What is kombucha?
The first time I heard about kombucha was a long long time ago. After a trip to Eastern Europe, my mom told me about a strange beverage that had been served at room temperature and that she had found awful (and my mom is an adventurous foodie, she will try and usually enjoy just about anything). In Italy that beverage was not available back then, so I had no way to double check. I didn’t even know what it was made of. When I moved to Vienna, Austria, I finally got to try kombucha. My Austrian friends drank it primarily as a hangover remedy. I liked it (and no, I didn’t need to use it as a hangover remedy, does it work?). During the San Francisco International Tea Festival on 6th November, I had the chance to attend a lecture on kombucha, hosted by Anu Patel of Health-Ade Kombucha. Here are my notes and some more information I researched myself.
What is kombucha?
Kombucha is fermented tea. Not fermented tea as in pu er or heicha. I should rather say fermented infusion of camellia sinensis leaves (tea liquor). It is rich in B vitamins, healthy acids and probiotics.
Where was it invented?
Nobody knows for sure. Probably in Asia but the Russians made it popular by dubbing it the “elixir of life”. There are records of kombucha dating back to the 19th century. It was very popular in Eastern European countries where it was widely home-brewed. The harsh climate in those countries meant a very limited availability of vegetables and kombucha was consumed regularly to help digestion.
How is it made?
Kombucha is made by combining tea (Health-Ade uses black and green tea) with sugar, water and a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) in a 2 ½ gallon glass jar. The SCOBY looks creepily like a slimy disc of gelatin, but it is what makes all the good things happen. It breaks down tea and sugar, while at the same time tea ferments, thus releasing acids. There is a first phase called primary fermentation, which lasts 2 to 3 weeks. It takes place in the (above-mentioned) glass jar covered with a cheese cloth (aerobic fermentation).
Then secondary fermentation takes place in a warm place and lasts 10 days. During this phase, fruit or vegetable cold-pressed juice is added to make Health-Ade flavored kombucha. Secondary fermentation takes place in a closed bottle (anaerobic fermentation), so the resulting kombucha is naturally bubbly. It is an unpasteurized product because it contains live bacterial cultures and pasteurization would kill them. The bottles are dark glass bottles to protect kombucha from UV light, which could potentially kill the bacterial cultures. For primary fermentation, camellia sinensis teas are needed, herbal teas won’t work but can be added in the secondary fermentation for extra flavor. As you can see, tea and kombucha are close relatives.
There is also a honey-based version of kombucha, which is called Jun.
What does it taste like?
Unflavored kombucha (Original by Health-Ade) tastes slightly acidic, is mildly sparkling and has a touch of sweetness. It is not additionally sweetened and the sugars that are needed to fuel fermentation are processed by the SCOBY. It is very pleasant. It smells a little like vinegar but doesn’t taste like it (luckily, because I hate vinegar!!).
Does it taste like tea?
Does it contain alcohol?
Alcohol is a natural product of the fermentation process, so it might contain trace amounts.
Do you like kombucha?
Disclaimer: This is my honest opinion. I was not asked nor paid to mention or review products, services or businesses that appear in this blog post.