Real Kombucha! What exactly is it?
Aktualisiert: 25. Aug. 2022
With Kombucha popularity growing around the world, this particular question is being asked more and more.
So what exactly is real Kombucha?
The question is easy, but the answer to it, is quite complicated.
First, the word Kombucha, and even its the production process, are not legally regulated.
So basically anything can be called Kombucha.
But this is exactly the same problem for many categories that are not lawfully defined.
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, and 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, and 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, and actually, there are no recipes for Kombucha (at least I was not able to locate any*) up till about 1980s.
The reason for that might be the fact that all the instructions wit the the recipe(s) that were circulating around, throughout the 1920s till 1980s, were basically hand written notes on how to proceed with the Kombucha making. Or they were just verbal instructions.
One of the first published recipes can be found in the book by Rosina Fashing that was published in 1984.
With more books that came out in the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s, we can get a better picture of how the original (aka real) Kombucha was made.
At least in 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 and the culture were used to produce it, and it was home-made.
So no commercial production was involved.
At those times (1913 till 1980s), Kombucha was used as a home made remedy, and it was obviously produced at home, in small batches.
There was a lot more sugar used in Kombucha making in those times, as that sugar was helpful with the creation of organic acids. Black tea was considered optimal for that fermentation, and the transformation process.
Kombucha made that way was heavier, and 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, just like 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, and 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, and also as a rebellion against over-sugared soft drinks.
And this was a positive change.
All the other changes 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 and 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 and 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, and to eliminate the need for refrigeration.
Some companies came up with even more creative ideas. They pasteurize their Kombucha first, and then they add some lab-produced, 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, and 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), and with flavorings. Thus their "Kombucha is ready within a 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 and voila!
Next "improvement" is the filtration process.
When used improperly, it can remove almost anything that is beneficial from Kombucha.
Those overly-filtered "Kombuchas" are usually crystal clear in appearance, and 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, and 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.
And that is understandable.
On the other hand, this filtration is quite often abused, and 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 anything live any more.
Unfortunately, even those Kombuchas are labeled as "raw", since they have not been 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 that "Kombucha" those characteristic sour notes.
Force-carbonation is yet another modern "improvement" to this drink (which 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, and it eliminates the process of 2nd fermentation, thus cutting on time.
And it also helps the companies that use fruits and 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 and 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 which make this 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 considered to be good for.
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.
Exactly the same happened with many other products that we use everyday (salt, flour, oil, etc).
The ultimate decision to buy a product like that lies 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 and which is not, will be more and more difficult to distinguish.
All of those different types of Kombucha can, and 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, and 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 every one of our Kombuchas consists of only 4 ingredients.
And they are: water, tea, sugar and the cultures.
We don't filter our Kombucha. This way all the beneficial yeasts, bacteria and organic acids, are still present in all of our Kombuchas. 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 (F1 and F2), and 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, and it is naturally pleasant (not harsh as can be the case with artificial carbonation).
But, to be noted!
What we also have, which might not seem that traditional, is our line of Kombucha, which is strictly made with various botanicals, instead of tea.
This is our Special Line, and it consists of 5 varieties:
Chaga, Lapacho, Jiaogulan, Schisandra and 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, and 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 and 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"
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 and 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.