I had been staring at the pale liquid in a large glass jar for some time when my host came up and said, “Kombucha.” An appropriate response would have been, “Can I borrow some SCOBY?” Instead, I said, “What?” He looked almost disappointed. Would I like to try it? he asked. I didn’t really. It sounded like tea with seaweed. Not for me.
This was a while ago. Now, when I try every tea I can lay my hands on, kombucha is back in my life. And, it turns out, it is fermented tea.
Kombucha’s origin seems to lie in that vague mix of fantastic stories and anecdotes that are retold so many times they achieve quasi legitimacy. According to one story, Dr Kombu, a Korean doctor, took this fermented tea to treat his patient, the Japanese emperor Inyoko, back in 414 AD. Another origin story points to Russia, where it was popular in the 1800s. By the mid-20th century, it’s said fermented tea was popular in Europe (google Italian song about the “Chinese fungus”).
In its current avatar, its rise in popularity has been linked to gut health. Like yogurt. The magic word is “probiotics”, and many sellers of kombucha list it under this category.
SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is an essential ingredient in kombucha. And from what I understand, home brewers are always on the lookout for it, or generously sharing from their own store. Sourcing seems to be a much sought after activity among the kombucha, or “booch”, lot.
“It’s a living culture,” says Gaurav Saria, whose Infinitea Tea Room and Tea Store in Bengaluru launched a Darjeeling tea kombucha range last year. Like a pet, I ask. Less pet, more baby, he clarifies.” You have to look after it, feed it, burp it...”
Kombucha is made with tea, sugar, water and SCOBY. It takes a few weeks to make a batch; it’s checked and tasted every day. The fermentation is controlled. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of science to getting it right.
Once I decided to try it, I found there is quite a choice out there, from bottled blends to home-brewed options. Much of the kombucha seems to be about fruits and other flavours. Pure tea kombucha seems to be limited, which is a bit disappointing.
I tried a black tea kombucha, green tea kombucha and one with apple-ginger flavours. The green tea and black tea versions were carbonated and reminded me of a light beer. The flavoured kombucha was not carbonated; without the fizz—and despite the fruit flavours—it tasted vaguely medicinal. I could tell my gut had been shocked out of its stupor but to see any benefit, I am told, it must be an everyday choice.
If you are new to it, off-the-shelf options may be the simplest. Alternatively, check if your favourite café is brewing some or see if there’s a booch brewer among your friends.
My checklist: Does it hero the tea or is it flavoured (I would prefer the former)? And is it carbonated or non-carbonated (Saria tells me carbonation is a cosmetic addition and does not dilute the benefits)?
For a tea drinker, this is of course one more way to enjoy tea. It may or may not be your preferred choice but it’s certainly worth a try.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.