Real Kombucha! What exactly is it?
Aktualisiert: Nov 1
With the Kombucha popularity growing around the world, this particular question is being asked more & more.
So what exactly is real Kombucha?
On the surface it seems to be an easy question, but the answer to it is quite complicated.
First, the word Kombucha & the production process is not legally regulated. So basically anything can be called Kombucha.
But this is exactly the same problem for many categories that don't have a definition in law.
On the other hand food or drink items that are regulated, like beer in Germany, or to use another example - Parmigiano Reggiano cheese from Italy, have strict regulations & one can not change the production process, the ingredients, or as it is the case of this cheese, even the geographical location, to make those particular items.
The second big problem is the unclear history & origins of Kombucha prior to the year of 1913 (see our blog entry about it here). So there are absolutely no original recipes for Kombucha making prior to this time & actually there are no recipes for Kombucha (at least I was not able to locate any*) up till about 1980s.
The reason for that could be in fact quite simple. All the instructions withe the recipe(s) that were circulating around throughout the 1920s till 1980s were basically hand written notes how to proceed with the Kombucha making.
One of the first published recipes can be found in the book by Rosina Fashing that was published in 1984.
Withe more books that came out in the late 1980s & throughout the 1990s we can get a better picture of how the original (aka real) Kombucha was made. At least at those times (*). .
So what exactly is, or was this real Kombucha ? It is/was a drink that was made by fermenting sweetened black tea with the help of Kombucha culture (SCOBY). So only four ingredients: water, black tea, sugar & the culture were used to produce it & it was home made. So no commercial production was involved.
At those times (1913 till 1980s), Kombucha was used as a home made remedy & it was obviously produced at home, in small batches. There was a lot more sugar was used in Kombucha making, as that sugar was helpful with the creation of organic acids. Black tea was considered optimal for that fermentation & transformation process.
Kombucha made that way was heavier & more vinegary, when it was fermented for the recommended period of time (till the pH reached 3.0).
That Kombucha was also consumed in much smaller amounts, usually measured up, like a medicine.
Modern Kombucha has changed a lot. Maybe even too much. And not all the changes were beneficial. At least not how we see it.
Kombucha nowadays is a lot lighter & people can enjoy drinking much more of it than in the old days. From strictly medicinal remedy, it became a functional drink that in some countries is seen as a replacement for alcohol & a rebellion against over-sugared soft drinks. And this was a positive change.
All other changes are at least became inevitable when Kombucha started to be produced on a larger scale. And it changed even more when big money came in.
So let's take a look what exactly happened.
Hamish Renton, MD of food and drink consultancy HRA Global was quoted in the recent article about Kombucha & the "fight" of some UK Kombucha brewers to preserve the tradition of this drink. The article was published by The Grocer in the UK:
"[Big suppliers] take a product that’s completely natural, deconstruct it and rebuild it again using the cheapest raw materials and humongous scale to get the cost down and the margin up so they can tip a load of cash into branding,” he says. “That’s the model.”
So, what are those "deconstruction" processes?
One of the first ones would be pasteurization process, which kills all the living yeasts & bacteria that normally should be in the Kombucha. That is done for multiple of reasons, one of them is to achieve a longer shelf life & to eliminate the need for refrigeration.
Some companies came up with even more creative ideas. They pasteurize their Kombucha first & then they add some bacteria that was produced in a lab to this dead Kombucha.
This allows them to claim that their product contains billions of live cultures.
This can be true, but these are not the cultures that were the result of the natural fermentation process of Kombucha.
Drinking this Kombucha would be an equivalent of drinking anything that is pasteurized & then swallowing a pill containing probiotics.
Another common process involves the use of the so called "Kombucha concentrate".
By using this concentrate (which is also, quite often, pasteurized), those companies eliminate the whole process of fermentation time which can take up to even 3 weeks when using big fermentation tanks.
They simply mix the concentrate with water (or maybe tea) & flavorings and their "Kombucha is ready within couple of days.
For those that look for even more shortcuts, there is even a Kombucha powder that can be bought in 25 kg bags. Just mix it with water & voila!
Next "improvement" is the filtration process, when used improperly, which can remove almost anything that is beneficial from Kombucha. Those overly-filtered "Kombuchas" are usually crystal clear in appearance & they don't have any typical yeast sediment on the bottom of the bottles.
Filtration was never used in a home made Kombucha production. Unfortunately certain alcohol regulations in many countries do not leave much choice for some Kombucha brewers & they are forced to remove some yeasts from their product to comply with those regulations.
And filtration is the method of choice to do that. That is all fine.
On the other hand, this filtration is quite often abused & too much of the beneficial Kombucha content is removed, flavor included.
