What is kombucha? / by Alex Ingalls

A healthy kombucha SCOBY                                                                            photo by Dorota Trupp 

We get asked this question just about every single day. Most people seem to have a vague idea of what it is, others have never heard of it at all. Let's start with what it's not. It is not a mushroom. It is not a cure-all (unpopular kombucha opinion). It is not dangerous. And it is not just for health nuts!

To put it simply, kombucha is tea that is fermented using live and active culture, kind of like yogurt. Those in the know call the culture a SCOBY. That stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. Where does the culture come from? Well, that part is sort of mystical. Some people say it comes from the Ukraine or other parts of Eastern Europe. Others say it was created by a Japanese emperor's healer named Dr. Kombu (get it - Kombu cha?). Still others say it was originally brewed by Chinese warriors to fortify them before battle. Wherever it comes from there is no doubt that the culture is simply one of those mystifying miracles of life, similar to penicillin, which reportedly grew spontaneously on a leftover petri dish.

The way the culture thrives, however, is less mysterious. You start with an acidified sweet tea base, and the culture and let the magic happen! During the first stage of fermentation, the yeast eat the sugar and create carbon dioxide and ethanol. The carbon dioxide evaporates and as the ethanol starts to appear the bacteria get to work. The most special and unique thing about the kombucha making process is that it utilizes two different process, aerobic and anaerobic, which is facilitated by the  bacterial growth! In aerobic fermentation, which is the first stage in kombucha, the brew is allowed to breathe and the culture utilizes the oxygen to break down nutrients. In the anaerobic second stage, after the new bacterial growth has covered the top of the brew the yeast no longer have access to oxygen and slowly cease their metabolization process, leaving behind lots of carbon dioxide & ethanol for the bacteria.

You're probably thinking to yourself, "Wait a minute. Ethanol. That's alcohol right?" That is correct. The bacteria eat the alcohol and create all those health benefits you keep hearing about. So is kombucha alcoholic? Kinda depends on the brand. Any fermented food is going to have trace amounts of alcohol at the very least - including non-alcoholic beer. Our kombucha falls below the .5% limit as regulated by the US government. Others go all the way up to 2%, and we've even seen some that are almost as alcoholic as our favorite IPAs around 8-9%. Most kombucha brewers go to great lengths to stay below the regulated limit.

How about the carbon dioxide? After the culture becomes anaerobic the gas builds up in the brew and that's what gives kombucha it's signature fizziness. The SCOBY doesn't create a very good seal so kombucha is naturally only mildly fizzy. We like to increase our fizz a bit by bottle conditioning our kombucha. When the kombucha gets bottled and capped, the carbon dioxide gets trapped and forced back into the liquid.

Now that you know what's going on, does it make that SCOBY a little less scary?