Kombucha: a new culture brewing

Kombucha is a fermented tea-based drink. Despite its very recent popularity, it has been around for a very long time. It is estimated that kombucha originated in China two thousand years ago, having arrived in Russia in the 20th century. It spread to Eastern Europe and Germany, but it was only in the 21st century that this drink gained fans in the USA and the rest of the world.

How to make kombucha?

The secret to kombucha is in the fermentation. Kombucha is made from tea, generally green or black tea, to which sugar is added. The sugar is then fermented by a live bacterial culture, SCOBY, an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. That is why it is sometimes referred to as being “alive”.

Hand holding the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast).

SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast)

The bacteria and yeast act on sugar and theine (the active principle of tea) create carbon dioxide (the bubbles) and ethanol. The result is a bubbly drink, slightly sweet, and with a pungent taste – some say it tastes slightly vinegary.

What is SCOBY?

SCOBY is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast used as a fermentation starter, that results from the natural process of fermentation in kombucha. It is a crucial element, as this thin gelatinous pellicle is made of the bacteria and yeast in kombucha.

What made kombucha so popular?

The popularity of kombucha stems from its various potential health benefits. As the legend goes, during the Tsin dynasty in China, 2000 years ago, the emperor believed that his youthfulness and good health were due to his kombucha consumption, and so baptised it as “immortality tea” or “elixir of life”.

While trying to find a natural alternative for a balanced body and mind, the west found kombucha and made it popular. Its exquisite bittersweet flavour was a big part of the appeal.

Do you find it odd that something fermented has become so popular? If you really think about it, you’ll see there are lots of fermented drinks and foods you know and love. We’re talking about yoghurt, kefir, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, or pickles (so easy to make at home). Wine and beer are also fermented drinks!

Three glasses with kombucha aromatised with different flavours.

Truth be told: the first ever sip of kombucha may be a tough one to swallow, but, as the saying goes, “at first you snub it, and then you love it!” And for those who aren’t fans of the original flavour, there are different flavoured versions of this drink. For example, it can be aromatised with herbs, fresh fruit and spices.

It can even be an alternative to alcoholic drinks, since even though kombucha can contain trace amounts of alcohol (generally under 0,5% ABV, because of the fermentation process), there is also a non-alcoholic option. It pairs well with a healthy barbecue, a night out with friends, and with a beach day with the family.

However, since it contains sugar, it should be consumed in moderation and in a healthy, varied diet. People with low tolerance of fizzy or acidic drinks should also refrain from too much kombucha. Pregnant and lactating women should avoid it completely. It is important to follow up any change in your diet with a healthcare professional.

Is kombucha healthy or not?

If you just assumed that kombucha has health benefits, then you should know the topic is a bit more complex. Each brew is different; the composition varies according to the SCOBY used, the sort and concentration of tea and sugar, the carbon dioxide concentration, fermentation time, temperature and storage period. As such, it is not possible to identify a nutritional and microbial profile common to every variety of kombucha, so it becomes difficult to support the alleged health benefits with scientific research evidence.

Although this drink is commonly associated with gut health and microbiota, the truth is there aren’t any conclusive studies that confirm the benefits of kombucha for human health. This does not mean, however, that it has any controversial side effects – it just means we can’t yet establish a direct correlation between kombucha and health benefits related to glycaemic control, weight loss, cholesterol control, among others. Nevertheless, in moderate amounts, kombucha can be a part of your healthy diet as an alternative to alcoholic beverages or soft drinks with higher sugar content.

Keep calm and drink kombucha

If you have never tried it, look for the coconut flavoured kombucha or raspberry flavoured kombucha, at your local Pingo Doce. No preservatives, gluten-free, organic, and made in Portugal!

But there’s more. Did you know kombucha can also be used in beauty products? On your next visit to Pingo Doce, look for the Kombucha Detox Shower Gel by BeBeauty: it contains kombucha from fermented black tea, and contributes to a balanced, hydrated skin.