History of Kombucha - Part 1
Aktualisiert: Feb 12
For the ease of presentation, I have decided to present this entire topic in 3 different parts.
Part 1 will describe the period spanning from the beginning up till the year of 1913, a year in which the first scientific papers in Russia & in Germany were published about Kombucha.
Part 2 will describe the time period of 1913-1995, a pretty well documented period of strictly medicinal Kombucha.
And finally the last part, Part 3 will describe the recent history, which goes from 1995 till present, the history of re-defined Kombucha.
When looking at the history of Kombucha from the sources that are currently available, you automatically think about at least two thousand years. And that was also my assumption for a long time, but the time came when that assumption had changed. And it was not caused by some new discoveries about Kombucha history, it just happened when I started using logical thinking instead of taking everything that is being written about Kombucha for granted.
And what most of us take for granted is the ever repeated statement that Kombucha is at least two thousand years old & there are historical facts that prove it.
One of the eye openers for me was a statement "It may have originated as recently as 200 years ago or as early as 2,000 years ago." that is being quoted by Wikipedia in the paragraph about Kombucha history (1*). And it's a quote from an article that appeared in "The Atlantic" in 2016 (2*). The title of this article is: "The Mystery of Kombucha Culture" & subsequently in a second article "Is Fermented Tea Making People Feel Enlightened Because of ... Alcohol" (3*)
At first I was kind of taken back by that statement, but when I did more research, I must admit, I tend to agree with that, more now than ever before.
So let's take at this particular time period, which I recently started calling a "Period of Myths & Legends". And there's quite a good reason for that, as all the well known stories are not entirely true. Two of them are quite predominant: the 221 B.C. story & the 414 A.D. story. But I will get back to them in a moment.
One of the first stories about the origin of Kombucha is the story of the Chinese farmer & the accidental creation of Kombucha. This is probably one of the most plausible stories out of all, that are circulating around.
So in this story, a Chinese farmer makes himself tea, but he does not drink it all as he has to leave his hut for a couple of days. When he returns, he notices something strange growing on top of his tea. He does not throw this tea away & he tastes it. It tastes good & he feel rejuvenated after drinking it & this is how the first Kombucha supposedly started.
When we look closely at this story, it actually makes sense & is very probable. First, it would bring us time wise to the old times before 7th century, when the tea was consumed differently & it was actually sweetened at time, to get rid of bitterness (for more, please check the Introduction). Honey was predominantly used at that time as the sweetener & honey could have been the thing that attracted a fruit fly. A fruit fly that carries acerobacter bacteria (which live on the fruit fly's legs) & that particular fruit fly falling into the sweetened tea would give a birth to the first Kombucha culture.
The role of a fruit fly was first mentioned by a Russian scientist A.A. Bachinskaya who studied Kombucha at the turn of the century. (4*) & (5*)
Another story, or rather fable comes from Russia. This one involves "involves a monk with healing powers who was summoned to help an ailing emperor. The monk promises to treat the emperor’s sickness with an ant, and then drops it in the emperor’s tea, advising him to wait for the jellyfish to grow and transform the tea to a healing potion before drinking it. The emperor followed the monk’s advice and was healed. " (6*)
And finally a similar sounding legend, this time from Tibet: "According to a legend out of Tibet, a monk fell asleep and a bacteria-carrying insect landed in his fresh pot of tea. The teapot was forgotten and a culture was able to form. When the monk discovered the incredible properties of this tea, he shared it with friends." (7*)
So, we see a pattern here, that involves tea & an insect, most probably a fruit fly. In other words, quite a natural scenario for Scoby creation, & consequently for a first Kombucha.
Let's now go back to the 221 B.C. story. Here, we have a Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (personal name Ying Zheng) (8*) He was a founder of Qin dynasty & was the first ruler to unify China. He was also obsessed with finding so called the "elixir of life". A magic potion that would enable him to become immortal. Now, this is where Kombucha is supposedly to be mentioned as this "elixir of life". Unfortunately this is not the case. Modern sources point to quite a variety of substances that were considered to be this life prolonging substance (9*). Some of the sources point out to even mercury, which could have ended this emperors life (10*)
Tracing back to the origins of this story, I went back to original books by Günther W. Frank. He was one of the first people who wrote modern books about Kombucha in the Western Europe, in Germany to be exact. He was also the first person who created the first Kombucha related online website called "The Kombucha Journal" (11*) in 1996, which became available in many languages & which became the main source of information for a lot of future Kombucha brewers.
