The Ancient Fermented Tonic: Kombucha

Once the elixir of hippies and health nuts, kombucha has been thrust into the limelight of the mainstream in recent years. The fermented tea drink is fast surpassing soft drink sales, with the kombucha market poised to grow by 25% each year through to 2020. But where did this functional beverage come from and why is it so popular nowadays?

Words by Stephanie Aikins

Although sceptics tout kombucha as the latest lifestyle fad, the beverage actually has its roots in ancient China, with evidence suggesting locals were drinking the substance 2,200 years ago to detoxify the system and increase energy levels.

With the expansion of trade routes across Tibet and up into Russia, tales of the legendary ‘tea of immortality’ spread and kombucha soon found its way to Western Europe. The 1960s saw the first spike in Western kombucha sales, as a Swiss study claimed that the drink was beneficial for gut health.

It seems these believed benefits particularly strike a chord with today’s consumers, passionate about current health and sustainability trends. But do the facts really stack up?

Kombucha is made from a mixture of strongly brewed tea, water and sugar that is exposed to a symbiotic culture of acetic acid (vinegar), bacteria and yeast, referred to as ‘the scoby’. After the culture is added, the mixture is left at room temperature for three to four weeks while the scoby eats away at the sugar and caffeine and converts the polyphenols – found in tea, fruits and vegetables – into organic compounds. The final result? A lightly sparkling, living, probiotic-rich beverage that has a pleasantly fruity and slightly acidic flavour, with a mild vinegary aftertaste.

It’s well known that probiotics are great for the immune system and overall gut health, so it’s not a far stretch to deduce that the microorganisms kombucha imparts to the body probably do help the system. A wealth of anecdotal evidence agrees, with many consumers reporting increased energy and a clarity of mind.

There have been a number of ‘lab bench’ studies on kombucha, which suggest the drink may have antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic properties; could potentially be used for liver detoxification, and to treat high cholesterol and gastric ulcers. It’s early days on these findings, however, as these lab bench studies only use isolated cells and animals for testing, which means the results do not necessarily translate to humans.

Although we can only say that some health benefits from kombucha are likely, it is certainly true that in comparison to other beverages, kombucha has a relatively low environmental footprint. The drink is almost always bottled in glass and it is commonly flavoured with compostable raw materials such as fruits, flowers, herbs and spices. Even the scoby is able to be composted and can be shared between producers.

Kombucha can come in an array of styles to suit different tastes, including the delicate ‘jun’ kombucha brewed with green tea and honey. Nearly all styles are left unpasteurised as most producers agree that avoiding pasteurisation gives better results.

Wait for a second though, if kombucha is fermented, does that mean it’s alcoholic? Well yes and no. Trace amounts of alcohol are produced during the fermentation process, but national and US standards dictate that this alcohol level cannot be above 0.5% ABV (alcohol by volume). This all came about after US healthfood supermarket Whole Foods issued a total recall of kombucha products in 2010 when many were found with levels of alcohol over 0.5%. To sell as supermarket kombucha now, brands must implement alcohol minimisation processes to ensure that the ABV stays below the 0.5% requirement. As alcohol cannot be sold in supermarkets or other unlicensed premises in Australia, the same rule applies.

As a fermented product, this process (fermentation) can continue inside the kombucha even once bottled, and especially if not stored in the fridge. In order to ensure this continued fermentation doesn’t result in high alcohol levels, de-alcoholisation processes are performed at the time of brewing.

However, in the US, many diehard kombucha fans from before the time of regulation believe that these processes reduce the health benefits of the drink and can negatively impact the flavour.

This has given rise to the creation of kombucha beer, a low-alcoholic beverage marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional beers with its lower calorie count and gluten-free properties. Kombucha beer is generally created by letting the unpasteurised mixture sit, bottled for more than two weeks after the initial fermentation process, to contain any released CO2, encouraging carbonation and promoting fermentation (AKA a higher alcohol content).

With the exponential growth in sales of the non-alcoholic version here in Australia, it may not be long until we see a few kombucha beers of our own hitting the market.

In the end, the fact that kombucha is incredibly popular today – thousands of years after it was first created – really does speak volumes. A relatively healthy, environmentally-friendly, flavoursome and diverse drink, there are no signs that this trajectory of growth is slowing down. Rather, it may be that we’re still lapping up this fermented favourite for a further 2,200 years.