History of Kombucha - part 2
Aktualisiert: Feb 12
Continuing with Kombucha history, we move into the second time span which covers the time from 1913 till about 1995.
The reason that I have used these cut off dates is quite simple. Starting around 1913, we finally have some historical documents that relate to Kombucha.
Also, Kombucha (as a drink) stays practically unchanged till 1995. It is a home brewed drink, made with a higher amount of sugar & it is consumed as a folk medicine. Even the commercial brands that appeared in Germany at the beginning of 1990s follow this pattern to the greater extent. They all lack the lightness & the refreshing factor that the present Kombucha has.
1995 is the year in which year the first commercial Kombucha brewery is established in California, USA. This particular event starts the new age for Kombucha, as the emphasis of this drink is slowly being shifted from a heavy & medicinal drink to a lighter, functional beverage in which is meant to be more enjoyable than medicinal. Which probably not happened right away, but it went in this direction
There's one thing that I would want to point out here. If I really wanted to describe everything that happened with Kombucha, I would have to write a small book about it. So, what I will do in this part, is the following:
I will write in greater detail the German (and Austrian, as they use the same language) contribution to Kombucha history & also I will concentrate on Italian love affair with this drink, which happened in the mid 1950s. As far as other countries go, I will mention them briefly, if something significant happened.
Although this time period starts in 1913, we can not forget the works of Dr. A. A. Bachinskaya who was a Russian biologist at the Medical Institute in St. Petersburg (1*). She studied various Kombucha cultures from different parts of Russia & she was the first scientist to publish her findings about morphology & biology of the SCOBY.
In 1913, a German biologist prof. G. Lindau received a Kombucha culture from some Dr. Gisevius & after studying it, he gave it the first widely accepted scientific name: "Medusomyces gisevii" (2*). That name is included in the title of his book about it - "Über Medycomyces Gisevii, eine neue Gattung und Art der Hefepilze". (About Meducomyces Gisevii, a new genus & species of yeast mushrooms)
The best description of the early years of Kombucha in Europe can be found in a book written by a German doctor Helmut Golz in 1990. The books title is “Kombucha. Ein altes Teeheilmittel schenkt neue Gesundheit” (Kombucha. An old tea medicine that gives new health) (*3)
Dr. Golz puts Russia as the home of Kombucha. That claim could be right, or partially right as Kombucha was brought to Germany, and consequently to the whole Europe from Russia.
He also suggests that although tea (black tea to be exact) was very popular in Russia, it was not that affordable to everyone & he states that the poor people were drinking cheaper tea substitutes. One of them was supposed to be algae tea that was being brought to Russia from Japan. On page 19, he quotes a name “Conbu” (Laminaria japonica = Kombu).
If true, that fact could contribute to the confusion about the Kombucha’s origin (that it came from Japan, see Fungus japonicus) or even the name itself. Especially that at one point Kombucha SCOBY was considered to originate from sea or from some water reservoir, and it was thought to be a form of an algae (see the supposed names for Kombucha Scoby like Egyptian seaweed, Indian tea sponge, Volga medusa, etc) (4*).
Dr. Golz also gives one of the more detailed descriptions of the first years of Kombucha in Europe. He quotes the study by the Pharmacognostic Department (Pharmakognostisch Abteilung) of the Pharmaceutical Institute at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Although I was not able to locate this source myself, I will translate myself what he wrote & I will try to preserve the language as close as possible.
Here’s the translation of the given period that starts on page 22 of his book:
“The first Period: 1913 till 1918
The first publication on the tea fungus in German scientific literature appears in 1913. It contains a detailed description of a specimen of the kombucha that came from Mitau (currently Jelgava, city in Latvia), where the service staff called the mushroom a cure "against all possible diseases". Boatmen are said to have brought it to Mitau not long ago; Investigations into where the kombucha could have come from, however, remained inconclusive.
Two years later, comes another report from the Baltic States: within two years, cultures of a Kombucha variety were examined several times at the Riga Polytechnic. Over there the culture was known as "Prinum-Ssene" (miracle mushroom) among the people of Livonia and Courland (both regions of Latvia). The production of Kombucha tea was practiced almost exclusively by the Latvians, but not by the Lithuanians, Estonians and Germans.
