• An increasing focus on gut health has helped boost interest in this centuries-old tradition. (Flickr / Emma)
Healthy, delicious and beloved by some of our best chefs, kombucha is gaining ground not just as an alternative to soft drink and water - but as a sub for wine and beer, too.
By
Lauren Sams

15 Dec 2016 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 15 Dec 2016 - 5:00 PM

If you’d asked me a year ago what kombucha was, I would have said, “Um, that stuff that Lindsay Lohan drank and got a DUI on?” Or maybe, “Um… is it that stuff that looks like dirty tea?”

I was right on both counts. Yep, Lindsay got done for drink driving on kombucha, and yes, it can look a bit like muddy tea. But if 2015 was the year of coconut water going mainstream, then 2016 has been the year of kombucha. (If you want the definitive proof, consider this: PepsiCo recently acquired American kombucha brand KeVita. So there you go.) Now the fermented tea is everywhere - in supermarkets as well as hatted restaurants - and rumoured to live up to its own hype as a gut-friendly health drink. I decided to investigate further.

I start with Matt Ball, co-owner (with his wife, Lara) of Ballsy Brewing in Sydney’s Leichhardt. Their products, WIld Kombucha by Ballsy, are now served in some of the country’s top restaurants, including Quay, Bennelong and Firedoor (more on that later). The couple opened Ballsy in 2013 - the relative dark ages of kombucha - and set up Australia’s first draught kombucha bar (yes, like draught beer) in 2015. Matt and Lara got the idea from travelling to the US, where kombucha has been popular for some time.

“We were in the States a few years back and I was reading a book by a Hawaiian big wave surfer, about how to optimise fitness and health, and maximise performance. [The author] talked about yoga, meditation and diets… and kombucha. I’d heard of everything but the kombucha, which really sparked my interest. Soon after that we went to Maui for a month and drank kombucha pretty much every day. We were really inspired by the scene in the States, and we wanted to bring that back home.”

So… what exactly is kombucha, I want to know? “It’s fermented tea,” says Matt. He tells me it’s been around for centuries - apparently it was first drunk in what’s now known as Manchuria in 220BC - but in the late ‘90s, it was commercialised and marketed in the States as a health drink. The tea - green or black - is combined with sugar and a starter culture known as a SCOBY (which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) and left to ferment for six weeks or so. “The result is a slightly sweet, slightly carbonated drink that has a very small amount of alcohol in it (less than one per cent). It’s a living drink, with plenty of living bacteria in it,” says Matt. “And,” he adds, “It’s delicious.”

Although generally kombucha has a very low alcohol level, it can vary - in 2010 in the US, there was a crackdown on hyper-fermented bottles, and again in 2015. In Australia, too, regulators are keeping an eye on the alcohol content of kombucha, and where it's being sold, with one drink pulled from shelves due to the alcohol content. 

At Ballsy, the kombucha is flavoured mainly with native fruits, herbs and spices. The flavouring is achieved by “secondary fermentation”, where fruit (for example) is added to the fermented tea, and then left again for six weeks (“or however long you like,” says Matt). Ballsy offers six on-tap flavours at a time, from Ginger Bomb (made from fresh ginger root), Naughty Nettle (nettle and rosella) and Get Your Lime On (native finger lime and ginger) to Mandarin, Desert Lime, Rosella and Native Basil, Apple and River Mint and Davidson Plum, Vanilla, Native Finger Lime and Strawberry. There’s also a weekly cold drip coffee kombucha, made in collaboration with Single Origin Roasters, in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

Kombucha, it seems, is everywhere. I recently read about kombucha being used to make vegan leather. Beer brewery Stone and Wood is making kombucha now. While researching this story, I stop at my local supermarket (to pick up bread and milk - a decidedly un-kombucha purchase) and notice a whole cold shelf dedicated to it. At a cafe I visit later that day, there is a coffee menu, a juice menu, and a (short, but still!) kombucha menu. I ask the waitress how many people order the stuff. “Not many,” she admits. “Mainly people from [the Sydney suburb of] Newtown. But it’s good! Do you want some?” I order a glass but can’t get through it - unlike the stuff sold at Ballsy, this is fizzy yet flavourless. I’d rather watch a Lindsay Lohan movie, to be honest.

