It’s got all the makings of a genuine hippie food: a strange name, funky packaging, weird bubbles, and a dedicated group of devotees throwing around strange acronyms and cultivating Mason jars of funky-smelling liquid on their kitchen countertops. So what actually is kombucha, is it really all that great for you, and if so, where do you get it?
What Is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented drink (don’t confuse it with kabocha, which is a type of squash that looks like a pumpkin). Every batch of kombucha started its life as ordinary tea. Then it got an infusion bacteria, and yeast, along with some sugar for them to eat. That mixture sat around for a while to ferment – the yeast and bacteria ate up all the sugar and grew into something called a SCOBY, which stands for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. After a few days to a month, depending on the taste preferences of the drinker, the kombucha was ready to go!
“Fermented tea” makes kombucha sound pretty unappetizing, and a fully-grown SCOBY looks pretty weird (it’s kind of an off-white rubbery puck at the top of the fermentation container). But you don’t eat the SCOBY, and the drink underneath fizzy and pucker-y, with a hint of sweetness depending on fermentation time (and you can easily flavor it with all kinds of other extras if you like). It’s like a probiotic version of soda.
Really though, most people don’t drink kombucha for the taste. They tend to make it as a health drink.
Are There Health Benefits?
Kombucha enthusiasts claim everything from curing HIV to preventing cancer – as you can probably guess, most of that is exaggerated. There’s no evidence that kombucha will cure deadly diseases, make you immortal, or otherwise do magic. Food just doesn’t work that way! But there are some reasons why it’s good for you:
- The tea: depending on what kind you start with, tea does have all kinds of health benefits. The antioxidant content, for example, is notable. You can use either black or green tea, depending on what kind of flavor you like, and the resulting kombucha will have different antioxidants.
- The probiotics: probiotic foods are generally good for you, although the huge number of possible probiotic strains that could be in any given batch of kombucha make it nearly impossible to pin down specific benefits. On the other hand, not all people actually benefit from probiotics.
- Acetic acid: thanks to the fermentation reaction, kombucha also contains acetic acid, which gives it its vinegary taste and also helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
Sugar and Alcohol
Some people are leery of drinking kombucha either because it contains sugar or on the assumption that it’s somehow alcoholic.
First off, there is sugar in the kombucha recipe, but it’s not primarily there for you to eat. To get the SCOBY to do its thing, a batch of kombucha has to involve adding some sugar. You can’t expect the bacteria and yeasts to grow if you don’t feed them, and sugar is what they like to eat. There’s just no way to make sugar-free kombucha.
But before you run away, remember that you are not actually eating that sugar. The bacteria are eating it. The amount of sugar that remains in the finished drink depends on how long it’s fermented: the longer the fermentation time, the more time the bacteria will have to eat the sugar, and the less will remain for you to drink.
On the alcohol front, kombucha has very little alcohol if it’s brewed and stored properly. It won’t get you drunk. Again, the exact amount depends on the length of the fermentation – the longer it ferments, the higher the alcohol content will be. Once it’s done fermenting, it needs to be refrigerated to stop the fermentation reaction. If it’s not refrigerated, then the bacteria may keep fermenting and the drink will steadily increase in alcohol content.
In other words, you can basically control how much sugar and alcohol you want in your drink by adjusting the amount of time that you let it ferment. Shorter fermentation times = more sugar and less alcohol. Longer fermentation times = less sugar and more alcohol.
For more kombucha myths, here’s a great debunking.
Store-Bought vs. DIY
You can buy kombucha at Whole Foods, fancy hippie health stores, or even in more mainstream groceries if you live in the right place. The downside of this: it’s expensive. Really expensive. Jaw on the floor “you want me to pay how much for a bottle of fizzy tea?” expensive.
But there’s also a significant upside: with store-bought kombucha, you can be reasonably sure that it was brewed under sterile conditions. When you brew kombucha, you’re creating a fertile environment for bacteria to grow – that’s the whole point. But there is no special kombucha magic that lets god bacteria in and keeps bad bacteria out. So if you’re brewing kombucha on the kitchen counter while there’s anything unsavory floating around in your house, there’s always the possibility that the bad germs will get into your brew.
Many people do brew kombucha at home and never get sick from it. If you take proper precautions to keep your brewing area and equipment sanitary, you dramatically reduce your risk of getting any unwanted bacteria along for the ride. But there still is a risk, and it’s still likely that a professional brewery will have better equipment than you do at home. It’s a question everyone needs to decide personally, based on their overall health and how comfortable they are with the potential risks.
If you do want to make DIY kombucha, you’ll need a SCOBY to start off with – you can get one from a friend or buy them online. Tea and sugar are easy enough to get, and the internet is full of recipes for flavoring your kombucha in different ways – check out Ginger-Lemon Jasmine Kombucha (The Paleo Mom), Turmeric Tonic Kombucha (Autoimmune Paleo), or Gingerberry Kombucha (Primal Palate).
Summing it Up
Kombucha is powerful medicine. It’s not for everyone, especially the home-brewed variety – many extreme gut-healing protocols recommend leaving it out for the first few months and only reintroducing it when your body has healed enough to handle it. But for people with healthy and resilient gut ecosystems, it can be a tasty and healthful addition to your diet.
If it makes you sick, don’t drink it. But also don’t be turned off from it if it doesn’t – it’s another great way to get in some probiotics, and it actually tastes pretty good once you get used to it. The fizzy texture is fun if you miss soda, and even the biology-experiment aspect of the whole process is pretty neat. Maybe give one store-bought bottle a try just to see how you like it; you might be surprised!