#68 Kombucha: Tea of Immortality

Written by Food Non-Fiction June 18, 2018

Kombucha is a drink that is typically a little bit sour and a little bit sweet. You brew it by fermenting sweet tea with a SCOBY (the acronym stands for: Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). Have you ever wondered how people discovered kombucha? Like did someone find a gross floating blob (that's basically what SCOBYs look like) on some old tea and decide to drink it anyways? ...Then they found it delicious? ...Then they took the blob and put it in more tea?! Seriously - where did kombucha come from? To find out, we spoke to Dr. Jayabalan (from the National Institute of Technology Rourkela), Harald Tietze (the author The Miracle Fungus), and Stacey Wilson (a former biochemist who runs the site kombucharesearch.com).

Let's start off by being honest and saying that no one knows with certainty how kombucha was discovered, but that doesn't stop us from making educated guesses. Stacey Wilson offered up a very compelling theory that kombucha was discovered when someone was trying to make vinegar. Here is how she put it "So vinegar is a food ingredient that has been super important for humans for a really long time and it brings acidity to your food [...] and when you grow natural vinegar, you get this thing called a mother in the vinegar - you get a vinegar mother. [...] So my pet theory is that someone was making vinegar and there was a beneficial contamination of the cellulose-producing bacteria, which instead of a having a vinegar mother you then ended up with this really rubbery disc [i.e. a SCOBY] that was much easier to transfer." Ok, so maybe kombucha was discovered when someone was actually trying to make vinegar - the next question is where kombucha originated from. 

kombucha SCOBY
my SCOBY named "Scoby Dooby Doo"

Where did kombucha originate from? Most sources say that it originated from a Northeastern part of China that was historically known as Manchuria. According to these sources, the earliest record we have of a drink that could have been what we now know of as kombucha was from around 220 BCE. This tea was considered a tea of immortality. But who knows if that drink was even what we now know of as kombucha? It may not be possible to know. The reason why it’s so hard to pin down kombucha history, is because this is a drink that was made at home. Since it wasn’t a commercial product in the beginning, there isn’t a trail of patents or trademarks - no company branding the drink with a specific name. So it was called all sorts of different names. And as the drink spread across the world, it was given names in different languages. For example, one French name for kombucha was “élixir de longue vie”, meaning “elixir of long life”. Since kombucha has had so many names, it’s hard to to pin it down when you’re looking for references of it in old texts. Fortunately, some of kombucha’s other names are also clues to where it came from. For example, some places called the floating mass used to brew kombucha “Russian fungus” and the drink has also been called Manchurian tea. So while we may never have an exact origin story, we do know that early on, kombucha was in China and Russia. It likely spread with trading along the Silk Road.

Nowadays, in North America, we mostly call the fermented sweet tea by one name - kombucha. But where did the name “kombucha” come from? Again, we don’t know, but we’ll tell you two compelling stories about how the name “kombucha” might have come to be.

So, one story is that there was a Korean doctor called Dr. Kombu who brought the drink to Japan to cure the Japanese Emperor, Inkyo, of his digestive problems...sometime around 415 CE. Since the japanese word for tea is “cha”, the drink apparently became known as Kombu Cha, as in “Kombu Tea”, a tea named after Dr. Kombu.

Another possibility is simply a case of mistaken identity. Kombu is a common seaweed in Japan, and as we’ve already mentioned, “cha” is the Japanese word for tea. So, Kombu cha refers to a seaweed tea. So some people have speculated that perhaps what we now know of as kombucha was mistakenly identified as kombu cha, and got its name that way.

Whatever the origin story, how is it that this very old, home-brewed drink is now a popular, mainstream drink that is found ready-made in most grocery stores? Well, in 1994, Laurel Farms started selling mail-order SCOBY from Los Angeles. As mentioned earlier, SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. SCOBY is what you use to ferment sweet tea to make kombucha. So Laurel Farms was selling SCOBY to people that wanted to brew their own kombucha. They presented kombucha as a miracle cure for all sorts of things. The SCOBYs were packaged with a sticker that said “expect a miracle”. So people without a cure turned to kombucha. It became very popular amongst people with HIV and AIDS. For a short while, business was booming. But in 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on two cases of extreme illness, one that ended in death. They believed the problems might have been related to drinking kombucha, since the women in both cases had been drinking kombucha brewed with the same SCOBY. While it was never proven that the kombucha had played a role in the illnesses, the report was enough to scare many people off of drinking kombucha. However, of course not everyone was scared off of drinking kombucha. Laraine Dave was still drinking kombucha when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her treatments, she believed that kombucha played a role in keeping her strong. Her son, George Thomas Dave, better known as GT Dave, was also convinced that kombucha played a role in his mother’s recovery. GT Dave founded what is now known as GT’s Living Foods, a company that has helped push kombucha into mainstream retail stores.

So the popularity of kombucha has been built onthe belief that it is a powerful health product. There is a long list of things that kombucha has been reported to help with - reversal of gray hair, improved eyesight, weight loss, fixing arthritis, and the list goes on. So what can kombucha really do? Mainly it's a great source of antioxidants. There are more antioxidants in kombucha than in the tea that we use to make it with. As Stacey Wilson explained it, "...an antioxidant counteracts the effects of those free radicals at an early stage, so the current thinking is that if you eat a diet that's high in antioxidants then you can prevent some forms of cancer and you can prevent some forms of heart disease and you can slow down the aging process - not necessarily significantly, but significantly enough to give a quality of life." Dr. Jayabalan noted that kombucha has detoxifying effects that reduces the work of the liver an that "apart from this, there are many health benefits like reducing blood sugar level and reducing blood cholesterol which have been proven - I mean in animal models - but there is no proof from human subjects." Kombucha may also have some probiotic effects (probiotics are bacteria that are good for your gut). The debate about the health benefits and health issues that can be caused by kombucha come from the fact that while there are studies on the effects of kombucha, these studies have thus far used animal models, not human subjects, so we can't say for certain that the results would be the same for humans. Personally, I don't really care about the health debates. If it gets me to drink more liquids then that's a good thing. I like how it tastes! What more? It's so easy to make at home!

To brew kombucha, all you need to do is brew some tea, stir in some sugar so that it becomes sweet tea, wait for it to cool down to roughly room temperature, put in your starter SCOBY and wait for roughly a week depending on your taste preferences (the longer you leave it for, the more acidic/less sweet it becomes). The ingredient you probably don't have is the SCOBY. You can either buy it or find someone already brewing SCOBY and ask them for one of their daughter SCOBYs including some of the kombucha it was in - pour all this into your sweet tea. I'm currently brewing kombucha using a fantastic starter kit I got from my friends at Brew Your Bucha. I've known one of the founders, Chris, since we went to university together, so I can tell you that he's a great guy with a great company. It's really easy to get a Brew Your Bucha kit - you can get it from the Brew Your Bucha website or from Etsy or Amazon in both the U.S. and Canada.

P.S. My SCOBY's name is Scoby Dooby Doo!! 

Special Thanks to Our Interviewees: 

Stacey Wilson - kombucharesearch.com

Dr. Jayabalan - the National Institute of Technology Rourkela

Harald Tietze - Harald Tietze publications

Chris/Derek - Brew Your Bucha