Very similar to a first-timer’s sip of black coffee – or red wine, for that matter – the initial taste of kombucha is bracing: all that sour fizz, the hint of vinegar, the little SCOBY swimming in the bottom of the bottle. It doesn’t take long, though, to start craving the sparkly, probiotic-rich drink. Not only does the taste grow on you, but the organisms within literally add to the gut flora, helping our bodies to look and feel their best.
The history of kombucha is disputed, as some researchers cite Qin Dynasty China as the point of origin, while others look to a Korean doctor who treated a Japanese emperor in 400 AD. Regardless, kombucha goes by many names and has a presence in many different countries around the world, from those in Asia to the countryside of Eastern Europe. The first definite record of kombucha is from Russia and the Ukraine at the end of the 19th century. As WWI progressed, kombucha spread to Poland, Germany and Switzerland, infiltrating traditional cultures as a potent home remedy for every kind of ailment. For generations, grandmothers kept rustic versions of the modern continuous-brew system at the back of their pantries; although this has disappeared from everyday life, many health-conscious do-it-yourself-ers have adopted the practice of brewing kombucha for more vibrant health.
Enter the love affair with ferments that Paleo is nursing today. The more we learn to enjoy traditionally prepared foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi, the more we can understand how vibrant the community of microorganisms inside our gut really is, and how much of our body’s functions we owe to them.
The gut – or the gastrointestinal tract, which contributes to the digestion and absorption of food into our body system – has been called the “second brain” for the way the activity of microbiota in the gut correlates with our neurologic functions as well as our overall physical health. A phenomenon known as bidirectional signaling occurs between the GI tract and the brain through the vagus nerve. This “gut-brain axis” serves to maintain homeostasis in the body and, as new research is discovering, may also be involved in regulating both metabolic and mental disorders.
Learning about the digestive system, and about the estimated 10 trillion bacteria of more than 400 different species and subspecies in a healthy GI tract, should remind us of the immense miracle that is our bodies. We’re basically walking, talking homes for the flora within our gut, and anything we do or eat – or even think, as we’re finding – can affect their survival and happiness. Factors like pH level, peristalsis, chronic stress or the ingestion of other microorganisms can throw off our colonies.
Infections, in particular, are tied in with our gut flora. When the gut flora is thriving and well established, other bacteria are unable to launch an attack on the immune system. Yet, if gut flora is already compromised from a poor diet, stress, or after taking rounds of antibiotics without proper reinocculation, bacterial infections will further damage the flora and will have free reign to infect.
A healthy gut does indeed a healthy person make. But the way to gut health isn’t necessarily through a bottle of probiotic supplements. By eating whole foods that have been fermented, you’re ensuring that the probiotics you’re ingesting are live and active, packaged with a whole host of symbiotic nutrients. By eating fermented foods regularly, you will consume various strains of good bacteria that will keep your gut healthy through diversification – plus, buying probiotic-rich foods (if you can’t make your own) is cheaper and more effective than buying most pill-in-a-bottle forms of probiotics out there, many of which are already dead at time of purchase.
The best way to go about this, if you have the time, is to make your own ferments. The various strains of bacteria found in a head of cabbage or a batch of coconut water kefir will vary with the changes in the environment – i.e., a jar of homemade lacto-fermented pickles in Denver will be different than a jar made in Nashville – and thus will be more effective for the health of your particular gut and immune system. Additionally, making your own ferments is inexpensive and easy, particularly the vegetable-based ferments. (Dairy and beverages are slightly more complex, but still totally achievable.)
However, if you’re short on time or kitchen space, look for raw, unpasteurized, traditional lacto-fermented condiments in the refrigerated section of your favorite grocery store. From spicy, MSG-free kimchi to curry-flecked cauliflower sauerkraut, to traditional lacto-fermented pickles, there are flavors for every taste profile out there. And don’t be afraid to try new things whenever you get the chance – local raw cheese, traditional fermented sauces and, of course, kombucha.
Kombucha is an incredible substance, considered by many to be part food, part supplement. From sugar, tea and a funky little organism called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) comes a fizzy, slightly tart and completely refreshing probiotic beverage. The kombucha culture feeds on the sugar and tea to produce acetic acid and lactic acid, in addition to a detoxifying agent, glucuronic acid. Glucuronic acid is usually produced by the liver to neutralize toxins in the body; however, our bodies are constantly taxed with a heavy toxic load, and our liver can use all the help it can get. Supplementing with glucuronic acid – like that found in kombucha – can improve the body’s cleansing processes, aid the immune system and can potentially prevent the spread of cancer and other degenerative diseases by removing the toxins that overload our liver.
The first step in making your own kombucha is to source a SCOBY. Many are available in complete kombucha brewing kits online, although if you’re lucky a neighbor may have a SCOBY to spare – they multiply in the brewing process. Next, simply make a batch of tea and dissolve in the sugar. Depending on your tastes, feel free to use the traditional organic oolong tea or a green or white variety. And, depending on the volume of kombucha your brew will yield, a specific ratio of sugar to tea is needed to feed the culture. After the sugar-tea solution is completely cooled, submerge the SCOBY in the liquid and let it live on a quiet countertop in an unsealed but covered jar for a couple of weeks. Gradually, the liquid will change color and take on a tangy scent, and bubbles begin to form as the SCOBY ingests the sugar in the tea and produces acids and CO2.
Once the kombucha has reached its ideal level of sour fizz – this depends on personal taste: the shorter the ferment time, the fewer sugars digested and the sweeter the kombucha will be – you are welcome to drink it right away or try a second ferment. To ferment another time, pour the kombucha into smaller jars and add a piece of ginger, some fresh herbs or a couple chunks of fresh fruit before sealing the jar. This adds a flavor infusion and increases the carbonation – in this round of fermentation the gases are trapped in the jar instead of allowed to evaporate into the air. After a few days, check the second ferment for desired flavor and carbonation – as with the first ferment, the longer you let the kombucha sit, the more sugars will be consumed and the more tart your end result will be.
The fun part about brewing kombucha is definitely the science behind the process, but knowing that the end result is cost effective, healthy and completely customizable makes the endeavor worth it. Plus, brewing kombucha is almost entirely hands-off, meaning even the busiest person can get involved. The microorganisms within the SCOBY do it all for us – digesting the sugars, producing gases for carbonation, creating beneficial acids, and turning the most ordinary ingredients into the most magnificent of tonics.
Need some recipes to get started? Here’s a couple to get you going.
Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Revised 2nd. New York: New Trends Publishing, 2001. 596. Print.
Ilmāra Vīna, Pāvels Semjonovs, Raimonds Linde, and Ilze Deniņa. Current Evidence on Physiological Activity of Kombucha Fermented Beverage and Expected Health Effects. Journal of Medicinal Food. doi:10.1089/jmf.2013.0031.
Jacob, Aglaee. Digestive Health with REAL Food. Bend, OR: Paleo Media Group, 2013. 133-135. Print.
Montiel-Castro, Augusto J., Gonzalez-Cervantes, Rina M., Bravo-Ruiseco, Gabriela, and Pacheco-Lopez, Gustavo. The microbiota-gut-brain axis: neurobehavioral correlates, health and sociality. Front. Integr. Neurosci., 07 October 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fnint.2013.00070