Yeast Meets West
By English Taylor
According to Zion Market Research, the global kombucha market was valued at $1062 million in 2016. This market is now expected to reach $2457 billion by 2022. How’s a fizzy, fermented, and slightly sour tea that’s loved by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Madonna, and Gwyneth Paltrow capable of achieving 25 percent growth over the next five years?
Turns out, kombucha may be more than just a pretty bottle. We did some research on kombucha to learn more about what it even is, how it’s made, and its supposed health benefits, from improved digestion to a boost of antioxidants.
Kombucha originated in ancient China in 220 BC and quickly spread throughout the country due to its detoxifying and energizing properties. In fact, it was known as the “tea of immortality.” Years later, a physician named Kombu brought the drink to Japan to cure an emperor’s digestive issues. The term “kombucha” supposedly comes from this doctor’s last name.
The tea spread through Europe and first became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s. At first, kombucha was only made in the comfort of Americans’ kitchens. But in 1995, GT Dave, the founder of the well-known brand GT’s Kombucha, became the first to manufacture it and officially launch the U.S. kombucha industry, now filled with dozens of producers.
Kombucha is a type of fermented tea that’s made up of black or green tea, sugar, scoby, starter liquid (kombucha from a previous batch), and sometimes natural fruit or vegetable juice like apple, pomegranate, ginger, or even beet. Scoby is short for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.” This is what is often listed as “culture” on kombucha ingredient labels. When the bacteria and yeast in the scoby are added to the sugary tea and left to brew for a period of time, fermentation occurs. This fermentation is what makes kombucha different from your typical chamomile or black tea.
How this actually works
When the tea, sugar, starter liquid, and optional fruit and veggie juices are mixed, the kombucha brewer adds the scoby to the liquid. The scoby is a jelly-like, white blob that’s shaped like a pancake. Then, mixture is tightly covered to prevent oxygen from entering and left to ferment for a set amount of time, ranging from one week to a month.
During fermentation, the yeast in the scoby consumes the sugar in the tea, which produces carbon dioxide and ethanol. The bacteria in the scoby then eats the ethanol, which in turn generates healthy acids. This fermentation cycle repeats itself as the bacteria and yeast feed on each other’s byproducts. Fermentation also lowers the pH of the mixture and creates an acidic environment in which acids and probiotics, a type of health bacteria, can thrive and prevent any harmful bacteria from growing.
During the first days of fermentation, a brand new scoby will start to form on top of the mixture and the original scoby will sink to the bottom. Scobys, which are capable of reproducing, are often saved for future kombucha batches or shared with those who want to make their own. If you ever see small chunks floating in your kombucha, you’re likely drinking scoby leftovers (which is totally normal and safe).
Last but not least, the kombucha concoction is bottled to create more carbonation. However, it’s naturally effervescent because the scoby traps the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation. The kombucha is then refrigerated to slow down fermentation, so it tastes more like a sour apple cider and less like vinegar—a sign kombucha is extremely fermented or mature. While it’s fine to drink kombucha when it tastes like this, never drink a bottle past its expiration date.
Ultimately, you’re left with a fizzy mixture of tea, sugar, healthy bacteria, yeast, acids, trace levels of alcohol, and maybe some fruit or vegetable juice.
The health benefits
As for the health benefits, there are numerous clinical studies pointing to why you should be drinking this bubbly beverage. Due to fermentation, kombucha is a rich source of probiotics that are said to support gut health. Additionally, the acid produced from fermentation works to kill and fight off bad bacteria in your body that can lead to diarrhea or infections.
When kombucha is made with green tea, you’re also getting a dose of powerful antioxidants. Green tea may help you control blood sugar, reduce body fat, and prevent heart disease. Some studies suggest drinking green tea may reduce the risk of prostate, colon, and breast cancer.
Keep in mind that kombucha does have some sugar and caffeine from the original sugary tea. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 37.5 grams of added sugar per day for men and no more than 25 grams for women. While we’re wary of added sugar, it’s a required ingredient for fermentation, which is what gives kombucha its probiotic benefits.
The recommended intake of caffeine is no more than 400 mg per day for both men and women. Kombucha is said to have one third the amount of caffeine as the tea it was made with. Black tea contains between 25-110 mg of caffeine per cup, while green tea has between 30-50 mg. Meaning, kombucha is barely caffeinated per bottle.
It’s always a good idea to check the nutrition and ingredient label before purchasing and consuming any food or beverage. Look for whole ingredients you can pronounce (just like those on the back of your Cali’flour pizza crusts) and watch out for fillers, additives, and GMOs.
Next time you pop open bottle of kombucha, you’ll understand exactly how your bubbly booch was born and why it can boost your health.