Kombucha was known in Russia at least at the same time as it appeared in the Baltic States, but probably much earlier. The production of "tea kvass" with the help of a "Japanese" or "Manchurian mushroom" was widespread. Scientists in Petersburg (today Leningrad) had already collected numerous and varied specimens from various parts of the country, including the Caucasus, in 1913 and were anxious to cultivate pure cultures of the microorganisms found in them (see studies by Bachinskaya) .
From Poland (...) reports about the tea fungus come from the war. For example, a Polish pharmacist uses a Russian secret & household remedy, namely nothing other than kombucha, to prepare a quick-acting drink. Another pharmacist recommends a mushroom culture (which he got from Russian prisoners) to his colleagues, with which an excellent table vinegar (something very rare at the time), or (with a shorter fermentation time) a tasty drink that anyone can make. The Prague scientist Dr. Siegwart Hermann, who later dealt in detail with the Kombucha, was given a mushroom culture as early as 1914 - but he got rid of it as he had concerns about this folk remedy.
Second Period 1925 till 1930
In the years after the First World War, the tea fungus first became more widespread in Denmark: the "Volga jellyfish" or "gout jellyfish", for example, appeared in Jutland and Copenhagen. The Danish botanist Jens Lind believes that the plant lives in the Russian rivers and is used by farmers as a home remedy for various diseases.
At around the same time, kombucha tea was already being eagerly drunk in Konigsberg (Kaliningrad) - the mushroom culture was either brought by captured Russians or returning German prisoners of war. This also applies to Danzig (Gdansk) and Stettin (Szczecin, Poland), from where the kombucha will soon spread throughout Saxony, namely in Halle, Merseburg and Quedlinburg.
By 1927 at the latest, the kombucha was considered a tried & tested household remedy in the Westphalian industrial area. Strangely enough, it was called an "Indian" mushroom in Bochum and a "Chinese" mushroom just a few kilometers further on in Hagen.
In 1927 and 1928, the folk remedy found a large following in Hamburg.
The name "Kombucha" occurs mainly in reports from Czechoslovakia. The botanical name given here is "Fungus japonicus". In Bohemian and Moravian monasteries, the mushroom culture has been grown for many years under the name "Olinka" and has been kept a secret.
In Bukovina (Romania) is the tea mushroom known as "Chamboucho". Also in Hungary & Yugoslavia, in the years after the war, tea mushroom can be found.
The tea mushroom seems to have developed into a prosperous trade article, which is touted to the public with a lot of advertising. Some pharmacists even market the kombucha in a (long-life) dry form under the fancy names "Mo-Gu" and "Fungojapon". During this time, at the end of the twenties, an extract called "Kombuchal" was manufactured by a Prague company.
Third Period: After the WWII
There are fewer reports on the tea fungus from the 1930s. After WWII, Kombucha comes into a spotlight again, and this time also in Western Europe, mainly in Italy, France & in Spain.
In the 1950s, kombucha even became the favorite drink of Italian high society.
During this time, the fungus has practically disappeared from German-speaking countries. In addition to several articles in daily newspapers & weekly journals, there are fewer publications in recent scientific journals.
Rediscovery by Dr. Rudolf Sklenar.
Nobody knows why Kombucha tea was sometimes celebrated as a miracle cure, but then fell into oblivion for many years. It was probably due to the fact that the ingredients for this drink, namely black tea & sugar, were not always available, and sometimes - during the wars, for example - even became scarce & hardly affordable.
This healing drink was rediscovered by the general practitioner Dr. Rudolf Sklenar (...) (...) he completed his medical studies in Prague. During his studies he got to know the Kombucha in a monastery school in Austria. Monks gave him a Kombucha culture, which he saved when he was a troop doctor during the war.
During the WWII, as a military doctor, Sklenar experiences the use of kombucha by Russian farmers. They made a drink from black tea, sugar and the Kombucha culture, which was recommended for a variety of complaints. Returning from the war, Sklenar continued his studies in his own practice. He recommended Kombucha tea mainly against metabolic diseases, rheumatism, gout, gastrointestinal ailments, high blood pressure, recovered blood fat levels & diabetes. All with success. For thirty years, Sklenar gained experience with the Kombucha drink in his doctor's office before he published his work in specialist journals in the 1960s (1964 to be exact).
