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Kombucha elixir: the mysterious new anti-soda

July 27, 2012
By YVONA FAST , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Have you tried Kombucha yet? If you're looking for a healthy, fizzy drink to replace sugary soda, you may want to give kombucha a try.

This traditional folk beverage originated in Asia - most probably China, where it has been brewed at least since the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Chinese legends mention Dr. Kombu, a Korean physician, who gave the red tea to a Japanese emperor as a healing tonic. Since then, Japanese and Chinese emperors have valued its medicinal properties. The first written record, however, is much later - from late 19th century Russia.

Even with the steep price (a 16 ounce bottle costs between $3 and $5) the naturally effervescent, sweet-tart, fermented brew has become one of the most popular health drinks on the market. Jeffrey Klineman, editor of the trade magazine Beverage Spectrum, ranks it as one of the fastest growing beverages in the natural foods arena.

Whole Foods supermarkets began distributing the tea nationally in 2004. Other brands and stores soon followed. This rapid rise in popularity is part of a larger trend in probiotic foods. Medical studies have shown that live bacteria in probiotic foods benefit the digestion tract and boost the immune system.

Many say kombucha will benefit your health, though there's little scientific evidence for this claim. Detoxification and metabolic balancing are just two of the health benefits attributed to kombucha. Others include increased energy and stamina, stimulating the immune system, preventing cancer, alleviating arthritis, and improving digestion and liver function. Millennium Products, brewer of GT's Organic Raw Kombucha, calls the drink "an elixir that immediately works with the body to restore balance and vitality." Other words used to describe the beverage are rejuvenate, restore, revitalize, recharge, regenerate, and rebalance.

But there have been few medical studies. In 2009, the Journal of Chinese Medicine published results of one study showing that Kombucha may repair damage caused by environmental pollutants and may impart beneficial effects on patients suffering from kidney dysfunction.

However, not enough research has been done to substantiate these claims. Andrew Weil, MD, an alternative health leader, writes on his Web site: "I don't recommend kombucha tea at all. I know of no scientific studies backing up the health claims made for it." Fermentation guru and author Sandor Ellix Katz believes the drinks' major health benefits come from the live probiotic cultures used to ferment the tea. He says, "I love kombucha, but I have seen more exaggerated claims made on its behalf than I have seen for any other food." Brent A. Bauer, M.D., on the world-renowned Mayo clinic web site sums it up best: "This doesn't mean that Kombucha tea can't possibly have health benefits; it just means that at this time there's no direct evidence that it provides the benefits it's reported to have."

A 12-ounce serving of kombucha does contain about 60 calories from sugar. This is less than commercial sweetened teas, sodas and fruit drinks. Because it's made with tea, it is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. Like yogurt, kefir, kraut or lacto-fermented vegetables, it's a probiotic food - it contains beneficial bacteria that will benefit your digestive tract. It also contains prebiotics, which help the body create the right balance of flora in the intestines for the probiotic bacteria to thrive.

So just exactly what is kombucha? The brew resembles both soda and beer, but is neither.

The recipe is simple: a cup or two of sugar, a few quarts of black tea and bacteria from another kombucha sample. Usually a culture (called a SCOBY) is added to ferment the liquid, but a bottle of store-bought stuff also works if it has the live culture in it.

To make it, tea is brewed and poured into a glass jar. Sugar is added, and then the culture - which looks like a wet pancake - is put in. The proper term for the kombucha culture or zoogleal mat is a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a mushroom or mother.

Care must be taken in preparation to avoid contamination. A glass jar is best, and must be spotlessly clean. All the utensils should be washed thoroughly before using.

Like the starter for sourdough bread or a lactobacillus culture for yogurt, kombucha is a raw, living product. The culture grows and multiplies in sweetened black tea, creating a fermented beverage. As it grows it makes "babies" that can be split and used to start a new batch, or shared with friends. The slimy mass of microorganisms includes multiple species of yeast and bacteria. Alcohol is also produced by the yeasts, and though it is not enough to get a DWI, the 1 percent alcohol was enough to cause Whole Foods to remove the drink from its shelves in 2010.

The flavorful, refreshing beverage is best enjoyed fresh and cold. Drink it because you like it, not because you're counting on it as a miracle cure. Drink it plain, or flavor it with ginger, juice or fruit like berries, mango or citrus. Make a kombucha spritzer by adding sparkling mineral water and some ice cubes. Add vanilla ice cream for a Kombucha ice cream float.


Kombucha tea


2 quarts fresh brewed green or black tea

1 to 2 cups sugar

1 kombucha SCOBY, or one bottle commercial kombucha



In a 3 quart or 1 gallon glass jar, combine warm tea and sugar. Stir to dissolve.

Place away from light (or covered with a towel) in a warm place. Optimal temperature is 75 degrees, but it will work in cooler room temperature conditions - it will just take a bit longer.

Wait a few days to a week (about a month if using the commercial kombucha). Taste every one to two days until it is no longer sweet.

When it tastes right to you, remove the SCOBY to a clean plate and pour in about a cup of the kombucha liquid. Strain the rest through a cheesecloth or fine sieve, bottle, and store in the fridge. This is where you add any flavoring ingredients that you're using, as well.

Now you're ready to start the process over and make a new batch.

For a more regular supply, you can also remove, strain and bottle about half the kombucha liquid every four to five days, replacing it with an equal amount of fresh brewed, sweetened tea.


Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing.

She can be reached at



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