. You can store it this way for up to three weeks.
- Don’t try to drink it after this 3-week storing period, as it will be far too vinegary after fermenting that long. Your SCOBY, though, will be alive and well.
- If you need to store your SCOBY for longer, use the same process, but keep the immersed SCOBY in the fridge. Then, change the liquid out every 4 to 6 weeks.
What About The High Amount of Sugar Used in Kombucha?
Some people may be concerned about using sugar to make kombucha. We all know that sugar is not so healthy. But, here’s the thing about kombucha – the sugar is dinner for the bacteria, and without sugar, there is no fermentation.
Ideally, a well-brewed kombucha will end up with only 1 percent of the sugar content remaining. The problem with many store-bought varieties is that they often have a lot of added sugars. Always check the labels and compare brands. That’s why brewing at home can be healthier.
You can purchase strips to test both sugar and alcohol content in your kombucha. But all in all, the amount of probiotic goodness usually outweighs the amount of sugar remaining. As with any food, don’t over-consume your serving size – one glass is plenty for one sitting to reap the kombucha benefits.
Are There any Risks Fermenting Your Own Kombucha?
Most risks involved in fermenting kombucha are tied to improper preparation, over-fermentation, or contamination. These are very rare, but potentially toxic, dangers.
Always take great care with hygiene. Handle your SCOBY with clean hands, and adequately clean all of the kombucha equipment with soap and hot water. If you want to keep things sterile, never use anything antibacterial, as it will hurt the friendly bacteria too. Instead, use distilled white vinegar.
It’s also a good idea to brew in the smallest quantity of kombucha that you will actually need and use. And always stick to the exact fermentation timeline. Don’t forget about your brew, and try to pick it up and check it a couple of weeks later.10
Kombucha: Reviving The Ancient Practice of Fermentation
Now you know the answer to your burning question, “What is kombucha?” You also know how to make kombucha, and you know all about those wonderful kombucha benefits. So, you’re probably itching to ferment your own!
So, if you need a good idea about how kombucha should smell and taste, go out and purchase a bottle before you make your own.