More than in any other illness, the young doctor was interested in (...) cancer. However, he did not see the solution to the cancer problem in the purely conventional medical treatment (...). Rather, he recognized approaches for prevention & healing in biological therapies. (...) He has achieved the best healing results with a combination of kombucha & coli-preparations (Kolipräparaten), with the special focus was also on the rehabilitation of disease sources. Microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria & fungi are destroyed and waste products & harmful deposits such as uric acid & cholesterol dissolve. Kombucha thus causes an imminent detoxification of the organism. The consumption of the drink also results in a noticeable stimulation of the entire glandular system & a demand for the metabolism.(...). Rudolf Sklenar's legacy of making "his" remedy widely known has been put into practice by his heirs: the ready-made drink "Kombucha tea according to Dr. Sklenar" is available all over Europe today." (end of translation)
Dr. Sklenar's work & his success with his therapies make Kombucha popular again in Germany & beyond. Another thing that helped with that popularity was a book written in 1984 by Rosina Fasching. She is the niece of Dr. Sklenar & in her book, she described the work of her uncle, Dr. Sklenar.
The book's title was "Teepilz Kombucha. Das Naturheilmittel und seine Bedeutung bei Krebs und anderen Stoffwechselkrankheiten" , which was later translated into English - "Tea Fungus Kombucha: The Natural Remedy and Its Significance in Cases of Cancer and Other Metabolic Diseases". (5*)
What was remarkable about this book, besides the content, was the fact that it was the first book written about Kombucha that was not strictly published as a scientific paper or a scientific book. (In other words, it was finally a book for the masses).
The information that this book contained was later copied & repeated in the flood of other Kombucha books that were published in Germany at the very end of 1980s & throughout of 1990s. We have majority of them in our collection & they are available for anyone who visits our Kombucha Café in Berlin. Below are just some of them.
What was not mentioned in the book by Dr. Golz was the fact that in 1927, the previously mentioned Dr. Siegwart Hermann obtained the first ever patent for a Kombucha related product called "Kombuchal". It is all described in detail by The Happy Herbalist (6*)
Around middle of 1980s till late 1990s Kombucha reached heights of popularity in Germany, with many books & also a lot of press articles about this home remedy. Stories about Ronald Reagan using it to combat his cancer or stories about Hollywood stars & musicians, like Madonna only added more fire to the increased interest. Here's just one of them from Focus magazine, from 1995 in which all the pictured people were supposedly swept by Kombucha mania.
As with all those types of stories, some were true & some were not.
One of the notably not so true stories, is the one about the Nobel prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn who supposedly used Kombucha to fight his cancer, while he was in exile.
That fact is supposedly mentioned in his famous "Cancer Ward" novel that was completed in 1966 (7*). Unfortunately, the only references that I found related to Chaga mushrooms, not Kombucha mushroom. Chaga was & still is well known in some circles for its preventive properties & has been used as an alternative remedy in fight against cancer .
So on page 141 of the book, in the chapter "Cancer of the Birch Tree" (8*), Solzhenitsyn writes:
“And he discovered a strange thing; that the peasants in his district saved money on their tea, and instead of tea brewed up a thing called chaga, or, in other words, birch fungus…"
& on page 142, the conversation continues:
"“Well, perhaps. Anyway, Sergei Nikitich Maslennikov had an idea. Mightn’t it be that same chaga that had cured the Russian peasants of cancer for centuries without their even knowing it?"
And the conversation about Chaga continues further, on next pages.
(One note here. Chaga is traditionally consumed as a tea. So it's a mushroom tea, but a real mushroom & not "Kombucha mushroom").
I have not read the whole book in a while, but as far as I remember, Kombucha was not mentioned there. It seems that what we have here, is yet another case of mushroom confusion, just like in the previously mentioned Reishi mushroom case (see part I).
Going back to Germany. At the height of its popularity, Kombucha was brewed in many homes as a remedy for almost everything, besides that, Kombucha products (like extracts or drops) were also available in many pharmacies throughout German speaking countries & eventually Kombucha (as a drink) started to be produced on the commercial scale for the first time.
Commercial brands started somewhere around the beginning of 1990s. Many of them exist till today. In the photo on the left, there are two examples of them.
