Caption + A selection of Komucha teas photographed Friday, May 6, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Despite its strange-sounding name and gross appearance when it’s being made, a fermented tea called kombucha is generating an increasing amount of interest.
According to retail analyst Micro Market Monitor, there was a fivefold increase in global sales of the tangy, fizzy tea from 2013 to 2015 – about $600 million a year. Several commercial brands are available at grocery stores for between $2 and $4, and there are local purveyors who have been making it. Or you can make your own.
What’s all the fuss about?
According to “The Big Book of Kombucha,” by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory, there are a slew of gut health reasons for consuming fermented tea.
“Fermented foods are rich sources of probiotics, that is, those beneficial bacteria,” they write. “When done right, fermentation of food helps with nutrient absorption, vitamin synthesis, breaking down proteins, alkalizing pH, restoring homeostasis, boosting immunity, and producing immunoglobulins.”
And, for many, a nice side note – the tea tastes good.
“I make and drink it for the probiotics and the taste,” said Allie Hoover, who started making her own kombucha about 10 months ago because she was buying so much of it. “I love the taste!”
Skeptics in the medical community challenge the tea’s health claims. A page on WebMD concludes: “Insufficient evidence for kombucha’s medicinal value.” But you can’t convince its supporters that the tea isn’t worth its weight.
For Jo Marini, director of client relations for SSPR in San Francisco, drinking kombucha was not love at first sip.
“The first time I bought a bottle of kombucha, I spit it out and dumped the rest,” she said. “It took me a little while to come back to it, but a few months later I did some research and decided to give it another shot. I home brewed in Colorado for four years and currently have a small batch going in San Francisco.”
You can add practically any flavor to create different tastes.
“My favorite creations are hibiscus rose, lemon lavender, a strawberry mint and lemon ginger,” Marini said. “You can use what’s in season, and Organica tea (in Old Colorado City) has an unbelievable selection of powders, dried herbs and flowers to experiment with.”
Before you set out to make your own fermented tea, it’s important to take a class on it or read Crum and LaGory’s book, which has thorough instructions and explains the science behind the process. It has to be done correctly.
“Kombucha is made with the same chemical process as pickles, where bacteria eat sugar and produce an acid that preserves the food,” said Bonnie Simon, who operates Hungry Chicken Homestead, where she has taught canning classes as well as a class on making kombucha. “You start it by mixing tea, a little mature kombucha or apple cider vinegar, and sugar together and letting it cool to room temperature. Then you put a SCOBY in it.”
SCOBY is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It’s a living thing, which grows layers and thickens with each batch of kombucha being made. And, yes, it’s rather weird looking. Hoover said they look like “big, thick pieces of bologna,” or as her husband says, “gross bologna.”
The concoction is put in a dark place like a closet at room temperature. A brownish skin will start to form over the top of the tea. That is the new SCOBY.
“Eventually, the liquid develops a sour taste, and the longer you leave it, the more sour it gets,” Simon said. “It’s important to taste it often and refrigerate it when you are satisfied that it’s ready. The amount of time that it takes to ferment depends on the air temperature. The cooler the closet, the longer it takes.”
It takes several days for the tea to ferment – up to a week or longer – depending on the flavor you are going for.
“It’s important to note, however, that kombucha can develop an unhealthy mold if not acidified,” Simon said. “The addition of mature kombucha or vinegar to the tea, sugar and SCOBY really is necessary. Without the acid, there is nothing stopping mold from growing, and this particular strain of mold can be damaging even in amounts too small to see.”
If you’ve acidified it and it still grew mold, the whole mixture has to be thrown out, “SCOBY and all,” she said, and you’ll have to start over.
Evelyn Steel, owner of Nourish Organic, said she learned to make it “when I was operating our mobile food truck at farmers markets. Now that I have a storefront, I’ve found that customers like to buy it, as well as the juices we sell.”
She used to sell it by the half gallon but “could hardly keep up with the demand,” she said. Now she sells it in small batches. During the summer months, you can buy kombucha at Yellow Mountain Tea House in Old Colorado City.
Craft beer has actually been credited with the renewed interest in kombucha. Several breweries make and sell fermented tea in addition to beer. Some even have kombucha on tap, like local Triple S Brewery in Colorado Springs.