The rise of kom­bucha

Kom­bucha has leapt from health stores to the mass mar­ket, via trendy cafes. But can it re­ally re­place beer and wine in our af­fec­tions? By Amy Flem­ing

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

When I was a child, home­brew meant the beer my gran­dad pro­duced un­der his stairs. Come Christ­mas, my fa­ther and un­cles would con­gre­gate there, hold­ing up cloudy beer mugs to the light and nod­ding ap­pre­cia­tively.

In­creas­ingly, how­ever, home brew­ers are knock­ing out kom­bucha in­stead – a tra­di­tional, non-al­co­holic drink made with fer­mented tea.

Take Jonny Wilkin­son, one of Eng­land’s best-loved rugby stars. Rugby types may be bet­ter known as pro­lific beer drinkers, but Wilkin­son has been brew­ing his own kom­bucha for four years. He says in­tro­duc­ing fer­mented items into his diet has brought “a light­ness, less con­flict in my gut and a more alert, flow­ing na­ture to ev­ery­thing”. In May, he launched his own brand, No1 Kom­bucha, in Sains­bury’s with the in­ten­tion of bring­ing the naturally fizzy soft drink to the masses.

He is not the only one on such a mis­sion. The fast-food chain Leon now stocks Suf­folk-brewed kom­bucha from LA Brew­ery, while an­other British brand, Real Kom­bucha, will soon be rolled out in 320 Fuller’s pubs. In less than a year, Real Kom­bucha has reached “al­most 50 Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, al­most 300 top ho­tels and 55 Laines pubs”, ac­cord­ing to its founder, David Begg.

The drink’s leap from health stores to the main­stream via hip­ster cafes has been swift. LA Kom­bucha’s founder, Louise Avery, was partly re­spon­si­ble for the drink’s grad­u­a­tion in the UK from murky cult en­deav­our to cafe cul­ture. She be­gan by brew­ing it at home un­der the brand Lois & the Liv­ing Teas. “About five years ago, I started bring­ing up these cloudy milk bot­tles of kom­bucha to beau­ti­ful cafes around Is­ling­ton and Hack­ney in Lon­don and they would strain it and serve it to cus­tomers.” It flew off the shelves, word spread and Yau­atcha, a dim sum restau­rant in Soho, came knock­ing.

Many of these cafe own­ers had come to Lon­don from abroad – Ger­many, Aus­tralia, Canada – and were al­ready fa­mil­iar with kom­bucha. Avery says British pro­pri­etors were more scep­ti­cal, “be­cause there’d be bits float­ing in it, like yeast; peo­ple were a bit scared and dis­gusted. I had to ex­plain it’s a live food and it will con­tinue to grow.” In re­sponse, she took steps to make her prod­uct more palat­able to mass-mar­ket con­sumers. “I fig­ured out a way of mildly fil­ter­ing it and adding a bit of car­bon­a­tion to sus­pend the bac­te­ria; I make sure it’s chilled and I give it a short shelf life to keep as much bac­te­ria as

I can with­out it be­ing an ex­plo­sive prod­uct with bits float­ing in it.”

It worked. When LA Kom­bucha launched in June, Avery sold 2,000 bot­tles. The next month, sales rose to 10,000; within six months, Leon had signed up and she had to build a sec­ond brew­ery.

Promis­ing sci­en­tific find­ings into how our gut af­fects ev­ery­thing from men­tal health to au­toim­mune dis­ease have boosted de­mand for so-called gut-healthy fer­mented prod­ucts such as ke­fir (a yo­ghurt drink), kim­chi (Korean-style fer­mented cab­bage) and kom­bucha, which prob­a­bly orig­i­nated in China.

The brew­ing process for kom­bucha is rel­a­tively sim­ple. Tea (ei­ther green, black or a mix of both), su­gar and fil­tered wa­ter are sealed with a slimy-look­ing cel­lu­lose mat called a Scoby (this stands for “sym­bi­otic cul­ture of bac­te­ria and yeast”). Scobys, which you can buy on eBay, are pro­duced naturally by bac­te­ria and con­tain the nec­es­sary mi­cro-or­gan­isms to kick off kom­bucha fer­men­ta­tion. You float this biofilm on your mix­ture and let it brew for be­tween seven and 30 days, de­pend­ing on at­mo­spheric

‘We ap­proached it en­tirely as an al­co­hol re­place­ment – be­tween a prosecco or a light cider’

con­di­tions and per­sonal taste. The tea it­self fer­ments, while the yeasts turn the su­gar into al­co­hol, which the bac­te­ria con­verts into acetic acid, mak­ing car­bon diox­ide bub­bles in the process. The longer it brews, the less sweet and more vine­gary it be­comes.

