If you’re anything like me, you may have thought kombucha was some kinky Kamasutra position until you realised that it’s something that people drink. It’s a concoction made from the fermentation of tea leaves, sugar and the magical key ingredients: bacteria and yeasts, a process which then yields a form of tea fungus that tastes like sour apples. If that mouth-watering description hasn’t convinced you yet, many have hailed it to be the ultimate health brew, with a lengthy list of therapeutic properties such as improving digestion, reducing blood pressure and boosting energy. Others aren’t as convinced by the science, and deem it could even raise serious health concerns if not brewed correctly. Despite the drink splitting opinions, it has a fast-growing fan base, and has actually been around for a long time before hairy-lipped hipsters starting sipping the stuff.
Kombucha is believed to have originated in China over 2000 years ago for its medicinal properties and later made its way to Japan, Russia and North Africa. It also became increasingly popular in Europe during World War II and in the 1960s Swiss scientists were likening its positive health effects to eating yogurt, which in turn increased its popularity. At some point the Italians were such big fans of the tea they named it “Funkochinese” – it’s probably a good thing for everyone that the name didn’t stick.
Nowadays it’s found in most health-conscious stores but it is pretty pricey and sometimes fruit juice is added which can contribute to a bigger sugar intake, so if you’re debating forking out for a bottle of funky-flavoured tea, Kombucha is rather painless to make at home. You’ll need water, sugar, tea leaves and a scoby – a mucous-like disk made from a “parent” kombucha mushroom that’s reminiscent of a creepy, alien jellyfish. Anything for the funk.
Most of the sugar dissipates after the fermentation process, which can take between 7 to 30 days, and it is said to have a pretty unusual zingy flavour – somewhere between fizzy apple cider and a vinaigrette that’s gone slightly off. The longer you leave it the sourer it gets, so it may get a few tries to get a flavour to your liking. Similar to how wine or beer becomes alcoholic through fermentation, kombucha can sometimes contain a small percentage of alcohol, but it usually never surpasses 0.5 per cent, so you won’t accidentally end up brewing moonshine in your fridge. After incubation a thin layer of gelatine floats to the top, producing a mini mushroom, like a baby alien offspring, that can then be used for another batch (or contacting outer space). The scoby is a living culture, so things can easily go awry if it is contaminated, and even washing your hands with soap could interfere with the process.
If you do manage to whip up a batch of the tea successfully, there are big claims boasting the drink’s benefits, many maintaining it will cure ailments ranging from alleviating arthritis to improving gout symptoms or reducing stress and anxiety. The belief is that fermented foods with healthy, living bacteria, otherwise known as probiotics, could help colonise our gut, improving our mood, stress levels and food cravings. However, to reap the full benefits you would have to drink quantities over a long period of time – so if you’re a tea commitment-phobe one glass every once in a while may not be enough. And while some research suggests it could help improve gut diseases like C. difficile, it is not conclusive for others such as inflammatory bowel disease. Some lab bench and animal studies in 2000 and 2014 even found the drink to potentially have anti-cancer and antioxidant qualities, all very promising assertions but inconclusive if you don’t have a furry body or a tail.
Despite having a lack of tangible evidence for humans, the general consensus of those who gulp down kombucha is that it seems to have positive health effects. Based on current research, the drink has similar benefits to tea or fermented foods, so it could well be a decent immune system booster (but you may have to close your eyes and wish really heard if you expect it to singlehandedly prevent cancer).
If you were a witch in a past life, then making it from scratch is inexpensive. However, if you’re not confident with your potion-making skills, best keep to the bottled stuff to avoid a potentially hairy outcome.