First one was the creation of an alternative medicine doctor Ferdinand Stock (that one changed at one point into Carpe Diem brand) & the other one is of Beutelsbacher Kombucha.
There are also many other reports on Kombucha from those times (1980s & 1990s), like the use of it by East German athletes, as reported by a German writer & researcher, Harald Tietze in his "Kombucha. Gesund & Fit mit dem Wunderpilz" (9*). Those reports are possibly true, but I was not able to verify them myself.
Another big part of Kombucha history during this period (1913-1995), is everything that happened in Russia & after 1917 USSR (Soviet Union). There, Kombucha became a staple home remedy in many homes & it also became a subject of many studies. Unfortunately I do not have time or resources to verify all those studies. That needs to be done by some Russian speaking Kombucha enthusiast.
Some of those things, especially the research part, is mentioned in Hannah Crum's book (10*) on pages 342 & 343, also by Iwan Nieumywakin in his "Grzyb herbaciany" book (11*) on pages 6 & 7 and finally by Alick & Mari Bartholomew in their "Kombucha Tea for Your Health & Healing" on pages 9-11 (12*)
The process of Kombucha home brewing continued in many countries, as Kombucha was considered to be a form of folk medicine, especially in the hard years after the WWII.
One of those countries was Poland. "Meduzyna Kombucha", one of the recent Polish Kombucha brands was able to locate some old newspaper articles about it & they posted them in their blog, on their website. (13*) The earliest one was from March, 1914. The title of that blog entry is "The History of Kombucha in Poland & Kombucha in those articles is named "Japanese Mushroom" (Grzybek japonski). In one of the articles longer brewed Kombucha is described to be used in cooking as a substitute for table vinegar or even lemons, as both of those items were practically unavailable right after the WWII. Reading those original stories from 1914 & later is quite interesting. One can have a better understanding how Kombucha was viewed in those times.
If only more brewers were able to post Kombucha history in their respective countries, we would have a fuller picture of what really happened.
Now, let's move back in time & let's take a look at a brief but fiery love affair that happened in Italy in 1954 & 1955.
All the following information is based on an excellent online article that appeared in 2019 in Laputa geografia insolita (14*). The title of this article is "Fungo cinese" (Chinese mushroom). It describes in detail the whole "Chinese mushroom" incident, as well as the future history of Kombucha in Italy. It is definitely a much recommended read. Below is a loose translation. I was trying to keep the atmosphere of how Kombucha was viewed & described during those years & how the author of this blog entry presented it.
So it's summer of 1954 in Milan , and a craze starts right here. A mysterious "Fungo cinese" appears, but it is not available in shops. You could only get it from a friend or a family (like a sign of love). With that brown "jellyfish" you would get some instructions that were either hand written & were exchanged verbally. Everybody was talking about it, but initially it was hard to obtain it. And there was a reason for that. Selling this "mushroom" would bring great misfortune on the person doing it. Some clever shopkeepers were giving it away to people who bought sugar & tea. The popularity increased with the many articles that appeared in daily press. Some of them were writing about miraculous properties of this "mushroom'. Some of them were praising it for its flavor. One newspaper article wrote: "It tastes like the finest French champagnes". The popularity was increasing every day. There we even reports of "holy water" being stolen from some churches to increase the healing properties of this mysterious mushroom. In December, a young actress Mara Lane was featured on the front cover of L’Europeo tasting the "Chinese mushroom".
But there was one small problem. It multiplied too fast & by Christmas time it was almost impossible to find new people to give this mushroom to. The problem was in mathematics. People were told to divide this mushroom in to 4 parts. Three out of them, you had to give away to loved ones, one part you kept. Selling or throwing it away would bring misfortunes not only upon you, but also upon your entire family for generations to come.
Soon all shelves, cupboards & dressers were filled with jars & in those jars the mushroom was multiplying without end. The much desired mushroom became a curse. Eventually Italian pragmatism took over the fear of future curses & the brown blobs were clogging sewers or ended up buried in gardens. At the beginning of 1955 the mushroom left the Italian homes with the same rapidity with which it entered those homes. What was left, was kind of like a hangover that everybody wanted to forget.
What still reminded of this craze were those press articles, a first ever front cover of one of the most popular weekly magazines - La Domenica del Corriere from Dec, 1954 & the first ever Kombucha song (hit) by famous Renato Carosone (15*).