Kom­bucha’s twangy taste can be en­hanced by adding fruits and spices, and most com­mer­cial of­fer­ings do this. LA Brew­ery’s ginger va­ri­ety is sat­is­fy­ingly fiery, like a tra­di­tional ginger beer with a dash of lemon­ade and the com­plex pun­gent, pickle taste you get with kom­bucha. No1’s pas­sion­fruit and goji is fruity and re­fresh­ing. Like LA Brew­ery and No1, Real Kom­bucha also comes in three choices, although none of these have added flavours – the dif­fer­ences come from the types of tea used. But all three pro­duc­ers care­fully avoid mak­ing spe­cific health claims, in­stead pro­mot­ing the sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence of their drinks as some­thing to be ap­pre­ci­ated by con­nois­seurs.

Why not push the health an­gle? Be­cause, says, Paul Humphreys, pro­fes­sor of ap­plied mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Hud­der­s­field, “all the data is ei­ther anec­do­tal or from an­i­mal stud­ies. There are a cou­ple of rat stud­ies around choles­terol and hy­per­ten­sion that show po­ten­tial.” The only hu­man clin­i­cal case stud­ies pub­lished, he says, tend to be one-off events with neg­a­tive ef­fects such as peo­ple get­ting aci­do­sis – when there’s too much acid in the body – pos­si­bly from drink­ing too much kom­bucha.

Be­ing big on yeast, how­ever, the drink does of­fer B vi­ta­mins, which could be ben­e­fi­cial if you’re de­fi­cient. It also con­tains some vitamin C. And there are polyphe­nols – plant mi­cronu­tri­ents that are an­tiox­i­dant-rich and feed the good bac­te­ria in your gut. These come from the tea it­self, but could be more ben­e­fi­cial in kom­bucha than in a reg­u­lar cuppa.

Whether the mi­cro­bi­o­log­i­cal ben­e­fits can be proven or not, there is the un­de­ni­able ad­van­tage that com­mer­cial kom­buchas often con­tain less than one third (or less than half with No1) of the su­gar of reg­u­lar soft drinks, and no ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers. And if they help heavy drinkers cut down on al­co­hol con­sump­tion, there’s an­other win. This is pre­cisely what Begg is hop­ing, as Real Kom­bucha hits pubs and bars up and down the UK. “We ap­proached it en­tirely as an al­co­hol re­place­ment,” he says. “We are in the space of cham­pagne, wine, craft beer.”

Rather than com­pare his prod­ucts with soft drinks, Begg places them “some­where be­tween a fruity prosecco or a lighter dry cider”. Som­me­liers have been en­listed to prof­fer food-pair­ing tips. The young leaves of “first flush” Dar­jeel­ing tea, used in his Royal Flush kom­bucha, pro­duce notes of rasp­berry, rhubarb, black­cur­rant and, he says, “a lit­tle bit of white peach, in the flavour pro­file”. It’s cer­tainly in­ter­est­ing and strong enough to be sipped, oc­cu­py­ing your senses as much any al­co­holic bev­er­age.

In the US – where sales of kom­bucha and other fer­mented drinks were up by 37% in 2017, while the rest of the soft drink mar­ket barely grew – it has also be­come a pop­u­lar mixer for cock­tails. Food web­site Bon Ap­petit pub­lished recipes for kom­bucha cock­tails that, it said “prove kom­bucha and booze are made for each other”. Food blog Chowhound of­fered: “13 kom­bucha cock­tails to jazz up your bar­tend­ing game.” Not sur­pris­ingly, kom­bucha now sits in the fridges of some of the UK’s top mixol­o­gists.

Begg’s first en­counter with kom­bucha was a friend’s home brew, and it im­me­di­ately sat­is­fied the crav­ing for al­co­hol he had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. He had largely given up booze, but didn’t want sweet soft drinks or wa­ter when he went out so­cially. Avery agrees: “Al­co­hol plays on a num­ber of re­cep­tors and kom­bucha has that, too. Umami, sour, sweet­ness; you have the fizzi­ness and vis­cos­ity that sits on your tongue.” Whether pub­go­ers will order it in­stead of booze is yet to be seen, but, says Begg: “We’ve done it in restau­rants – ex­pand­ing well across the up­per end as a wine re­place­ment. Now, we’re say­ing the pub is the next bas­tion.”

Kom­bucha will soon be served in Fuller’s pubs (above); a brewer adds a Scoby (right)

Kom­bucha brew­ing with its Scoby

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