I've been drinking kombucha for about six years now and making my own for about nine months. Improved digestion, more energy, and less sickness are some of the benefits we have experienced since adding kombucha to our diet. So based on my experience and research, here is what I can tell you about kombucha:
What is kombucha? Most labels describe kombucha as a tea, but that's actually only true in the loosest sense. Kombucha is a fermented drink, very similar to raw apple cider vinegar.
How is kombucha made? Well, you make some black, green or oolong tea and add some sugar. When the tea is sufficiently cooled off, you dump in some starter kombucha and a SCOBY. (SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Basically, a big blob of good bacteria and yeast. Sometimes called the "mother".) Over a period of approximately 2-4 weeks, the SCOBY eats the tea and sugar from the liquid and excretes out probiotics which soon permeate the liquid. The result is what we call kombucha.
Calling kombucha a tea is popular way of positioning it for businesses that sell it. Calling it a tea vinegar or bacteria and yeast juice does not sound appealing to most Americans.
How healthy is it? "Sugar, caffeine, and carbonation, how is it any different than a soda?!" So scorn the skeptics. This depends a lot on the particular brand of kombucha and how it's made. A traditionally brewed kombucha will have trace amounts of caffeine and alcohol. However, the alcohol and caffeine content can be controlled with the right fermentation conditions.
Kombucha that has been fermented between two and four weeks will have very low alcohol and caffeine content because at this point the SCOBY will have eaten up most of the tea and sugar, but won't start fermenting to the point of high alcohol content yet. This usually considered the ideal for kombucha. If you want to flavor kombucha, you put it in bottles with flavoring like juice or herbs and let it sit for a few days, a week at the most. After about a week, it will start developing higher alcohol content because the sugars from the additional flavoring (especially fruit juice) will quickly be converted to alcohol.
Federal law requires that all beverages that are marketed as non-alcoholic have 0.5% or less alcohol content, so the kombuchas that you find in the store have to meet this standard. In 2010, a public health official in Portland, Maine noticed some bottles of kombucha leaking and thought that the beverages might have high alcohol content. Four brands were taken from the store and tested at the University of Maine and found to have alcohol content ranging from slightly over 0.5% to 2.5%. In the United States, a drink with over 0.5% alchol content has to be regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau. So many kombucha brands did a voluntary recall while they reformulated to strictly comply with the 0.5% standard.
Reformulation has meant different things for different brands, and herein lies the central issue with the kombucha vs. soda question. Most brands of commercial kombucha now use a short fermenation process, so the SCOBY doesn't eat up much of the sugar and tea. This makes the kombucha sweeter. It also makes it much easier for manufacturers to get under .5% because the kombucha isn't as active. Long brew kombucha can meet the 0.5% standard, but it requires more care. You have to make sure that your fermentation time and conditions are balanced to get to that happy medium.
Because short brewing doesn't give as much time for the fermentation process, this kind of kombucha ends up being on the flat side. Most short brew brands use forced carbon dioxide to make their kombucha effervescent, just like a soda. The downside to forced CO2 is that it can make the kombucha more acidic. So long story short, most commercial kombuchas are short brewed with forced CO2 making them more like a sweet tea soda with a little bit of probiotics. There are a few traditioanlly brewed brands that do a long brew and have very probiotic rich kombucha. Of course whether you do a long brew or short brew, the probiotic benefits will be neglible if your kombucha has been pasteurized.
What about alcohol and caffeine content (especially for pregnant women)? This is kind of a personal question you will have to answer for yoruself. An average kombucha is usually listed as having approximately 24 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. GT's brand kombucha says that theirs has about 8-14 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. serving. For a point of reference:
- Starbucks 16 oz. coffee has 330 mg of caffeine
- 2 Tbsp of Maxwell House ground coffee has about 100-160 mg of caffeine
- 8 oz. of black tea brewed for 3 minutes has 30-80 mg of caffeine
- 8 oz. of Lipton black or green decaf tea has 5 mg of caffeine
- 16 oz. Starbucks decaf coffee has around 15-25 mg of caffeine
- 2 Tbsp. of Maxwell House ground decaf coffee has 2-10 mg
- 12 oz. diet Coke has 47 mg of caffeine
- 12 oz. of Barq's reglular root beer has 23 mg of caffeine
- A Rockstar Citrus Punched energy drink has 240 mg of caffeine
- A 1 oz. package of Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans has 50 mg.
- 16 oz. Starbuck's hot chocolate has 25 mg. of caffeine
- 1 Tbsp. of Hershey's cocoa has 8 mg of caffeine
- A 1.5 oz serving of Hershey's Special Dark chocolate has 20 mg of caffeine.
Alcohol has been a much publicized issue with kombucha. However, seeing as how any kombucha being sold as a non-alcoholic beverage has .5% or less alcohol the alcohol content is very low. A regular beer is 5% alcohol, so you would have to drink 10 kombuchas to even start approaching the alcohol content of one can of beer. Wines usually have 12% alcohol content in a 5 oz. serving and hard drinks like whiskey and gin are at around 40% alcohol content for a 1.5 oz serving. How does it compare to other non-alcoholic foods beverages?