That front cover was done by a famous Italian illustrator, Walter Molino (16*). His front cover illustrations achieved cult like following, making that weekly magazine very popular. At height of its popularity the magazine had a circulation of 1.3 million copies. Because of those covers, you can still find the original copies of this magazines on Ebay.
We have located & purchased this particular, original issue & it hangs framed' in our Kombucha Café in Berlin.
The song by Renato Carosone is titled "Stu fungo cinese", which translates from Neapolitan into English as "This Chinese Mushroom".
It is obviously still available on Youtube (17*).
The lyrics to this song are really great. They describe Kombucha & the whole phenomenon with quite a humor.
Renato Carosone specialized in so called "canzone napolitana", Because of thatI had to translate those lyrics into Italian & then from Italian into English. But it was worth the extra trouble.
Here's a part of this text:
" This Chinese mushroom It came from Beijing, inside a vase, a mysterious thing. There is no need for medicine anymore. A mandarin said it who brought her here. This mushroom grows, grows, grows inside the vase and slowly has a baby every month! When a bride drinks the infusion she hears a thing and says: Hey! (Choir) What's this? What's this? What's this? This Chinese mushroom that grows, grows, grows, grows inside the vase and slowly enters, enters, enters inside the heart. My love grows for you! And your love for me! With the Chinese mushroom! Do not take Penicillin, not even Streptomycin (an antibiotic). Take the mushroom every morning! But this mushroom is a traitor like the woman in love, that if you can't take care of it It turns its back and leaves!"
Original text can be found here (18*)
Along with this song, the whole Italian Kombucha "incident" is definitely one of my favorites out of the entire Kombucha history.
And thus the Italian love affair with this "Fungo cinese" ended.
Although, there were renewed efforts to bring Kombucha back to Italy some 40 years later, it never reached the popularity that it had in 1954.
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!
(1*) "The Big Book of Kombucha" - H. Crum & A. LaGory. p. 336 Storey Publishing LLC (2016)
also "Grzyb herbaciany - naturalny uzdrowiciel - Iwan Nieumywakin. p.5 Wyd. Hartigramma 2018
(2*) Günther W. Frank - "Kombucha. Mythos, Warheit, Faszination". Ennsthaler Verlag 1999 p.18 & p.150
(3*) Kombucha. Ein altes Teeheilmittel schenkt neue Gesundheit. Golz, Helmut Ariston Verlag 5. Aufl. 1995
(4*) H. Crum & A. LaGory. op. cit pp. 46-47
(5*) Tea Fungus Kombucha – Rosina Fasching Ennsthaler Verlag 1995 9th Edition
(8*) A. Solzhenitsyn. Cancer Ward Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1991.
(9*) H. W. Tietze. Kombucha. Gesund & Fit mit dem Wunderpilz. Landsberg am Lech Verlag 1996 pp.152 & 153
(10*) H. Crum & A. LaGory. op. cit. p. 342 & 343
(11*) Iwan Nieumywakin op. cit. p.6-7
(12*) A. & M. Bartholomew. Kombucha Tea for Your Health & Healing. Gateway Books 1998
img 1 - German flag
img 2 - Kombucha. Ein altes Teeheilmittel schenkt neue Gesundheit. Golz, Helmut Ariston Verlag
img 3 - from Kombucha. Ein altes Teeheilmittel schenkt neue Gesundheit. Golz, Helmut Ariston Verlag 5. Aufl. 1995
img 4 - Tea Fungus Kombucha – Rosina Fasching Ennsthaler Verlag 1995 9th Edition
img 5 - various German Kombucha books
img 6 - from https://www.happyherbalist.com/original-german-patent-for-kombucha-1927/
img 7 - from https://www.kombu.de/focus
img 8 - from Günther W. Frank - "Kombucha. Mythos, Warheit, Faszination". Ennsthaler Verlag 1999 & from https://www.beutelsbacher.de/bio-kombucha/
img 9 - https://www.laputa.it/fungo-cinese/
img10 - La Domenica del Corriere original, which can be found at our "Bärbucha – Kombucha Café & Fermenterei" in Berlin.
img 11 - Renato Carosone Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHU8_UQRCjg