On first glance, it looked like a gross science experiment in a mason jar … in our kitchen! Yellow sponge-like things in a yellow liquid.

“Look at how fast my babies are growing,” my mother says affectionately pointing to one of them. Babies? “Kombucha babies,” she elaborates, pointing to the suspicious sponges in jars that lined an entire counter. “When it’s ready you should try it,” she adds, “You’ll love it!”

Nope, that is not going to happen, I firmly decided. In the weeks that followed she tried everything to get me to take a sip — from bringing it up randomly to almost tricking me into it. But each time, the excited twinkle in her eye would give her away.

Dad, however, was more willing to be experimented on. He’s survived.

It would be two years before I’d start to come across articles online talking about a kombucha revolution taking place in fitness circles around the world. An ancient beverage, kombucha originates from China, going back more than 2,200 years. Locals believed it had detoxifying and energising properties. Eventually it found its way to Russia and other European countries, and eventually even to North Africa. It’s been a popular drink in those regions ever since Swiss scientists declared in the 1960s that kombucha was beneficial for the gut in the same way as yoghurt.

An ancient beverage, kombucha originates from China, going back more than 2,200 years. Locals believed it had detoxifying and energising properties.

My mother too was introduced to kombucha through a Swiss friend at a wellness retreat she attended abroad. “She gave me a scoby,” she said. Noting my confused face, she explained that as a fermented fizzy drink, kombucha is made from a black or green tea base with sugar that has been fermented with a ‘tea fungus’ — symbiotic culture of acetic acid (vinegar) bacteria and yeast or simply a scoby (mom’s kombucha babies) — for a couple of weeks. The fermentation process produces a thin layer on top of the container which turns into a sponge-like kombucha baby that can be shared with others for them to make their own.

The remaining mixture is then poured into an airtight container with some extra sugar and left to sit for a few days. That’s what makes kombucha fizzy. The longer it is left, the fizzier it becomes. Companies that make kombucha abroad on a commercial level add spices or fruits to enhance the flavour of the drink.

This brings us to: what does it even taste like? It depends on what stage it is at and how long the drink has been fermented. It starts off as a pleasant, sour but fruity fizzy flavour to bit more vinegar-like when the incubation period is longer. Some might take to it immediately while for others it may be an acquired taste.

It’s been a popular drink in those regions ever since Swiss scientists declared in the 1960s that kombucha was beneficial for the gut in the way yoghurt was.

But you have to be careful when preparing it. “My last batch went bad,” related mum. She had prepared a mason jar with hot water, a scoby and everything she needed before going on a trip to see the whirling dervishes in Turkey. Upon her return a few weeks later, she discovered that instead of a finished fermented fizzy drink, there was a mixture that had just gone bad.

It must be noted here that prolonged fermentation is not recommended — it results in the accumulation of organic acids which can be harmful when consumed directly. Therefore, it’s very important to carefully monitor the progress of your kombucha drink, especially during its fermentation.

What are the claimed health benefits? Much like yoghurt, kefir milk and other fermented foods, kombucha also contains live microorganisms — in this case, probiotic bacteria are produced. Probiotics are very helpful in managing the gut and improve digestion. In some cases, people have reported feeling better since introducing kombucha in their diets.

Having said that, it must be pointed out that there have not been enough human studies conducted on the effects of kombucha to make a proper analysis of its benefits and risks. Many “lab bench” studies may begin by looking at isolated cells and then animals. Those results cannot entirely be applied to humans as our human biological systems work differently.

Please note that kombucha is not for everyone: it is not advised for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or those individuals who have a compromised immune system. Drinking too much kombucha can lead to unpleasant side effects such as nausea, dizziness and stomach ache.

Whether you subscribe to the purported benefits of kombucha or not, for now, it remains a fast-growing popular drink — going from a product limited to hipster cafes to a regular at the gym.


Originally published in Dawn, EOS, September 30th, 2018

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