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A Tangy Tonic for Every Day
Today kombucha is commercially sold at many grocery stores and health food stores in a wide variety of flavors. It is most often infused with fruits, herbs, spices, and other flavorings to enhance its naturally sour taste. While its accessibility at your favorite store may make buying kombucha a no-brainer, you may be surprised to know just how easily and inexpensively it can be brewed at home, as it has been around the world for centuries.
As in all living things, kombucha begins with a “mother.” A live starter culture, the “mother,” or SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The SCOBY is a gelatinous blob that bears a striking resemblance to a pancake. Because it also looks similar to a mushroom cap, kombucha is sometimes referred to as “mushroom tea.” Thanks to the SCOBY, rather ordinary sweetened tea can be fermented into a probiotic masterpiece in about a week.
Fermentation is most recognized for its ability to create alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and mead. However, the process has also been used for centuries to preserve foods such as cucumbers and cabbage by converting them into their ever-tasty cousins: pickles and sauerkraut. Defined simply as the transformation of food items using various types of bacteria and fungi, fermentation can take many forms.
Factors such as fermentation length, the amount of sugar used, and the temperature during fermentation play a role in the finished kombucha’s flavor spectrum that can land anywhere on a scale of sweet to puckeringly sour. What is always constant, though, is its makeup of living cultures, vitamins, and acids that can help support healthy digestion and increase energy.
Much like in yogurt making, the transformation process of fermentation leaves kombucha loaded with living organisms and active cultures that make it a solid nutritional source. Capable of balancing the good and bad bacteria that flourish in the intestinal tract, kombucha has been hailed as a magical tonic throughout its history. However, due to the conventions of research funding, it has never been studied at length on a scientific level in the United States, making its purported benefits largely anecdotal.
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Kombucha Then and Now
Called “the tea of immortality” by the ancient Chinese, kombucha has a long past that is rife with whimsical stories of its origins and uses. It is brewed throughout Asia and Eastern Europe, and lore indicates that kombucha SCOBYs have been passed down within families and villages for countless generations.
Thought to have made its first appearance during the Chinese Qin dynasty of the third century BC, kombucha had its first boom as trade routes extended into India and Russia. The energizing tea is said to have improved the vitality of long-marching armies, travelers, and traders.
The elixir grew in popularity, and in AD 415, a Korean physician named Dr. Kombu reportedly brought it to Japan. Because cha is the Japanese word for tea, stories suggest that kombucha was named after this doctor, who treated Japanese emperor Inyoko with the invigorating drink. Once widely used by samurai, the fermented tea is still popular in Japan to this day.
From Russia kombucha was introduced into Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, where it remained a popular beverage until World War II brought a shortage of tea and sugar.
In the United States kombucha had a small following in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was commonly called “hippie tea” and brewed at home. It has since surged in popularity, spawning a whole new generation of home brewers. In 2004, Whole Foods began the national distribution of a leading brand of kombucha, GT’s Kombucha, and the craze really took off. The production of kombucha has led to a sizable cottage industry of kombucha manufacturers in hotspots like the San Francisco Bay Area; Portland, Oregon; and Brooklyn, New York.
At a time when the ill health effects of sugary sodas have hit the proverbial fan, a consistent rise in healthy, functional beverages such as kombucha, vitamin waters, and enhanced fruit drinks continues to gain traction. Kombucha’s popularity has been spurred somewhat by the media craze for it, with high-profile celebrities being photographed drinking kombucha and medical experts on television touting it as a viable replacement for fructose-laden sodas.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to find kombucha locally on tap at stores and businesses in your neighborhood. From coast to coast, countless small manufacturers are making a business of selling kombucha, both bottled and in kegs.
Brewing kombucha is completely approachable and doable. Don’t let the mystery surrounding this ancient beverage stop you from creating your own brews, chock-full of your favorite flavorings and accented with your own personal touch. An emerging community of talented professional and home brewers lead the way, proving that this old-world craft has an important place in these fast-paced times.
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It Does a Body Good
The benefits of kombucha are far-reaching and significant, according to regular drinkers. At the very least, it is an energizing and healthy beverage, low in sugar when compared with sodas and other beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. For this reason alone, and of course because it tastes great, it should be a regular part of a balanced diet.
Realistically, you should not set off on your kombucha-brewing journey with goals of curing disease and preventing aging. While the health benefits of the drink are many, it is, first and foremost, a refreshing beverage that can be enjoyed any number of ways. By adding herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables to it, you can further increase its nutritional profile. It is, however, not a panacea for whatever ails you. Instead, it is a strong component of a healthy lifestyle and diet that can improve your overall wellness when used regularly.