The Washington State Toxicology Lab conducted a study on the alcohol content of foods and drinks thsat are considered non-alcoholic and found that many breads actually have alcohol content greater than 0.5%. The apples in a Great Harvest Apple Walnut Roll actually have an alcohol content of 1.066% and the roll itself has a total alcohol content 0.956%. Rosemary onion bread has an alcohol conent of 0.98%. Home Pride brand wheat bread has 0.48% alcohol content.
Fruit juices also have naturally occurring alcohol in them. In fact, the United Arab Emirates has pulled juices from stores for exceeding 0.03% alcohol content (their legal limit for non-alcoholic beverages). In August 2013, Snapple's fruit punch drink and peach flavored tea were pulled from the UAE because they were found to have alcohol contents of .48% and .05% respectively. So a carefully long-brewed non-alcoholic kombucha has about the same alcohol content as a fruit juice drink.
GT's Kombucha still sells their original formula in certain states that have looser laws about how you can sell and label beverages, so if you are pregnant or concerned about alcohol you might consider passing on these in favor of their Enlightened line of kombucha which has <0.5% alcohol content.
I want to start drinking kombucha. What do you recommend? I do not recommend that you start off brewing your own. If you're not used to fermented foods and drinks, kombucha can be something of an acquired taste. I recommend starting with one bottle from the store every so often and work your way up as you see fit. As you start to get more familiar with kombucha and how it should taste, you can start thinking about making your own.
I think it's best to start with a fruit flavored kombucha like GT's Synergy. (Gingerberry, Trilogy and Mango are especially good to start with, in my opinion.) GT Dave is the Steve Jobs of kombucha: a pioneer with extra high standards that he refuses to compromise. High Country and Health Ade are other great store bought brands. High Country is pretty tart, but their Aloe and Wild Root (kind of like root beer) are really good in my opinion. Health Ade has a nice fruity taste and I was surprised at how much I really love their carrot juice and beet juice kombucha. Seriously, they were really good! The above brands are dedicated to brewing in glass, whereas most other brands brew in plastic tubs.
Most brands of kombucha that use forced CO2 don't list it on their label, so it is hard to tell from the label alone. Reed's Culture Club uses forced CO2 as does Kosmic Kombucha. Nationally distributed Kombucha Wonder Drink is pasteurized as well.
I love kombucha and I'm now ready to brew my own. How do I start? You can order a SCOBY from a reputable seller. (Kristen Michaelis of Food Renegade recommends Kombucha Kamp for getting a ready-to-ferment SCOBY.) There are also sources for dried SCOBY's you can activate. Or... you can make your own SCOBY from a good quality bottle of unflavored kombucha. It takes a few weeks, but it's a really neat process. (This is what I did.)
We decided to try starting four SCOBY's in case one or two didn't work out. (They all did and are multiplying like rabbits to this day. Want one?) We used two bottles of Health Ade and two bottles of GT's Enlightened line of kombucha. (You may have seen the rumors online that you can't grow a SCOBY from GT's Enlightened line, in my experience this isn't true!) I suggest using organic tea and sugar. I opt for organic evaporated cane juice and it has worked great for me! (You may have seen the rumors online that you can only brew kombucha with refined sugar, in my experience this isn't true!)
I've heard of some folks who use rooibos tea in making kombucha, but they always have to put the SCOBY back into sugar-black/green/oolong tea solution to feed the SCOBY again and keep it alive. Green/black/oolong are the best food for the SCOBY. Rooibos doesn't actually feed the SCOBY.
Honey is generally considered a bad idea too because it comes with its own set of microorganisms that can compete with the microrganisms the kombucha is trying to create. If you want to control the amount of caffeine in your kombucha, make sure to get a lower caffeine content tea and don't let it steep very long. (3-5 minutes should be fine for a smaller batch, for a gallon, about 8-10 minutes.)
Glass is best for fermenting anything. Plastic can leach chemicals into the kombucha or harbor foreign bacteria. Metal can contaminate fermented foods or drinks of any kind and can make the batch go bad. Kombucha ferments faster or slower depending on the temperature. If you live in a very hot area, it might take only a week or a week and a half to get a batch ready in the summer. If it's winter and cold, it might take a good 4 weeks to really hit the tipping point. (You'll know your kombucha is nice and probiotc-y when it tastes tart like apple cider vinegar. Taste it periodically after a week or two to monitor it so it doesn't sit too long.) For more info on making your own kombucha, check out Cultures for Health. This is an awesome site for how to make your own fermented foods and beverages.
So is kombucha for you? You'll have to decide that for yourself. But if you're looking for a great way to add some probiotcs to your diet, a well-chosen, high quality kombucha will deliver every time.