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Is Kombucha Tea?

Health food advocates have popularized the fizzy drink full of microorganisms known as kombucha over the past several decades, but is this tawny, tangy brown drink actually tea? While it might appear similar at first glance, many qualities make kombucha different from your average cup of Earl Gray. 

Kombucha is a special type of black or green tea with yeast and bacteria added to cause fermentation. This fermentation process allows the kombucha to take on a carbonated quality. The culture of yeasts and other beneficial bacteria in fermented kombucha tea is associated with digestive health.  

Kombucha may have gained new popularity only recently, but this fizzy tea has been around for hundreds of years. Read on to learn more about the origins of kombucha tea and how to whip up a batch of it for yourself. 

Kombucha Is Fermented Black Tea

The main trait that sets kombucha out as different from other types of tea is the fermentation that goes into it. 

Fermentation is a process where yeasts and bacteria in the kombucha feed on the sugar present in it. This process results in the build up of carbon dioxide and alcohol. Most of this alcohol is then converted to acetic acid.  

The ingredient in kombucha that causes fermentation is sugar. This sugar is used as food by the microbial mat in the kombucha, and the bacteria puts off small amounts of alcohol and carbon dioxide in response to feeding on this sugar. 

Does Kombucha Have Alcohol In It?

Kombucha does have alcohol in it, but the alcohol levels are very weak compared to regular alcoholic beverages you might drink at a bar. A light beer has around 4.2% ABV (alcohol-by-volume), while a serving of kombucha typically has 0.5-1% ABV depending on how long the brew was fermented. 

This means you aren’t likely to get drunk drinking kombucha, even if you drink multiple servings of it. Fermented foods also have a small amount of alcohol in them, such as yogurt and kefir. 

History of Kombucha

While kombucha may have come into popularity through a health food revival over the past ten years or so, this fermented tea drink has been around for centuries. Kombucha is one of the oldest cultivated beverages in the world next to beer and wine.  

The earliest records of kombucha were documented in ancient China going back to 221 B.C. This makes the process of making kombucha over nine thousand years old

Historically, the ancient Chinese created kombucha to assist in the creation of stronger alcoholic drinks. Eventually, China’s vast trade along the Silk Road brought this fermented drink to other parts of Asia, even as far as Eastern Europe and Russia. 

Where Did Kombucha Tea Come From?

Kombucha originally came from the northeastern region of China that was known in ancient China as Manchuria. In modern times, this area covers the following regions as well as some of neighboring Mongolia: 

  • Heilongjiang
  • Jilin
  • Liaoning

Even though kombucha came from northern China, it is ironically not very popular in modern-day China. While kombucha enjoyed a brief revival in China in the 1990s as a fad health drink, most Chinese residents are more concerned with locally-grown fresh green teas instead of fermented ones. 

Kombucha first arrived in the broader world on a major scale during World War I, when Russian and German POWs were forced to drink it in Russia and Ukraine. Some of them ended up carrying the recipe for it home with them. 

From there, the fermented tea spread westward until it finally hit the United States. Health food gurus in the West latched onto kombucha as the “elixir of life”, associating it with a wide variety of health benefits, and the rest is history. Thanks to its probiotic properties, it became a popular probiotic supplement for supporting digestive health. 

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kombucha tea in a glass jar with a scabby

Ingredients in Kombucha

Kombucha has a lot of different variations, but the basic ingredients in kombucha are always the same. Here are the three main things you need to make it: 

  • Tea: Both black tea and green tea are used to create different variations of kombucha. You can use any variety of black or green tea to create kombucha, but the flavor of the tea will be impacted by the fermentation process.
  • Sugar: Sugar is the “food” of the bacteria and yeasts used in kombucha to ferment it. This sugar is converted to acetic acid, alcohol, and carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.
  • Yeast: A yeast and bacteria culture is added to kombucha to kickstart the fermentation process. In many cases, this culture is recycled from a previous batch of completed kombucha. This culture is often referred to as SCOBY: Symbiotic Culture of Yeast and Bacteria. Similar yeast cultures are used in baking bread and making beer. 

Even though there are other things you can add to create different kombucha flavors or nutritional profiles, these three ingredients are the ones you must have to start the fermentation process. If you’re interested in making your own kombucha from scratch, kombucha starter kits containing everything you need are also available. 

Health Benefits of Kombucha

Because it’s a fermented tea, kombucha has the health benefits of fermented foods plus the traditional health benefits associated with either black or green tea. This strong nutritional profile is what makes it so popular as a health food supplement. Here are a few of the major health benefits associated with regular consumption of kombucha: 

  • Probiotics: While it might sound gross to drink a tea full of bacteria, the bacteria in kombucha are classified as beneficial bacteria, or probiotics. Drinking this bacteria won’t hurt you. Probiotic solutions help stabilize the population of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system and can help improve digestion over time. 
  • Antioxidants and polyphenol compounds: Black and green tea are already associated with various helpful botanical chemicals that can improve concentration, increase relaxation, and improve your overall mood. These include ingredients like L-theanine and caffeine.
  • Acetic acid: The acetic acid found in kombucha is not dangerous to beneficial bacteria. However, this acidic solution is antimicrobial and can help you fight off infections within the body by bolstering your native immune system.

Can You Drink Kombucha Every Day?

You don’t have to drink much kombucha to get the nutritional benefits of consuming it. A serving of four ounces 1-3 times a day is generally considered a beneficial amount of kombucha to drink if you’re drinking it as a health supplement. Drinking kombucha tea for health is best done on an empty stomach since this allows the beneficial bacteria direct access to your digestive system. 

Does Kombucha have Caffeine?

Since the base of kombucha is black or green tea, kombucha has the same caffeine as the caffeine in tea.

kombucha tea in a labeled jar

Side Effects of Drinking Kombucha

Kombucha is considered a healthy drink, but a few risks are associated with drinking it, especially to excess. Here are some of the things you need to watch out for if you start drinking kombucha regularly: 

  • Allergic reactions: Kombucha has been known to cause an allergic reaction in some people who drink it, although this is rare. Watch out for any negative symptoms such as nausea, hives, or swelling of the throat. If any allergic reaction occurs, cease using the kombucha immediately and consult your doctor no matter how mild the reaction is.
  • Yeast infections: While yeast and beneficial bacteria are good for the body, too much yeast in your body can lead to an overpopulation of yeast in your system. This in turn can lead to yeast-related health conditions such as thrush, skin rashes, or vaginal yeast infections. Be sure to consume 12 ounces or less of kombucha a day to avoid this issue.
  • Excess calories: As a carbonated sweetened drink, kombucha can be a source of empty calories if you drink too much of it. This is especially true of commercial kombucha since these kombuchas usually include a lot of extra fruit juices or added sugar to improve their flavor. 

Kombucha is mostly safe to drink, but it’s always a good idea to consume any food or drink with moderation. If you find yourself dealing with any of the above issues while on a kombucha diet, you’re probably drinking too much of it. 

Many negative symptoms of drinking kombucha, such as gas and digestive problems, are temporary. These issues will typically go away in a week or so as your body gets used to the new levels of beneficial bacteria in your system. 

Kombucha Is a Good Source of Probiotics

If you’re being encouraged to include more probiotics in your life but you aren’t a fan of yogurt and other fermented foods, kombucha can provide a sweet alternative to help you get more beneficial bacteria in your system. This drink also provides a sweet substitute for less healthy carbonated beverages such as beer and soda. 

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