In his book "Kombucha. Mythos, Warheit, Faszination" published in 1999 & which translates into "Kombucha. Myths, Truth, Fascination" he mentions the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang by his personal name & he mentions about his fascination about & obsession with the "Elixir for long life" (12*). He also writes that some of the mushroom types were considered to be the means to achieve immortality. The most known out of them is the Ganoderma japonicus (more likely G.Lucidum), also known as Divine Tche or "Ling-tsche". This particular mushroom (real mushroom & not the so called Kombucha mushroom) is better known as Reishi (Lingzhi - or divine mushroom) & is "the ancient "mushroom of immortality", revered for over 2,000 years". (13*). So, as we can see, that there's absolutely no mention of Kombucha here & that all the references to the so called "elixir of immortality" refer to Reishi mushroom. So, it is quite far fetched to mix in the Kombucha culture, even though it was called a "tea mushroom" during those times (1990s), with other medicinal mushrooms.
Another thing worth mentioning here, is the fact that there are many medicinal substances in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) that refer to immortality. One of them is Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), a very important herb in TCM, also known as an "the herb of immortality".
Kombucha is also quite often described as "Tea of Immortality" but when you take into consideration that medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Chaga or Birch Polypores are also traditionally prepared in the form of a "tea", that "Tea of Immortality" might not necessarily refer to Kombucha after all.
Now let's take a look at the second prominent story which supposedly gives us the beginning of the name - Kombucha. In this story, a Korean doctor named Kombu from the kindom of Silla, who in the year of 414 A.D. goes to Japan & he treats the Japanese emperor Ingyō.
This story is also repeated by G.W. Frank in the above mentioned book.
There's also a source of reference given for this information (as well as for the 221 B.C. story). That source is the encyclopedia that was published in Germany in 1980 & which is titled "Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizine" (14*) which translates into "Illustrated History of Medicine".
It is a 9 volume book which describes the history of medicine around the world. In the volume 2 (pictured on the left), which I have specifically acquired, there's just one sentence about it.
"Gewönlich datieren wir die offizielle Einführung Medizin auf das Jahr 414 unserer Zeitrechnung, als nämlich der koreaniche Mediziner Kombu aus dem Königreich Sylla mit dem Auftrag in Japan eintraf, der Kaiser Inkyo zu behandeln"
And this translates to: " Usually we date the official introduction of medicine to the year 414 CE, when the Korean medic Kombu from the Kingdom of Sylla arrived in Japan with the order to treat the Emperor Inkyo."
So that's it. No more, no less.
How Dr. Kombu treated the Emperor & what he used will remain a mystery.
But, let's say that he used a fermented tea to do that, which is nowhere mentioned & let's say that this emperor named this fermented tea after this doctor's name. This would give us the beginning of the name Kombu + Cha. But then how come this Kombucha name does not denote fermented tea drink in Japan (instead of an algae based non fermented drink)? Also, why is this name not used in Korea? And why there are no known historical mentions of Kombucha after 414 A.D.?
The explanation can be quite simple. Especially if Merriam-Webster Dictionary is correct by stating that "the first known use of (the word) Kombucha was in 1944" (15*).
And that is probably true (***please see the update below***) considering that there were & there are many names that were used to describe Kombucha in different countries around the world.
Some of them are mentioned in Hannah Crum's book - "The Big Book of Kombucha" (16*)
One more thing worth mentioning about this book - Hannah Crum, also came to the same conclusion that the above mentioned stories belong to the myths & legends (see corresponding pp.96, 140 & 174).
So we have two crucial stories, one about the time that Kombucha was first mentioned & the second one that supposedly gave us the name for this fermented drink, and neither one of them really confirms that. Quite the contrary. So if Kombucha is really as old as it is claimed, then we need to find better sources to prove it.
Moving along the timeline, we come across two other Kombucha related stories. They both involve warriors & in both cases Kombucha is supposedly used, to give those warriors strength & stamina before battles.
The first one brings us to the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan, somewhere around these years: 1180s till 1227 (17*).
During those years his brave warriors were said to be drinking Kombucha before fighting. That is again only a story, or better said, a myth. There are no historical records mentioning Kombucha during that time period. At least none that I am not aware of.
But on the other hand, there's a fermented drink that was most likely consumed at that time. The name of that drink is Kumis (or Kumys). It is a slightly alcoholic drink made out of fermented mare's milk. Also, unlike the history of Kombucha, the history of this drink can be traced back to at 5th century B.C. (18*).
