Kombucha: A Tea Guy’s Perspective
Several times in the last couple of years, people have come in to the tea bar and asked if we have kombucha. The first time, I did a quick Google search, looked at the process required to brew it, and said no. After the third time, I figured I should look a bit deeper into this phenomenon. Conveniently enough, the Healthy Beverage Expo was held in Las Vegas alongside the World Tea Expo (the largest trade conference in the tea business) , so I was able to sign up for a kombucha seminar to go along with all of the tea seminars I was taking.
I learned quite a bit in the seminar, although virtually none of what the instructor covered was applicable to a tea shop serving freshly-brewed drinks. Almost everything she talked about applied to RTD (ready-to-drink) bottled beverages, which really doesn’t interest me. We don’t serve bottled tea or soda — or even bottled water — so RTDs didn’t really interest me much. I was there to learn about fresh beverages.
Following the seminar, I did some further research and made an informed decision about selling kombucha in my tea shop. Here is my thought process:
What is kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented drink made from a fairly heavily sweetened black tea (about 1 cup of sugar per gallon of tea), although other types of tea can be used as well. A symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast known by the acronym “SCOBY” is placed on top of the tea blend. It grows into a gelatinous mass on top of the tea as it ferments the sugars in the tea mixture. After a week or so, the freshly grown bacteria/yeast mat can be separated out into a new SCOBY for the next batch, and the liquid can be drawn off to drink.
It’s really good for you, right?
First of all, I don’t select teas based on health claims. I select teas that taste good. At times, those goals align, but I’m frankly underwhelmed at the amount of hard data backing most herbal health claims, and I’m not going to pass on health claims to my customers unless they are backed up by honest-to-goodness, peer-reviewed, reproducible studies — preferably with double-blind clinical studies.
Sitting in the kombucha seminar, I was struck by the PowerPoint slide titled “Health Benefits.” It listed every imaginable ailment from cancer to Alzheimer’s, heart disease to diabetes. The list was absolutely stunning. Before I had a chance to react, someone else in the audience asked what the basis was for this list. The instructor informed us that she had recorded everything her friends, family, and customers had told her. If someone told her they drank kombucha and their gout got better, she’d put gout on the list.
In other words, all of these health benefits were unconfirmed hearsay with no scientific basis whatsoever. A short amount of digging brought me to an article on kombucha by the American Cancer Society. I think one quote from that article sums it up really well:
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Kombucha tea promotes good health, prevents any ailments, or is works to treat cancer or any other disease. Serious side effects and occasional deaths have been linked with drinking Kombucha tea.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Logistics of kombucha
In a tea bar environment, I have dried leaves with a shelf life measured in months. The few fresh items I need, such as milk, boba pearls, and lemon slices, can either be purchased on a moment’s notice at the grocery store, or made in a matter of minutes. Kombucha requires at least a week to brew, which means if you want to serve it fresh, you need to be very good at predicting demand a week in advance.
If you wish to store and keep it, you have to bottle or keg it, and that takes me back to the RTD issue I opened this article with. If I’m going to serve a bottled beverage, I’d might as well buy it from someone else instead of trying to ferment it myself.
Fermentation leads to another issue as well. The yeast in the SCOBY does exactly what yeast does in beer or wine: it consumes sugars and excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 provides carbonation, most of which is allowed to escape. The alcohol is another issue. The Federal government puts strict controls over alcohol content in beverages. If you wish to sell fresh-brewed kombucha, you must carefully control and measure the amount of alcohol.
Not only can we not sell beverages to children if they contain more than a fraction of a percent alcohol, but without the proper licenses, we can’t produce alcoholic beverages in the tea bar anyway.
I used to do a lot of homebrewing. I really enjoyed making and drinking my own beer. If I still had all of my equipment set up for the beer, I’d probably brew up a batch of kombucha just for fun. I’m not, however, going to make it in the tea bar because the logistics are complex, it doesn’t fit the business model of freshly-brewed tea, and the health benefits are unsubstantiated.