I’m a nerd for food and fermentation, so kombucha was a must-try for me. But the first time I tried it, like many people, my gag reflex went into overdrive.
After that terrible first experience, I never thought that I would be revisiting the drink, let alone delving into its history and production. But when HAND + SEED challenged me to learn more about kombucha and give it another shot, the fermentation nerd in me won out.
For me, fermentation is so interesting because it involves harnessing tiny critters (yeast/bacteria) to take one product and turn it into a totally different product – it really is magic.
My first love is wine; the changes in flavor, aroma, mouth feel, and chemistry are fascinating. And, of course, fermentation is always a little bit cooler when the end product gets you giggly.
Recently, I’ve noticed kombucha gaining a ton of mainstream popularity, especially among health-conscious millennials. I’d only heard about kombucha in the last 3-4 years, but my boyfriend is from the Portland area and it seems to have always been there.
A lot of people have strong opinions about the drink – they either love it, or they hate it. For me, it’s more of a love/hate relationship. I have strong opinions about the taste, but the science nerd in me loves how the product is made.
First, let’s talk basics – fermentation is the conversion of carbohydrates into gas, ethanol, heat, and/or acid by yeast or bacteria. Basically, it is yeast/bacteria eating sugar and pooping out alcohol, a converted acid and/or gas.
When people think about fermentation, beer, wine, and cider probably come to mind, but there are many non-alcoholic foods and beverages that are fermented.
Fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut or milk into yogurt is the conversion of carbohydrates into lactic acid, which acts to preserve as well as change the flavor and texture. Leavening bread involves allowing yeast to ferment flour starches into carbon dioxide, which allows the baked loaf of bread to have all those bubbles.
Kombucha is a fermented green or black tea beverage; it typically has slight effervescence (fizziness) and is flavored. It is an old enough beverage that the origins are cloudy, just like the drink. Most stories have it coming from China, Japan, or Korea, and some accounts claim that it was being brewed as far back as 220 BC.
It has always been thought of as a medicinal drink that helps with digestion due to the probiotics contained in the living matrix of the drink.
Making kombucha is a continuous process (one that is constantly undergoing chemical reaction) that’s similar to making starter packets for sourdough or Amish friendship bread.
The ingredients are fairly straightforward: brewed green or black tea, sugar, starter kombucha, and SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria & Yeast). To make the fizzy, full-flavored end product, the ingredients are added together and cooled, then fermented for 7-10 days.
To Drink, or Not to Drink?
I first tried kombucha on New Year’s Eve in Portland.
When in Portland, we typically have a marathon eating-and-drinking exploration of the city. I was terribly hungover and knew that I needed to hydrate for the next wave of drinking.
I had heard that kombucha was good for hangovers, hydration, and digestion, so I decided to give it a try and bought a bottle of lavender-flavored kombucha with chia seeds at a local health-food market. The purple and silver label gave the impression of peaceful spirituality. The liquid inside the glass bottle looked like it was healthy, with slimy black chia seeds floating in a grayish-purple fluid.
I’ve got to be honest – I thought it was terrible. It was sour and lumpy, and I wanted to spit it out immediately. But my boyfriend had told me that I wouldn’t like it, so I drank it down by pure force of will.
My rule is “always try something three times before deciding that you don’t like it,” so I decided to try it again recently.
Kombucha comes in tons of different flavors. Some aren’t too bad, but I personally just can’t get over the background flavor of vinegar (it’s considered a ‘drinking vinegar’).
On my second round, I tried two different flavors: mango and root beer.
The root beer actually tasted more like cream soda, with a lingering apple-vinegar finish. The mango tasted like a green mango and white vinegar; it didn’t taste awful, but it smelled like gym feet, cheese, and under-ripe mango – just not okay.
Everyone Has an Opinion
I likely won’t be a big consumer of kombucha any time soon, but I should never say never – there are a ton of flavors and many producers, so there’s a chance I’ll find one I like.
I asked my Facebook friends for their opinions on kombucha, and the response was overwhelming. It was about a 50/50 split, and the opinions were all strong.
Those that drink it regularly LOVE its sharp flavor, tout its exceptional ability to cure hangovers, and enjoy the digestive boost. One person described it as a breakfast beer for work days, and several others stated that kombucha has replaced energy drinks in their daily routine.
Those who disliked it had similar experiences to mine. The word ‘gross’ was used heavily. When discussing wine, I can almost always find a wine for someone to try given their other food or beverage choices. With kombucha, I cannot – not even for myself.
I honestly feel that everyone should give kombucha a try with an open mind and an understanding that it may be an acquired taste.
There are so many flavors – I rarely see the same ones twice – that even if you are on the fence initially, there may be one out there for you. You’ll never know if you don’t try it! What’s the worst that could happen?
At the very least, it’ll be a conversation starter that should bring out some strong opinions!