Kombucha seems to be the latest hipster drink of choice. It is found in the drinks cabinet of your local cafe, the chilled drinks cabinet at the supermarket, and you can even find it on tap in some upmarket bars and pubs these days. But what exactly is kombucha? How does kombucha taste? What is kombucha made from? And is it actually good for you?
I even came across a report of a celebrity wedding a year or so ago where instead of having wine at every table, the couple had chosen kombucha as their wedding drink.
But you don’t have to be planning the wedding of the year to have come across kombucha and wondered what on earth this strange drink is.
I had a friend contact me a week or so ago and said, “Hey, I keep seeing your posts about kombucha pop up in my newsfeed. It sounds awesome, but … what exactly is it??”
Beginner’s Guide to Kombucha
So, without further ado, here is the beginners guide to kombucha. What kombucha is, what it tastes like, how it is made, and why you might want to give it a try.
The short version is that kombucha is a naturally-fermented, low-alcoholic drink made from sweet tea. It is similar in many ways to ginger beer and cider vinegar.
But the short version doesn’t actually tell you all that much, so let’s get into the longer version:
What does kombucha taste like?
Kombucha is a light bubbly drink which tastes a little like ginger beer and a little like a very mild cider vinegar.
Kombucha can be flavored in different ways, by adding different natural ingredients like ginger, berries, and vanilla for instance, or from choosing different teas and sugars to brew the kombucha to start with (I’ll get into the basic ingredients in a minute). So if you’re choosing a bottle of kombucha from the store you will likely have an array of delicious flavors to choose from.
The basic, “original” flavor of kombucha can be too tart for some people, especially if they drink it expecting it to be as sweet as a traditional sugary soda. But if you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, or you like a bit of a zing in your drinks, you may find the slight acid bite of kombucha to be very refreshing.
Where did kombucha come from?
There’s no real consensus on where or when the original kombucha brew arose.
It seems likely, though, that it arose somewhere in Asia, probably somewhere in the vast tracts of land of northern China or southern Russia, some time in the last thousand years.
My personal theory is that kombucha first emerged as a lucky contamination of a batch of vinegar, but we’ll never know the details.
However it happened, kombucha has been known in the East for many many years under a variety of names, only acquiring the name “kombucha” in the second half of the 20th Century as it gained in popularity in the United States.
Until that time it was variously called “mushroom tea”, “manchurian mushroom tea”, “tea kvass”, “fungus tea”, and other equally appetizing names.
Is kombucha good for you?
Yep, kombucha is pretty good for you. It’s full of antioxidants which help your body heal itself and fight off infection and suchlike. There’s also some evidence that it is a probiotic – making sure your gut has a good mix of healthy microbes in it.
I talk a lot about that here on the Kombucha Research website – have a browse through the Research Articles section, or begin with my Is Kombucha Healthy? post.
People sometimes wonder if you should drink kombucha when you’re pregnant.
My answer is that it depends on a few factors. The two main considerations in my (non-medical, not official in any capacity) opinion, are the alcohol level, and a potential detox effect.
Homebrewed kombucha usually has an alcohol level of less than 1%. It is officially classified as a “low alcohol beverage” in Europe. If you’re expecting a baby, then you need to do your own research as to whether that’s a level that you feel safe with. For the majority of people the occasional glass now and then will be unlikely to cause harm, but officially, as far as I’m aware, there is no known safe dosage of alcohol during pregnancy, so make your own judgement on that.
A detox effect can occur for some people who have not drunk or eaten a lot of fermented foods before, and suddenly begin to eat them regularly. As your gut adjusts to new microbes and new foods, you may have a die-off of some populations of microbes that are already in your gut, making way for the new microbes. A large die-off of bacteria, and/or an influx of antioxidants from the kombucha itself, can overload your liver and other detoxing organs, causing you to feel quite ill.
The usual advice is to not *start* drinking large quantities of kombucha while pregnant, but that most people can drink moderate amounts from time to time with no ill effect.
How is kombucha made?
The short version is that kombucha is made from fermenting sweet tea with an active culture.
Basically, you brew up some tea (black or green, either is fine), add some sugar, let it cool down, add your starter culture – called a SCOBY – and let it do its thing for a week.
Similar to making ginger beer, or other home-brew drinks.
The basic brew is very simple to make once you’ve got the ingredients you need, and the right equipment for the job. The trick is in doing it in a way that produces a drink that tastes the way you want it to, and in choosing the right vessels so you don’t accidentally poison yourself by using heavy-metal glazed ceramics, or other traps for the unwary.
See my guide to choosing a kombucha brewing vessel.
Most people find that brewing their own kombucha is an intensely satisfying experience. Once you’ve got the right set-up you can easily make gallons of delicious kombucha in your own home, saving money and improving your family’s health at the same time.