It’s even made it to some of the nation’s top restaurants. Lennox Hastie, the chef behind Sydney’s Firedoor, worked with Ballsy to create kombucha for the restaurant.Kombucha has been on the menu since day one, as Lennox wanted a non-alcoholic option “that wasn’t your standard juice or soft drink. Kombucha is more sophisticated, and because it’s slightly carbonated and has a little alcohol, it’s a nice alternative to wine matching.” Plus, he says, it pairs beautifully with food. Dishes with chilli kicks, or rich meats, contrast nicely with the tang of kombucha. As well as having it on the drinks menu, Lennox has also experimented with kombucha in his food, poaching quinces and pears in it, and including it in dressings.

Like the waitress I spoke with, Lennox says that there’s a bit of consumer education to be done. “A lot of people are keen to try it, but they might not understand what it is,” he says. “And then, they might be put off by the slight sourness - it’s not unlike the acidity of a natural wine or sour beer, and those flavours aren’t for everyone.”

Ballsy also makes kombucha for Peter Gilmore, the chef behind Quay and Bennelong. Gilmore is a keen kombucha drinker - I was on a shoot with him last year when he offered a bottle of Wild Kombucha to everyone. When I tell Matt, he laughs and says, “Peter is the best brand ambassador we could ask for.”

I ask Matt why he thinks kombucha has taken off the way it has. “First of all,” he says, “There’s a lot more awareness of what it actually is now. When I first started researching it, four or five years ago, there were only one or two brands. Now, there’s cold shelves in the supermarket full of it. When we first started, we were explaining over and over again what kombucha is. Now, people come in looking for it, and they’re much more educated about what the drink is. The difference is huge.

“And over the past few years, we’ve seen a different idea of what health is start to emerge - there’s much more focus on gut health, for instance, and holistic health.” Matt says that programs like Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar and the proposed taxes on sugary soft drinks have opened up a space for kombucha to thrive.

It's also increasingly popular for those who like to DIY, with recipes and even fermented drinks courses popping up all over the place. 

Want to make your own? Get Sarah Wilson's kobmucha recipes here

 

One of the purported benefits of kombucha is that its fermentation process means that it delivers a healthy dose of probiotics to the system. I’m naturally skeptical of any product claiming to be a superfood, so I call nutritionist Lyndi Cohen. She has good news.

“This is one of those ‘superfoods’ that actually does live up to the hype,” she says. “It’s full of probiotics, which help balance our gut bacteria.” When gut bacteria is balanced, Lyndi explains, our digestion is better, inflammation is reduced, and weight loss may even be easier (though Lyndi is quick to point out that the area needs to be researched much more extensively). She adds, too, that kombucha is packed with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant often found in green tea.

There has been limited scientific research involving humans on the possible therapeutic benefits of kombucha, although a 2014 review concluded fermented tea has potential for preventing health problems, through detoxification, antioxidation  and promotion of depressed immunity. 

Like Lennox, Lyndi agrees that kombucha might not be everyone’s cup of tea (pun firmly intended). “I think that, in order for it to have the mass appeal of something like soft drink, you’d have to add a lot of sugar and flavouring - and that cancels out the good stuff!” She also thinks kombucha is an exciting alternative to alcohol. “Anything that stops people from overdoing it on the booze is a good thing in my book,” she says. “Kombucha is quite dry and carbonated, so I’d imagine it would appeal to people who like champagne and beer.”

Sarah Wilson of I Quit Sugar is a fan of the digestive benefits, describing it as "brimful of probiotics". (Get her recipes, including plain, chai and strawberry vanilla versions, here.)

And while all of this sounds too good to be true, Matt points out that, as kombucha gets more and more mainstream, the downside is that it’s begun to be mass-manufactured, meaning the product doesn’t necessarily have the same health benefits as the handmade stuff. “One thing to watch out for is ‘engineered kombucha,’” he says. “There’s no way for consumers to differentiate this off the shelf, so it’s worrying.” With engineered kombucha, yeast and bacteria may be added after the drink is made, meaning it’s not fermented the traditional way, with a SCOBY and a natural starter culture. “It’s more like sugar water, with yeast added,” he says, “not a truly fermented drink.” There’s no way to tell just by looking at the drink, so Matt suggests you buy your ‘bucha from a reputable small brewer, so you know where it’s come from.

As for me? I’m not sure kombucha will replace a crisp, dry glass of bubbles with my next meal at Bennelong, but I do like the sound of cracking open a fresh bottle of the stuff after a long day at work. Looks like Lindsay was onto something. 

Lead image by Emma via Flickr. Homemade kombucha bottles image from I Quit Sugar: Simplicious by Sarah Wilson. 

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