Anecdotal evidence supports that kombucha can help:
- Detoxify the liver
- Prevent and treat arthritis
- Improve digestion
- Boost immunity
- Increase energy
- Improve metabolism
- Decrease symptoms of PMS
- Improve complexion
- Cure hangovers and headaches
- Support diabetes management
While scientific “proof” of these abilities is scarce to nonexistent, regular drinkers of kombucha swear by its abilities to help manage these conditions. Looking at what’s inside kombucha is perhaps the best way to explain how this simple and tasty beverage can potentially do so many things within the body.
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THE GOOD STUFF IN KOMBUCHA
Kombucha is packed with a healthy dose of vitamin C and several B vitamins, as well as many other powerful immune-boosting compounds. Probiotics make up a large aspect of kombucha’s immunity-boosting abilities, and kombucha’s ability to detoxify the liver is said to boost immunity and increase metabolism and energy. Additionally, the B vitamins play a minor role in immune function. Let’s start with the vitamins, because these are so important to your health and vitality.
According to a 2000 study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology, kombucha has significant levels of B1, B6, and B12 vitamins, as well as the ever-important vitamin C. When you take a look at what these vitamins are responsible for in the body, it begins to make sense that the nutrient boost from regularly drinking kombucha can provide such health-enhancing results.
Most notable for their ability to turn food into energy, B vitamins are a necessary component of any diet to maintain a healthy liver, skin, hair, and eyes. B1, commonly called the “anti-stress vitamin,” is thought to strengthen the body’s immune system by improving its response to stress, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. B6 helps your body use protein, supports brain function, and helps build red blood cells. Meanwhile, vitamin B12 plays an integral role in cell metabolism, nerve function, and red blood cell formation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant itself, has been shown in studies to lower rates of cancer and heart disease when included in the diet, according to the Mayo Clinic. Sounds good, right? Well, there’s more — much more.
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Beyond the vitamins, there are the yeasts and bacteria that make kombucha so beneficial for the body. According to the Cultures for Health website, kombucha always contains acetobacter, Saccharomyces, and Brettanomyces, as well as amino acids and esters and many other variable strains of yeast and bacteria.
According to WebMD, these living organisms, called probiotics, are beneficial in keeping the intestines healthy and aiding in digestion. Probiotics have been studied extensively, and current evidence points toward their ability to improve overall intestinal function, maintain a strong immune system, and treat a number of ailments, including diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, and even eczema.
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Be Your Own Brewmaster
Everyone’s journey to home brewing kombucha is different. Whether you are simply interested in replicating your favorite commercial blend, desire to be more self-sustainable, or are working to decrease the sugar in your diet, there are countless motivations to get involved with the home-brewing process. Here are the top five reasons to become a kombucha DIYer.
It’s empowering. Just like nurturing and growing a sourdough culture is an act of science, so is your kombucha home brew. Learning the craft of fermentation is something you can do to advance your knowledge of the craft and make you all the more self-sustainable. Take control of your health and well-being by making an endless supply of kombucha in your own kitchen, no matter the size of the space or time of year.
It saves you money. If you have a habit of buying kombucha at the grocery store, health food store, or from the tap, you undoubtedly have realized that the cost adds up fast. Not so when you make it at home. Requiring just sugar, water, tea, and the initial cost of a SCOBY (or get one from a friend!), you can save significant money making kombucha on your own.
It gives you control. Once you have the basics down, you can easily tweak the master recipe by adding your favorite flavors to create a kombucha that is suited to your own palate. Whether you prefer the strong kick of ginger or jalapeno, or a smooth fruit flavor, it’s in your hands when you home brew kombucha.
It’s simple. This book has a large swath of recipes to create some really tasty drinks, but that is just so that you have plenty of options for enjoying your newly made kombucha. Don’t think this is too complicated or get overwhelmed by the process. Kombucha should not be shrouded in difficulty or complication.
It’s ridiculously fun. Kombucha brewing is an entertaining activity to get your creative juices flowing and nourish the science geek hiding inside you. Once you begin this simple fermentation, you may find you really enjoy the passive work of keeping your tea going and delve into one or many of the other fermenting arts for improved health.
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Reprinted with permission from DIY Kombucha: 60 Nourishing Tonics for Health and Happiness by Katherine Green and published by Rockridge Press, 2015.