The curious case of Kombucha

November 12, 2009

What do beer, wine and Kombucha have in common? All three are created through a process of fermentation. The difference being that Kombucha is made from tea and is, therefore, a non-alcoholic drink.

Before you get worried, let me assure you that Kombucha doesn’t taste like what you would imagine fermented tea to taste like. The taste is bracing, sour, sweet and fizzy, with a vinegar-like edge. Depending on the tea used in its preparation, the product can taste like a punchy, tangy version of apple cider or even champagne.

The origins of Kombucha are shrouded in mystery, in much the same way that the elixir itself is shrouded with microorganisms. The first recorded use of Kombucha comes from the ancient Far East. Later, Kombucha usage spread far and west, spanning Japan, Russia, Poland, Germany and Denmark. Kombucha remained rather unassuming during the Second World War following which Dr. Rudolph Skelnar demonstrated renewed interest in the drink. After the war, he used it to treat cancer patients, metabolic disorders, high blood pressure and diabetes.

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Until recently, all of Kombucha was made at home by fermenting sweetened black tea, oolong tea, green tea, or even the rare white tea, using probiotic microorganisms called Kombucha culture or mushroom. The recipe is simple: a cup or two of sugar, a few quarts of tea and bacteria from a Kombucha sample. Once activated, the Kombucha culture forms a pale rubbery congealed layer akin to a pancake, or a mushroom. It is often called a ‘scoby’, short for ‘ symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts’.

But home-production can prove rather tricky as there are a number of guidelines to be followed to avoid anthrax infections, for instance, or the concentration of organic acids beyond the desired degree. The jars and pots used need to be kept extremely clean at all times. Plus the market version has the added bonus of coming in different flavours.

The great thing about Kombucha is that it grows on itself, building on its own layers. You can leave the scoby to multiply and amplify, or you can divide it and store the spare culture in some sweet tea for later use. The culture can turn a cup of sweetened tea into a powerhouse of healthy chemicals. The end result contains a mix of organic acids like glucuronic acid, gluconic acid, lactic acid, acetic acid, butyric acid, malic acid and usnic acid; vitamins, particularly B vitamins and vitamin C; as well as amino acids, enzymes.

Kombucha boasts many advantages: improvements in energy levels, sharper eyesight, metabolic disorders, weight loss, allergies, cancer, menstrual cramps, constipation, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, chronic fatigue, arthritis, and better digestion of foods that ‘stick’ to the stomach, such as rice or pasta. It is also used as a remedy for skin ailments and dull hair.

A word of caution though; despite the numerous rumours of its various benefits (including claims to ‘elixir for immortality’), no conclusive research on the effects of Kombucha has been carried out on human subjects. Most of the evidence of its wonders is experiential, based on the glowing testimonies of its users. Also, Kombucha is quite intense, so regulate the amount you consume in the beginning.

To conclude, Kombucha is a living health drink made from fermented tea, sugar and Kombucha culture. Making it a part of your diet can be your ticket to great health.

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