Five things you need to know about this ferment-friendly drink.
By Caitlin Nugent
Your everyday tea has a more complex sibling: kombucha. The drink, born from a Japanese word meaning kelp tea is making a resurgence, due, in part to the recent fermented food craze. But before this brew gets you in its ancient kung fu grip (the origins date back to 221 B.C. in Russia, China, and parts of Eastern Europe), read on for five need-to-know nuggets about this fermented tea.
Not Your Average Super Drink
Bacteria. Yeast. Sugar-spiked tea. These three essential ingredients set kombucha apart from traditional teas. A bit like mead (a fermented honey-water combo), kombucha is unlike your daily cuppa English breakfast tea. It’s served cold with a sensory experience akin to beer or wine. Ginger, guava juice, jasmine, and juniper are often added for a richer flavor profile, adding sweetness and complexity to the drink. But, there is a slightly vinegary aftertaste. It’s considered to be an acquired taste by some, even through its choir of loyalists sings its praises for its professed health benefits, including joint care through the glucosamines, probiotics through its natural fermentation, and an immunity boost because of its rich antioxidants.
Clearing Up a Controversy
Is kombucha really the health-guru’s right hand elixir? In truth, the scientific studies on kombucha are few and rave reviews come from first-hand accounts, reporting improvements on everything from arthritis to digestion and anxiety to acne. Further controversy surrounds its pasteurization process, or the process of heat processing the liquid to kill pathogenic bacteria and make it safe to drink. Purists feel that this pasteurization process kills some of the probiotic properties of the drink, lessening its health benefits and reducing the overall hype surrounding the drink. Common sense says: Drink it if you like it. Maybe it will clear up your acne or boost your energy, but don’t expect a medical miracle.
Dry Drink or Boozy Brew?
Most commercial kombucha meets the 0.5 percent non-alcohol drink standards set by the Food and Drug Administration, so, technically, kombucha is considered a non-alcoholic beverage. However, not unlike other controversies, things get cloudy when it comes to the fermentation process. Commercially sold kombucha meets those standards, but home brews are another story. Home brewers must be careful not to let the kombucha “mothers,” or bacteria-yeast starters, ferment for longer than 14 days. Because home brews are unpasteurized, the fermentation process will continue if the liquid is not refrigerated promptly and properly, raising the alcohol levels equal to that of beer and wine. When in doubt, some things are better left to the experts.
SCOBY SCOBY Do, Where Are You?
For those of you ready to tackle home brewing, then meet your SCOBY: Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s the main reason kombucha brewing will either go really right or really wrong. When mixed with tea, the SCOBY facilitates the perfect chemistry of fermentation that sets the process up for success. Sites like KombuchaBrooklyn.com and CulturesForHealth.com make learning about the “starter” process easy—it pays to do your research before diving in for those adventurous enough to try home brewing.
Bottle vs. Tap
You won’t have to look far to try a deftly-brewed kombucha in your city. It’s been sold by the bottle at co-ops and stores like Whole Foods all over the U.S. It’s also popping up on tap at local eateries and breweries everywhere since the early 2000s. Try it out; kombucha might become a new favorite beverage.
Caitlin is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and contributor for Carry On. She has a background in the world of graphic design and art direction, and her writing and design work have been on exhibit at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. She keeps her creative focus fueled through travel, and enjoys its renewing quality. She admits to having a mild deviled egg fixation and recently discovered her love for Okonomiyaki. She has three children and a sheepdog named Wendel who works overtime to keep things interesting. Read more about Caitlin on her website.