Arts & CultureCover Story

Kombucha: An ancient drink receives a modern revival



When Matt Thomas tasted kombucha [kom-BOO-cha] for the first time, he had no idea what to expect — let alone what he was drinking.

“I wasn’t ready for that super vinegary weirdness,” Thomas said about his first-ever sip of the mysterious liquid.

Thomas, a 2002 University of Oregon graduate, is founder and CEO of Townshend’s Tea Company and Brew Dr. Kombucha. Today, many people share Matt’s initial feelings toward kombucha: somewhat curious but possibly averted by the drink’s bizarre nature.

After the fermentation process is complete, Jeremy Sigrist pours the kombucha through cheese cloth into this jar for storage. (Christopher Trotchie/ Emerald)

After the fermentation process is complete, Jeremy Sigrist pours the kombucha through cheese cloth into this jar for storage. (Christopher Trotchie/ Emerald)

Describing Kombucha’s contextual identity doesn’t exactly make your mouth water, but it’s a beverage that has been gaining popularity in recent years. Wonder Drink and GT’s Synergy are just two of the brands that have propelled kombucha into being the multi-million-dollar industry that we see here in the U.S.

The “vinegary weirdness” is a carbonated refreshment that falls somewhere between bitter and sweet. But even some Kombucha aspirants aren’t quite sure what they’re drinking.

Kombucha is a fermented fusion of tea, sugar, and symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

SCOBY is a living organism that has a mutual relationship with other bacteria, said Thomas. The SCOBY consumes and thrives on the nutrient solution provided by the tea and sugar, and during the fermentation process, it looks like a large, gelatinous piece of flan. By the time the finished product is ready for consumption, it is essentially the leftover waste product of the SCOBY’s digestion. 

Kombucha is a beverage many people have heard of, perhaps tasted, or at least seen in the local natural food stores. The drink has been embraced in the Pacific Northwest, popularized by its supposed health benefits.

Long before evolving into an American pop-culture health sensation, Kombucha formed its roots in ancient history. Much speculation surrounds the beverage’s origin, however it is mostly believed to be of Asian descent.

According to Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety journal, Kombucha dates back to 220 B.C. in China during the Tsin Dynasty when it was known as “Mo-Gu.” In 414 A.D., a Korean physician named Dr. Kombu introduced the fermented drink to Japanese Emperor Inkyo.

Since the drink’s introduction, Kombucha has undergone many name changes as it became popular in other cultures over the years. In Russia, names such as Kvass replaced Mo-Gu, and after making its way to Germany, the drink appeared as Kombuchaschwamm and Heldenpilz.

Also at the forefront of the industry is Matt Thomas’s Brew Dr. Kombucha, a brand local and unique to the Pacific Northwest. Brew Dr. stems from the fruitful line of Townshend’s teahouses and has flourished in individuality, reaping the benefits of the company’s previously formulated line of artisanal and apothecary teas.

In order for kombucha to grow it needs to be stored in a warm place. Jeremy Sigrist and his roommates place their SCOBY culture on top of their water heater . ( Chirstopher Trotchie/ Emerald )

In order for kombucha to grow it needs to be stored in a warm place. Jeremy Sigrist and his roommates place their SCOBY culture on top of their water heater . ( Christopher Trotchie/ Emerald )

“The fact that we’re a tea company first really sets us apart,” Thomas said. “While some companies add juice for flavor profiles, we were always committed to the idea of making kombucha where we never add anything except really good tea and herbs.”

Thomas graduated from UO with business and Spanish degrees and started Townshend’s Tea Company roughly a year after graduation.

“I educated myself about tea because I knew there was a lot you could do with it that wasn’t being done,” Thomas said. “I believed in it, and I knew there was a big potential for it.”

The company was originally Thomas’s brainchild from a business project he completed for a senior business class, but the idea snowballed into a successful brand — and eventually a Kombucha company too.

“All the successes I had at the teahouse came from listening to what my most enthusiastic customers liked, what they wanted,” Thomas said. Customer demand was great enough that he decided to explore the possibilities of Kombucha.

According to Thomas, in order to meet food safety requirements the pH of kombucha must register below 4.6 — vinegar-level acidity, Thomas said — because the beverage is raw and unpasteurized. If the brew falls any higher on the pH scale, harmful bacteria can grow causing the solution to change completely. Once a batch is ready, it is moved to a chilled environment, which halts the fermentation process.

The next step is bottling the kombucha and then it’s out for sale.

But to UO student Jeremy Sigrist, kombucha is more than just a refreshing drink to purchase from his local Whole Foods; it’s also a hobby.

Sigrist tasted kombucha for the first time at ASUO’s bi-annual Street Faire. As a tea drinker, he became interested and spontaneously found himself at a local natural foods store with his roommate buying a SCOBY kit.

“It’s a drink my roommate and I really enjoy, so we looked up the recipe and decided to give it a try,” Sigrist said. “It’s really easy and fun.”

Unlike the massive kegs used for brewing by companies like Brew Dr., Sigrist’s home brew was made in a 1-gallon glass container, and his total costs — including the SCOBY kit, tea, sugar and vinegar — were under $30. Sigrist and his roommate keep the gallon of fermenting liquid in their tiny water heater closet to support the fermentation process.

“Seeing the SCOBY grow is the most interesting part,” Sigrist said. “You’re kind of rooting for it to succeed.”

Although Sigrist is a dedicated kombucha brewer, he did not preach about the drink’s wellness benefits. There is a decent amount of discussion surrounding whether kombucha is a legitimate health aid: some people swear by its probiotic properties, claiming it helps with anything from gut detoxification to curing cancer, but others argue against this due to the limited research that has been done directly on the benefits of drinking kombucha.

Jeremy Sigrist shows off his latest batch of Kombucha. ( Christopher Trotchie / Emerald )

Jeremy Sigrist shows off his latest batch of Kombucha. ( Christopher Trotchie / Emerald )

However, a closer look at Kombucha provides some answers to why and how it is considered a wellness beverage. The scientific journal ResearchGate states that microorganisms derived from Kombucha offer similar dietary benefits as yogurt, miso, tempeh, and is high in probiotics, fiber, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and more. These elements are derived from the SCOBY and are what enable Kombucha to offer perceived health benefits such as detoxification, improving digestion and boosting the immune system.

“It’s a really good daily habit,” Matt Thomas said. “A lot of naturopaths are starting to prescribe it as part of people’s diet.”


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Carleigh Oeth

Carleigh Oeth