Keeping in mind that Kumis is of Mongol origin, it is highly unlikely that those nomadic warrior tribes were making & consuming two different fermented drinks.
The second story describes Japanese warriors - Samurais, that were also supposedly drinking Kombucha before battles. But again, no historical proof is given to back that up.
Speaking about warriors before battles, there's a funny story that I learnt from some Turkish friends. Kombucha is quite popular there & has been for a while. In some parts of Turkey, there's a tradition of men drinking Kombucha before their wedding night to be able to "perform" during that crucial night.
Japanese Samurai brought us basically to about 1870s (19*) & we are still looking for some historical documents mentioning Kombucha.
There's still another story & this one comes from Caucus mountains in Russia & it's a story of certain areas in which people, living simple lives lived up to a hundred years, or longer. Living simple lives & living in accordance with nature could contribute to that. No problem here.
One of those places is Kargasok - is "a rural locality & the administrative center of Kargasoksky District of Tomsk Oblast, Russia. (20*). One of the reasons for their purported longevity is the consumption of the so-called "Yeast Enzyme Tea" (21*), also known as Kargasok Tea. Also no problem here.
The problem starts when the same name (Kargasok Tea) is mistakenly (or not), used as one of the names for Kombucha. But when you take a look at what this "Yeast Enzyme Tea" really was, you can see that it had nothing to do with Kombucha. It is just an alcoholic, yeast based drink that was made in that region. To find out more about it, please check the following article: "Effects of Kargasok Tea" (22*)
So, this whole "confusion" with Kargasok Tea as one of the names for Kombucha makes you wonder. Was this just one instance, or is it that more of those different names that supposedly describe Kombucha, have nothing to do with our fermented tea beverage?
Coming to the end of this first Era, we have two different reports placing Kombucha in the area of Manchuria & Korea, during the 1904-05 war between Russia & Japan & supposedly the Russian soldiers brought the culture back home from that area (23*)
There are also some other reports placing Kombucha in Russia, at the end of 19th century. Unfortunately, I am unable to verify those reports so I will not go into details about them.
What we definitely do know is that Kombucha came to Europe from Russia at the end of WWI & that even before that, in the years of 1910 -1914, the already mentioned Russian biologist, Dr. Bachinskaya, conducted many experiments on different Kombucha cultures at the Botanical Laboratory Medical Institute in Saint Petersburg, in Russia.
But that's the subject of Part II.
Thank you for reading. My name is Tadeusz Zagrabinski & I am the founder of Bärbucha Kombucha in Berlin, Germany.
This whole series on Kombucha history can be shared, but under one condition: the original source (our blog) must be linked!
While researching for the next part of this series I came across sources which place the use of the word "Kombucha" as early as 1927. Thus I must conclude that the Merriam-Webster dictionary is incorrect with their 1944 statement.
Please see here: https://web.archive.org/web/20100218145344/http://horticulture.cfans.umn.edu/sites/89c81b82-b540-417a-96b4-5b46174ccd79/uploads/section2.htm
Although I quote G. Frank's book as a source for the 221 B.C. & 414 A.D. stories, the due credit should actually go to Rosina Fasching, as she was the first one to mention those stories in her book "Tea Fungus Kombucha" which was originally published in 1984. As far as the first story goes, she clearly marks the Reishi mushroom as the "Divine Tsche". As far as the second story goes, she suggests that Dr. Kombu used Kombucha in his treatment of the Japanese emperor.
She does not provide any sources that would back up that story. All other writers after her, just copied this information.
(4*) "The Big Book of Kombucha" - H. Crum & A. LaGory. p. 9, Storey Publishing LLC (2016)
(5*) http://www.masterbrewsettlement.com/DocumentHandler.ashx?DocPath=/Documents/Brenner_Complaint.pdf p.8 & 9
(6* H. Crum & A. LaGory. op. cit. p.9
(12*) Günther W. Frank - "Kombucha. Mythos, Warheit, Faszination. Ennsthaler Verlag 1999 p.16
(14*) Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizine. (9 Bände) Sournia et al Andreas und Andreas-Verlag (1980)
(16*) H. Crum & A. LaGory. op. cit. pp. 334- 336
(23*) H. Crum & A. LaGory. op. cit. p. 336
(3) Günther W. Frank - "Kombucha. Mythos, Warheit, Faszination. Ennsthaler Verlag 1999
(4) Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizine. (9 Bände) Sournia et al Andreas und Andreas-Verlag (1980)
(5) "The Big Book of Kombucha" - H. Crum & A. LaGory. Storey Publishing LLC (2016)