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What You Need to Know About Kombucha

Kombucha

Kombucha is sweet tea fermented with yeast and bacteria. It has a Japanese name, origins in ancient China, and an almost cult following in the United States.

Most people find kombucha either wonderfully enticing or absolutely disgusting. Followers of the kombucha movement laud the positive effects the beverage has on their bodies and many love the taste, but unless you've seen the light, the appeal of this drink remains a mystery. For those who love the stuff, are looking to convert, or are just squeamishly curious, read on to learn more about the drink's origins, health benefits and mysterious life cycle.

What Is Kombucha?

Kombucha is made by adding some of the kombucha starter culture to a mixture of tea and sugar, and letting it ferment for seven to fourteen days. A mushroom-like bacteria and yeast growth develops in the form of a pink gelatinous pancake (referred to as "the mother") that uses the tea and sugar for food. A chemical reaction produces the resulting drinkable substance known as kombucha. Smaller organisms called "babies" break off from the mother and are often given or sold to others looking to start growing kombucha. The resulting drink is naturally carbonated with notes of yeast and vinegar. Again, it's not for everybody.

The Rise of Kombucha Culture

Prior to the 1960s, kombucha was relatively unheard of in the United States. It grew in popularity among health foodies in the the latter half of the 20th century, but took a hiatus from the American market in 1995 when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report linking kombucha consumption with the illness of a woman who drank a home-brewed version and suffered from metabolic acidosis (acid buildup in the body).

But this "live drink" didn't stay dead for long. Another widespread health food craze kicked off around 2003, when many people were looking for both an alternative to sugary drinks and a way to boost their intake of probiotics.

Today, there are several companies manufacturing kombucha on a large scale (Coca Cola owns a big share of one), and there are even "kombucha bars" opening up in places like Norfolk, Virginia; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco. In fact, a study by the market research firm SPINS reports $127 million in sales of kombucha from June 2013 to June 2014.

Potential Health Benefits of Kombucha

Though there have been few formal studies on the health effects of the drink, fans ardently claim that drinking kombucha daily is excellent for liver function, promoting intestinal health, and boosting your immune system.

  • Liver Function: An animal study published in the journal Microbiology and Biotechnology in 2009 showed that kombucha's glucuronic acid attaches to toxins known to cause liver damage and removes them from the body.
  • Intestinal Health: Low in caffeine and sugar (once the fermentation is complete) and high in vitamins and minerals, kombucha also contains friendly bacteria (like those found in yogurt) that are reputed to be good for digestive health.
  • Immunity: The growth of beneficial bacteria, like those found in kombucha, can help keep the gut healthy and give the metabolism the boost it needs to control free radicals.
  • Antioxidants: In addition to probiotic benefits, an antioxidant known as D-saccharic acid-1, 4-lactone (DSL) was found in kombucha as a result of the fermentation process. DSL can lower oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, and discourage depression of the immune system.

How to Make Kombucha

You don't have to be a professional chef or chemist to make kombucha. It can be expensive by the bottle, so many enthusiasts opt for the DIY route. Ardent home-brewers say preparing it in your own kitchen ensures optimal quality and taste. Here's how you do it:

  1. Find a baby starter culture. Ask around your circle of friends or look online to see where you can find kombucha starters in your area.
  2. Add your baby, or scoby, to sweetened black or green tea in a large glass jar (make sure it is completely cooled). Kombucha tastes best when when the tea has been sweetened with refined sugar. Be sure to include any liquid that comes with the scoby. If the scoby does not come with at least 1/4 cup of liquid, substitute with distilled white vinegar. This will lower the pH and prevent any foreign molds or yeasts from growing.
  3. Cover with a sterile kitchen towel to allow air in, but keep flies and other insects out. Place in a cool, dark place.
  4. Allow this mixture to ferment for 7 to 10 days, after which time you will remove the scoby. You can either brew another pot of tea and start the process all over again, or put the scoby (with a little liquid) in the refrigerator for later use.
  5. Taste your kombucha. If you would like to add other flavors, such as fruit or ginger, infuse for another two days before straining or bottling. Other infusion ideas: Citrus, cayenne, mango, ginseng, lavender, elderberry, and pomegranate.
  6. Store kombucha in a cool place for another three days to allow for the natural carbonation process. Refrigerate and drink within 30 days.
  7. Remember, glass bottles work best for storing your kombucha.

Side Effects

While kombucha itself is considered safe to drink, there are a few important pointers to keep in mind:

  • When home brewing in nonsterile conditions, unhealthy bacteria can be introduced into the brew.
  • Drink in moderation. Metabolic acidosis is the unhappy side effect of excessive drinking.
  • THe CDC warns that home-brewers should not store kombucha in materials containing toxic elements that have the potential to leach, such as ceramic.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not drink kombucha for the same reason that they are not advised to eat mold-ripened soft cheese.
  • Let's face it: kombucha looks really weird. When home brewing, the thing to be concerned with is mold on the scoby or a black scoby.

For Chefs

Aside from its possible health benefits and unique taste, kombucha is appealing to those who like to "do it themselves" when it comes to food and drink. Like micro beer, honey-based mead or artisan cheese, there is an art to making kombucha that attracts those interested in cooking things most people just buy.

As a chef, you may find yourself inspired by the taste, history, and creative and monetary potential of making and serving this strange and delicious beverage. For more food and beverage tips, tricks and hints, visit our Learn to Cook section

Sources:

  • "7 Reasons to Drink Kombucha Every Day," http://draxe.com/7-reasons-drink-kombucha-everyday/
  • "A Strange Brew May Be a Good Thing," http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/fashion/25Tea.html?_r=0
  • "Getting Cultured on the Kombucha Craze," http://www.spins.com/tapping-the-kombucha-craze/#.VjFhuOeA1pk
  • "How to Make Kombucha", http://www.culturesforhealth.com/how-to-make-kombucha
  • "Kombucha Tea - How to Make Kombucha", http://www.foodrenegade.com/how-to-brew-kombucha-double-fermentation-method/
  • "What Is Kombucha? Magical Elixir of Life or Hocus Pocus Tea?", http://www.medicaldaily.com/what-kombucha-magical-elixir-life-or-hocus-pocus-tea-329098

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