Over filtration leads to sterilization, rendering the final product "dead" as it does not contain anything beneficial or live any more. Unfortunately, even those Kombuchas are labeled as "raw", since they are not pasteurized.
Next come some other "enhancements" where substances that do not belong to Kombucha, are added to it.
I will use just couple of examples, as I do not want to get into too many details.
One of those things would be a green coffee extract, another would be Kiwi juice or in case of total imitations of Kombucha, vinegar is added to give Kombucha those sour notes.
Force-carbonation is yet another modern "improvement" to this drink that already has a slight level of carbonation after the initial fermentation process.
That is also done for a variety of reasons. First, it makes a pasteurized Kombucha look like it is not pasteurized ("naturally effervescent").
Second, it stabilizes the Kombucha & it eliminates the process of 2nd fermentation, thus cutting on time. And it also helps the companies that use fruits & juices as flavoring agents, to keep the alcohol levels down.
So, it is not so entirely a bad thing. Many drinks are force-carbonated. But it should also be stated on the label. That unfortunately many companies fail to do.
"Zero sugar" Kombucha is also a new & quite recent development.
In this particular case, Kombucha is fermented to the point where there is no sugar left (which is totally fine). Unfortunately, it is then sweetened with other substances that which make the Kombucha sweet, but which are not considered to be sugars.
Thus such a Kombucha can be labeled as sugar-free.
The most common sweeteners of this type include Stevia or Erythritol (a sugar alcohol). Those sweeteners would never be used to make Kombucha in the first place.
Although Stevia is a plant, the sweetener derived from it is suspected of causing gut irritation. So it actually does the opposite to what Kombucha is quite often synonymous with.
And that is "gut health"!
When Kombucha is finally all done, it is quite often (that is also a new trend) pumped into aluminum cans. Those have a special resin coating in which about 80% of it is the famous BPA.
We have a separate blog entry which you can read here.
Those cans are now pushed as a "wonder" carrying "a lower carbon footprint".
That might be true, but at what health cost?
So now, after all those industrial "improvements, we have just another soda.
Something that Kombucha was NOT supposed to be.
But this is something that can not be stopped. Many food products were totally changed this way.
The same happened with many other products that we use everyday.
The ultimate decision to buy a product like that belongs to you.
You, the informed customer.
And yes, even that kind of Kombucha might be a better choice than many of the sugar loaded soft drinks.
Which Kombucha is real & what is not will be more & more difficult to distinguish.
So the final conclusion: all of those different types of Kombucha can & will co-exist.
It goes more about the clear labeling so that a customer can pick a product that appeals to him or her.
Where does our Kombucha stand in all of this?
We are purists & we love tea. So our Kombucha naturally is very close to what the real Kombucha once was.
For one, we use tea as the main ingredient (and "flavor) in our Kombucha. That means that we don't add any other ingredients like fruits or juices. Our different flavors come from using different teas.
This way almost all of our Kombucha consists of only 4 ingredients.
And they are: water, tea, sugar & the cultures.
We don't filter our Kombucha. This way all the beneficial yeasts, bacteria & acids are still present in all of our Kombucha. This way it stays as real as it can be.
We use the traditional method of brewing. We make our Kombucha in small individual batches by using 10L glass jars.
Our Kombucha undergoes 2 fermentation processes (1F & 2F) & we use Kombucha cultures (Scobies) in all of our brews.
We don't force-carbonate our Kombucha. This way, the carbonation levels do very in some of our bottles, but this carbonation is never excessive & it is naturally pleasant (not harsh).
But to be noted!
What we also have, which might not seem that traditional, is our line of Kombucha that is strictly made from various botanicals instead of tea.
This is our Special Line & it consists of 5 varieties:
Chaga, Lapacho, Jiaogulan, Schisandra & Hemp.
There are many reasons why we carry this seemingly "nontraditional" Kombucha. One is the extraordinary benefits come from these substances. Another reason is the lack of caffeine in those substances.
We took into consideration that there's a significant group of people who are having problems with caffeine & normally those people would not be able to drink Kombucha, made the traditional way.
Another thing that needs to be noted - all five of those substances are traditionally consumed as "tea" or in the form of "tea". So Chaga tea, Lapacho tea, Jiaogulan tea & Hemp tea.
And yes, the "tea" part is just an everyday language expression. They would actually be "tisanes",
but in common language people normally say "tea"
And a final conclusion!
You, as a customer, have a choice. Almost all "types" of Kombucha are available on the market.
Just remember, like with any other food or drink, the more processed that Kombucha will be, the less benefits you will get out of it. And that's regardless how wonderful it'll be presented or how delicious it might seem to be.
So choose wisely!
There has been a lot of books & publications written about Kombucha in many languages since about 1913.
There could have been a recipe included in one of those books, but since I do not have the access or resources to check all of those publications, I can not confirm that one was published before 1980s.