It’s not beer. In fact, the vast majority of commercial examples aren’t even considered alcoholic beverages. So you might be wondering why a column called “Cheers to Beer” is focusing on a beverage that is clearly something altogether different? As it turns out, although kombucha is different from beer in terms of ingredients and brewing processes, there are some commonalities the two disparate drinks share that many beer-lovers find appealing and an intriguing alternative or augmentation to their beer routine.
We all know what beer is at a very basic level, at least. The most fundamental ingredients in beer are malted barley, hops, yeast and water. The fermentation process creates residual alcohol and CO2. In a similar way, the most basic ingredients in kombucha are black tea, sugar, yeast and bacteria (more on this in a minute) and water. Like beer, the fermentation process for kombucha also yields some alcohol and CO2. See? Similar.
Where the two beverages differ the most is found in what the ingredients in kombucha work together to create in the finished product — a drink that has been touted to have myriad health benefits; many of which are verifiable and a few that border on the outlandish.
Kombucha is a mysterious and ancient drink. Most historians of this sort of thing agree that the beverage we know as kombucha originated in China during the Qin Dynasty around 221 BCE. In some cultures, kombucha is commonly known as “mushroom tea” or “the elixir of life,” paying homage to the most noteworthy ingredient in the kombucha brewing process — the SCOBY.
A SCOBY isn’t actually a mushroom but it is alive! The name is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. Kombucha is simply sweet tea until this somewhat alien-like, cellulose pancake of beneficial bacteria and yeast strains get ahold of it and transform it into something new and, yes, delicious.
Kombucha contains a number of beneficial properties including antioxidants, probiotics, enzymes and acids which can positively impact digestion, boost immunity and help detoxify the body. Fermentation even removes the vast majority of the sugar from the tea, converting it into CO2 and a very small amount of alcohol (- 0.5 percent ABV, typically). The residual sugar is also broken down from sucrose into fructose and glucose – sugars that have a lesser glycemic impact on the body. As a result, kombucha is much lower in sugar than soft drinks or juices and even contains substantially less caffeine than regular tea, soda or coffee.
Don’t worry, the SCOBY responsible for producing all this nutritional goodness is removed before packaging kombucha, although the healthful benefits remain intact.
But how does it taste? Although the flavor profile of kombucha can vary widely from brand to brand, and most are flavored with various fruits, herbs or spices after fermentation, the general description is a somewhat tangy, effervescent tea-like drink. Most store-bought examples you’ll find locally, like Brew Dr. or GT’s, offer a wide range of flavors from ginger to strawberry or even guava. Like craft beer, kombucha is enjoying a big spike in popularity and flavors continue to push the limits of creativity.
In the case of the dedicated beer drinker, like myself, kombucha can offer a fun and tasty change of pace that can satiate the craving for something carbonated, complex and even occasionally beer-like (think Belgian lambic or sour ale) without the negative effects of higher alcohol. To boot, it may even offer some other powerful health benefits as well. Unproven claims that kombucha is a panacea for everything from acne to the Zika Virus aside, we can be confident in knowing that kombucha offers a healthy, flavorful option any beer drinker ought to toast.
So, cheers to kombucha! May your next one be a fermented tea.