Though you may have heard of kombucha or seen it on a grocery store shelf, you might still be wondering: WTF is it? Well, this “fermented aperitif” is a glass full of probiotics and vitamins that can boost your immune system and help flush away gut troubles. The process involves tea, yeast and sometimes liquor—so consider this your Intro to Kombucha class, minus the syllabus.
What is kombucha?
Susan Cartiglia, owner of local kombucha brewery Radiate Miami, put it simply: Kombucha is a naturally fermented probiotic tea. The bubbly juice, she said, can do wonders for the stomach and overall health and comes in flavors ranging from strawberry to ginger. A bottle typically goes for about $3 or $4.
If you’re looking to give it a try, know that kombucha can be an acquired taste. It may take a few sips (or cups) before you find a flavor you jive with. GT Dave, CEO and founder of GT’s Living Foods, advised starting slow. “I’d recommend beginning with a more fruit- forward flavor like our Synergy Guava Goddess or Synergy Mystic Mango and then graduating to a Synergy Gingerade or Synergy Carrot Turmeric flavor,” he said.
How is it made?
The process of brewing kombucha is thousands of years old. According to a 2017 Forbes article by Christina Troitino, it originated in Northeast China (historically referred to as Manchuria) around 220 B.C. and was initially prized for its healing properties.
Back then, refrigeration wasn’t a thing, so preserving fruits and vegetables was challenging.
“If you think about a traditional four seasons ancestral diet, in the winter time, there’s a big kill and you’re eating a very meat-fat heavy diet and you need additional digestive enzymes and vitamins to break down that food,” said Cartiglia. “So things like kombucha, beer, sauerkraut, all of these different kinds of fermented foods, were introduced to preserve the bounties of the summer crops and to help break down the winter foods.”
Brewers start by making black or green tea to use as the base of the kombucha. Then, they add in a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY)—a gelatinous disk-shaped blob that sort of resembles a yellow jelly fish— to soak in the tea. Starter culture, made of old SCOBY and sugar, is added to the mix next.
From there, kombucha takes between one and three weeks to ferment, according to Cartiglia. From mason jars to barrels, the vessel in which you ferment varies depending on how much you’re making.
“While there are a few container options to choose from—glass, ceramic, wooden barrels, etc.—you should never use metal or plastic containers,” according to thebarrelmill.com. “The metal can react with your SCOBY, and plastic containers can house bacteria growth.”
The more kombucha ferments, Cartiglia said, the richer in bacteria and probiotics it is, and the more pungent the flavors can be.
Naturally, with yeast and fermentation involved, some level of alcohol is another outcome of the process, according to Cartiglia. In the last decade, a few brands have even been forced to pull their cans from the shelves due to FDA concern over alcohol levels. But, for those who want the booze, big brands like Boochcraft add alcohol on purpose to their kombucha.
“With all of the low alcohol beverages and cocktails that are trending, there’s definitely an upcoming market for hard kombucha that are being introduced, that are actually fermented in order to have alcohol,” said Cartiglia.
Why do people drink it?
While people may start downing kombucha to feel a buzz, the drink appeals to consumers largely because probiotics and gut health go hand-in-hand.
“I started drinking kombucha two years ago because I had stomach aches and someone told me it would help,” said University of Miami freshman Ovviyaa Manusrii. It gives her “natural energy” that coffee can’t match, she added.
While rather little medical research has been done on the health benefits of Kombucha, everydayhealth.com says it can speed up metabolism, help with constipation, lower inflammation, prevent certain cancers and lower symptoms of depression. According to Dave, “Kombucha provides almost immediate improvement to one’s digestion and overall gut health. Long term it boosts immunity, supports mood, and much more.”
Since everyone’s body is different, he recommends slowly introducing kombucha starting with four ounces, then gradually increasing intake to 16 ounces or more per day. “As the body adapts, you can increase your serving size; but, it’s best to listen to your body to determine how much is right,” he said.
“Another reason for its popularity is, quite simply, the taste,” said Dave. “Kombucha is unique; it’s slightly carbonated, lightly sweet, offering a taste that isn’t found elsewhere.”
What makes it so popular?
Kombucha’s holistic health appeal skyrocketed its popularity in the 90s. Sandor Katz, whom Forbes described as a “fermentation expert and author,” said she first tried it when a friend with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) started brewing it at home.
Katz said the beverage has since established its reputation as a “general immune stimulant.” And with health food stores on the rise and wellness influencers exploding in popularity on social media, kombucha has become a national novelty, with a growing reputation for having real health benefits.
For Cartiglia, brewing commercially was never just for the kombucha; it was a passion project to make people feel “amazing and vibrant,” while also impacting the community by working with local farmers. This rawness, along with the wellness benefits, is what appeals to many customers as they grab cold bottles of kombucha from the shelf.
words_ andrea valdes-sueiras. photo_ julia dimarco. design_keagan larkins.
This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2022 print issue.