Adventures in Kombucha

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I’ve enjoyed kombucha for many years. For those unfamiliar, kombucha is a fizzy, fermented tea that has gained popularity in the new millennium (although it’s been in existence for over 2000 years, originating in China). My first sip was about 10 years ago in New York. I went to lunch with a friend who worked for Google. The Google cafeteria was a mecca of food with an awe-inspiring drink station. It occupied an entire wall and looked like the beverage case at Whole Foods on steroids. My friend picked up a bottle of kombucha and suggested I give it a try. I was hooked, and kombucha became a staple in my diet. I regularly purchased GT’s brand and figured out I was spending a small fortune at over three dollars for a 16 oz bottle. So, when a dietitian friend offered me a SCOBY to make my own kombucha at home, I jumped at the chance. What’s a SCOBY and how did that go, you ask? Read on to find out.

What is Kombucha and How is it Made?

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Kombucha is a fermented tea using the base ingredients of black tea, sugar, previously made kombucha, and a SCOBY. “SCOBY” is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, otherwise known as a kombucha “starter” or “mother.” To make the tea, you brew black tea, add sugar, let it cool to room temperature, then add the SCOBY along with some previously fermented kombucha and cover with a breathable top. This science experiment then goes into a dark place, such as a closet, to allow the SCOBY to do its fermentation magic for a week or more.

Once the “first ferment” produces a product to your liking, you then remove the SCOBY along with some of the liquid to save for a new batch. You have the option of doing a second fermentation on your brew by placing the tea in a sealed container with a source of sugar (such as fruit, juice, or straight sugar) and allowing it to continue to ferment and create carbon dioxide for fizziness. The second ferment gets left at room temperature for a few more days. When it reaches a taste to your liking, it’s time to put the ‘Buch in the fridge.

The final product contains sugar, caffeine, organic acids, B vitamins, minor amounts of alcohol and probiotics.

What are the Benefits of Kombucha?

The health benefits of kombucha are mostly anecdotal, but they are vast. Claims include weight loss, reduced cholesterol, cancer prevention, liver protection, alleviation of arthritis, reduced PMS, headache relief, and the list goes on. Most of these claims are unfounded.

Although there are not human trials on kombucha, animal experimental models support some of the health claims, including its antimicrobial and antioxidant capacities. In fact, most of the positive health benefits reported are attributed to the antioxidant content of the beverage.

Also, thanks to the SCOBY, the beverage is a rich source of probiotics. Probiotics are a popular area of research these days from their effects on gut health to mental health.

My Experience Trying to Make Kombucha Tea

After obtaining a SCOBY from a dietitian friend (whom my son lovingly named “Toby”) and a quick trip to Target for mason jars, we were ready to give this home brewing a try. I followed the instructions and gently placed Toby into the liquid. We stuck him in the closet and left him alone for about 10 days.

The result was a lighter color brew that had a tangy, somewhat vinegary taste. My son even enthusiastically gave it a try and gave it a thumbs-up. I also drank a couple of ounces and thought it was ok. My husband did not go anywhere near it.

This is when I got a little cocky. “You might want to do a couple of batches of just plain kombucha to get the hang of it,” my friend said. But I had a bowl of red cherries in the fridge that called to me… mmm, cherry kombucha! So, I researched how to flavor kombucha with fruit on the internet, mashed my cherries a bit, and dropped them in. I put the mixture into a rather large glass jug with a spigot for sampling. Back to the closet it went for another few days.

Now, my first scientific discovery was that if a lot of head space is left in your vessel for the second fermentation (i.e. oxygen) your kombucha will grow a new SCOBY! When I pulled down the kombucha to give it a taste again, I discovered Toby’s little brother growing on top of the brew. Concerned, I went again to the interweb for answers and found that the growth of a new SCOBY during second fermentation is a sign of a healthy brew. Sweet, I thought. Let’s give this baby a try.

I filled a shot glass with a sample and sipped it slowly. It tasted very “mature,” aka, vinegary. I can mix it with juice, I thought. I finished straining the cherries out of the brew and bottled it in some old GT bottles I saved. I admired the ruby liquid in the fridge with a little sense of pride and then got ready for bed.

2:00 am. I awaken with the sudden urge to go to the bathroom. Friends, I will spare you the details but let’s just say I spent a good amount of time on the toilet over the next few hours. I’ve poisoned myself, I worried. I’m a dietitian, I should know better about food safety, I reprimanded. But my friend had made several batches of kombucha from the same line of SCOBYs with success and no ill effect. What went wrong?

During these sleepless hours that I struggled with unhappy bowels, I scoured the internet for answer to my pain. What I found was a bit surprising.

Is Kombucha Tea Dangerous?

Kombucha tea is made by microorganisms. These are supposed to be the good guys that benefit our health, but as is the nature of any science experiment, things can go wrong. Harmful microbes have the potential of infiltrating the process, especially during home brewing. There are measures in the kombucha-making process used to prevent this. For example, the addition of some previously brewed kombucha in every new batch rapidly lowers the pH of the liquid and inhibits growth of unwanted microbes.

The exact microbial composition of kombucha tea is unknown, as it varies between SCOBYs. So you really never know what you are getting. For this reason, Consumer Reports recommends against consuming kombucha.

In 1995, two cases of lactic acidosis were reported in Iowa (one resulting in death) and were attributed to kombucha tea. The two women had obtained their SCOBY from the same mother. This is scary, but cases like this are very isolated and rare. Indeed, the FDA deems kombucha to be safe for human consumption, but cautions some groups to avoid it, including pregnant and lactating women and immunocompromised individuals.

Other reported side effects from kombucha include headache, nausea, dizziness, and gastrointestinal upset.

Conclusion

My husband refuses to be my guinea pig and taste the kombucha batch that allegedly made me ill. I don’t blame him. (He’s been nice enough to refrain from saying “I told you so!”) Unfortunately, I’m going to have to toss Toby. Sorry SCOBY. I’ll likely stick with the store-bought stuff for a while and enjoy it in moderation. Someday I might get back on the home brew saddle, but for now, I’m apprehensive.

If you’re new to kombucha, go slow. Start with a couple of ounces and see how you tolerate it. I’m not sure I’d recommend consuming two gallons a day like GT Dave, but if it goes well and you feel great, you can increase your serving size. If it’s not to your liking, there are plenty of other dietary sources of probiotics including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh.

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