So you’ve ditched your home-brewed beer, are too impatient for homemade wine, and are justifiably wary of making bathtub gin. But you’re also tired of paying thirty bucks a case for kombucha, a drink that has been made by people from virtually nothing for centuries. Making kombucha from scratch has to be easier than some of these farm-to-table recipes, right? Not only is it a breeze, but it’s also a labor you’ll love.
What is kombucha, anyway?
If you’re still reading, you’re probably either a fan of kombucha, or have at least sampled a commercially produced version. For the newbies, kombucha is a zesty, fermented, lightly effervescent drink made by adding bacteria and yeast to sugar and tea (black or green), and then letting the process of fermentation do its work. Science, yeah!
Make no mistake: Kombucha is a funky drink, and it’s often an acquired taste. It’s sometimes referred to as “mushroom tea,” because it has an earthy, savory aroma with hints of alcohol and vinegar. That’s why aficionados often add juice to the base brew to make the tea taste better.
The drink is fermented in three stages, which we’ll discuss below. Kombucha is high in acid and contains sugar, vinegar, B vitamins, antioxidants, trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process, and a few other trace chemical compounds. An eight-ounce mug of kombucha contains about 60 calories. By comparison, an eight-ounce café latte from Starbucks contains about 100 calories.
Kombucha is produced by fermenting tea using a SCOBY (this one’s important, so remember it for the test, kids). The acronym stands for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” and while it sounds like some kind of scary mutant, this chemical cocktail is a crucial tool in creating a truly unique drink.
Home-brewers either buy a “kombucha mother” starter, or use a starter sample from an existing culture to grow a new starter that ferments in a jar for a couple of weeks.
A Brief History of Kombucha
No one really knows where kombucha originated, but here’s what we think we know.
The common wisdom is that kombucha originated in what is now Manchuria around 220 BCE and was largely limited to that region for over a century. It is apocryphally reported that the drink and its recipe was imported to Japan in 404 CE by Kombu, a Korean physician called upon to treat the Japanese Emperor Ingyo using a special tea. The Chinese referred to kombucha as the Tea of Immortality and the Elixir of Life, so the drink’s unproven health benefits have a long history.
The first recorded mention of kombucha comes from Russia and the Ukraine late in the 19th century. Spread via Russian and German POWs after World War I, kombucha began to reach new countries quickly, according to The Atlantic. By the 1920s, the drink was brewed throughout Germany as a home and folk remedy. It was also sold in pharmacies under a variety of names.
The word itself has a murky history as well. Dictionaries suggest it probably originates with the Japanese word kombucha, meaning tea made from kombu, the Japanese word for kelp. Kombucha was sometimes confused with a kelp-based infusion due to the thick, gelatinous nature of the drink’s base culture.