Get crazy with kombucha

Image of coffee and kombucha cocktail for Caffeine Australia feature on kombucha

The world of kombucha is one with multiple layers, fervent disciples, hidden gems and, above all, many, many ways to ferment tea. But rather than revering it as mystical or exotic, it’s important to treat this wonderful beverage as part of the real world (and more)
Words Anna Sulan Masing | Photography Gary Smith

Kombucha is, essentially, a fermented tea drink. It’s made by adding a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) to brewed tea and sugar. This is left to ferment with available oxygen, then bottled – minus the SCOBY, which is saved for the next batch – and fermented for a second time, without the presence of oxygen. Put like that, it sounds simple. Deceptively so.

Cell biologist and fermentation expert Tiff Mak says the complexity of kombucha is evident in its name. “The association with tea is probably derived from the -cha part of the word, which stands for tea in many Asian languages. But the word can also be used to mean broth. Whether the drink’s exact definition is that it has to contain tea – ie be derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis – as the main component is ambiguous.” Adding to the confusion, she says, is that “there are many variations of kombucha – for example, Jun is a subcategory that is made specifically with green tea and honey.”

At times this ambiguity is exploited. A number of kombucha brands in the global north have injected origin stories into their marketing that begin in south or east Asia, leaning heavily on a mystic notion of wellness. For example, the US brand GT’s – established more than 20 years ago and one of the biggest global kombucha brands – cites “eastern philosophy” and “ancient history”, using south Asian-inspired design to create exoticism and, in the words of academic Uma Narayan, the contrast between “the material West and the spiritual East”.

This modern image of kombucha possibly stems from Gunther W Frank’s 1995 book Kombucha: Healthy Beverage and Natural Remedy from the Far East. The connection to wellness has been further developed by an increased interest in fermentation and its relationship to health.

Sandor Katz, a US food writer who’s been described as the godfather of fermentation although he describes himself as a fermentation revivalist, is an avid fan of kombucha but cautions against buying into the elixir reputation the drink has acquired. In an appearance on the REAL Kombucha podcast, he explained that, although fermented food has positive benefits to a lot of people, there is no one food or drink that solves all our nutrition problems. “We are multivariable beings – one small change doesn’t change everything. What we eat and drink is part of a larger context.”

The claimed health benefits have played a major part in Australia’s rapid adoption of this new-fangled drink. People may want to cut out sugar but they don’t want to compromise on taste. Emmet Condon, co-founder of Remedy Drinks, explains how they achieve this balance; “Our long-aged brewing process allows us to craft a kombucha with great depth of flavour that naturally contains no sugar and is chock-full of live cultures, organic acids and antioxidants.”

Katz says people come to fermenting for various reasons, including exploring flavour, culture and culinary history. Kombucha, like other fermenting processes, is a multifaceted practice and experience. At its heart, it’s a drink that invites creativity; one that is ripe for diversifying and developing flavours, and a number of Australian brands have been doing just that.

True to their name, Happy Hippie Drinks have been experimenting with hemp. “We have a unique ‘Hemp + Kombucha’ range which adds 600mg of pure hemp oil into our kombucha, giving your brain a healthy dose of omega 3, 6 and 9, essential for brain development and growth,” explains Benjamin Lovric, Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator.

The Bucha of Byron pride themselves on making premium quality, great-tasting traditional kombucha. Beyond that, they are always looking to push the boundaries. Introducing alcohol into the mix may upset the purists, but it opens up a whole new area of flavour experimentation. “We are differentiated by having non-alcoholic kombucha as well as creating alcoholic versions with our Bucha Hard Seltzer and our Sneaky Bucha of Byron Crisp Lager with a dash of kombucha,” explains Paul Tansley, the brand’s co-founder.

These boozy ‘buchas are very new to the market but Tansley sees it as a promising opportunity. “It’s still in the early stages here for the continuing development of interesting ‘better choice’ or healthier alternatives in the alcohol category,” he says. “We’ve only just released them, so are really keen to see these launch into summer.”

Learning to make kombucha, Tiff Mak explains, is about understanding equilibrium and coexistence in living systems, which are dynamic and something we are all part of. For her, kombucha is a medium for communicating flavour. “I see it as a great way to capture transient flavours, as well as reducing food waste,” she says. “The ‘alive’ nature of it means that flavour and properties can continuously evolve. Once, I added a fragrant mango seed as a second ferment to an oolong tea kombucha, with a delicious result.”

For those considering making their own homebrew, the quality of the SCOBY is critical, and in some cases, so is the lineage. Husband and wife founders of Remedy, Emmet and Sarah Condon started their brewing journey from their kitchen bench. “The SCOBY we use is a descendent of the very first batch we made at home. It had been brewing kombucha in Australian homes for more than 40 years,” Emmet explains. “When we sourced ours we were told its history can be traced back to a couple of German backpackers who brought it to Australia as a way to keep enjoying kombucha during their travels.”

But kombucha is also about relationships. Tansley recalls his first memories of the beverage. “I grew up in Byron Bay and there’s a pretty alternate and health-focused community, so as kids there’d often be a SCOBY hanging around in someone’s fridge,” he says. “My mum used to make it, and my other partners in the business had also been around it growing up.”

Exploring people’s personal connections to the drink and developing a rich and exciting real-world story, is far better than evoking mysterious exoticism and debatable health solutions. Kombucha should be something that’s constantly evolving and reflective of its environment. It is, after all, a living beverage.

To discover some crazy kombucha cocktails with coffee, get yourself the latest copy of Caffeine Australia.

This feature appears in issue 04 of Caffeine magazine Australia

Ask for a copy of Caffeine magazine from wherever you get your beans or subscribe using the link below.