On a trip from Dallas to Austin last year, I stopped by a nondescript gas station to take a bathroom break and grab something to drink. As I perused the store’s options, I noticed a beverage with an esoteric name. Holding its own between drinks ranging from sparkling water to wine, kombucha stood sleekly bottled in glass.
Through any quick online search, you’ll see consumers praising this bacteria-laden fermented tea for its incredible purported health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, increased gut health (think: “good” bacteria), and even playing a part in preventing cancer. The heart of kombucha is its “SCOBY”—a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The slimy, living disc is also called the “mushroom” or “mother.” The interaction of yeast and bacteria results in highly acidic, slightly carbonated, tart drink.
This concoction, which many believe began as a home remedy, appears to have transformed into a popular commercial health product. Even Coca-Cola has acquired a brand of kombucha. Can we trace this sweet-sour fungus tea’s historical lineage to understand its current phenomenon?
It seemed that for every origin story I dug into, three or four more revealed themselves. Günther Frank, a German author who has conducted extensive research on kombucha, explains that although stories most often couple kombucha with East Asian cultures, most reports or allegations are simply anecdotal.
According to Frank’s research, in one case, people in China drank kombucha tea during the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE, when it was referred to as “The Remedy for Immortality” or “The Divine Tsche.” (Although, doesn’t it seem like the “remedy for immortality” would be death?)
Then, in 414 BCE, a Korean doctor named Kombu brought the tea to Japan to cure the Emperor Inkyo. Could it be that the tea was named for the good doctor? It may also represent a case of a misapplied loanword from Japanese. There is even a fermented kelp tea that goes by the same name, derived from kombu (a brown seaweed) and cha (tea).
“Another report says it comes from the area of East Asia and came into Germany via Russia,” Frank explained through email. “Still another tells us that it comes from Japan. And another says Manchuria...and so it goes.”
According to a blog published by The Kombucha Center, the first definitive reports of the tea’s use came from Russia and Ukraine in the late 1800s. During World War I, Russian and German POWs drank it. From there, kombucha began to permeate various countries, playing a significant cultural role in the Westphalian industrial region of Germany. Pharmacists sold it as “Mo-Gu” (the Chinese word for “mushroom”) or “Fungojapon.”
Drinking fermented tea attained wild popularity in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. It is reported that priests in Italy were dismayed to find parishioners mixing it with holy water to assist its healing properties. In 1955, Italian musician Renato Carosone released his improbably titled hit song “Stu Fungo Cinese!”: “The Chinese Fungus!”
Determined to find a Chinese community connection, I turned to my parents, who are from Fuzhou and Shanxi provinces in China. I asked whether they—or our other family members—had ever heard of kombucha. The resounding answer: no.
I checked with Shiyu Wang, another former Smithsonian intern, whose family is from Yunnan Province, China. Shiyu thinks her grandmother used to ferment tea, but her grandmother has since passed away. Shiyu’s mother had never heard of kombucha before, despite what I read about its popularity during the Cultural Revolution. Shiyu surveyed her network on WeChat, the most widely used social media platform in China. Had they heard of kombucha or something like it? No, yet again!
Like the drink itself, the origins of kombucha are very cloudy. But what about its alleged health benefits? Ed Kasper, a medicinal herbalist and kombucha specialist who runs Happy Herbalist in North Carolina, confirmed that ancient East Asian cultures used kombucha as a health remedy. He came across kombucha during his tenure as an acupuncturist, witnessing its effects on his customers.
“Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine referred to kombucha tea as the ‘elixir of life,’” Kasper explained over the phone. He described how his own customers improve their health spectacularly after weeks of following a strict kombucha regimen.
Even so, I remained skeptical about the beverage’s lionized effects. Would kombucha one day find its place among other popular foods whose nutritional values were inaccurately touted by industries just to sell more product?
Katelyn Corley, who is now enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin’s graduate pharmacy program, previously worked in the Barrick Lab. Working in the field of synthetic biology, which seeks to redesign and reconstruct biological ecosystems, Corley and her team sought to understand the scientific networks of the kombucha culture: SCOBY.
“Throughout our project, learning how to carefully extract different components of kombucha helped us realize the impact of commercialized kombucha,” Corley explained. “There can be a tension between kombucha brewers needing to preserve the character of the drink while also trying to patent differentiating lines of microbes in their beverages.”
While it’s known that kombucha is the byproduct of the fermentation process undergone by bacteria and yeast, it’s still unclear which specific microbes are responsible.
“Our theory was that if SCOBY is really in these different kombucha samples, then we should be able to extract the symbiotic culture and recreate it. We called our culture SCOBY DOO,” Corley laughed.
The team tested kombucha tea from various commercial brewers, including Buddha Brew and K-Tonic. Eventually, they found that the fifty-two different samples only contained nine unique species of microbes. After further isolation and cross-referencing with scientific literature, the team determined that only three types of microbes were essential to forming what constituted “kombucha.”
While the health benefits of kombucha have yet to be scientifically proven, many consumers firmly stand by their drink of choice. It has grown from folk medicine into a pop-culture potion with over $1.5 billion in sales in 2017. It’s even slowly making its way into bars with kombucha beer and wine.
Whether made at home or distributed by commercial vendors and brewers, this enigmatic tea seems to have held its own within the public imagination, despite its relatively high price (live cultures require refrigeration during transport and storage). At the very least, most health experts ascribe the same probiotic properties to the drink as yogurt. We’ll have to wait to see whether it has true staying power or disappears as it may have in Asia.
Laura Zhang is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She graduated The University of Texas at Austin with degrees in neuroscience and Plan II Honors and currently works as an analyst at Accenture, a global consulting firm. She highly recommends drinking kombucha on tap when possible. It’s a wonderful experience.