Bottled kombucha.

Kombucha Tea, known in China as Hong Cha Jun 红茶菌, is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) fizzy beverage with many health benefits. It is made of sweetened tea that is then fermented with a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeasts, or SCOBY for short. Some people also call it “kombucha mushroom tea,” or "Manchurian mushroom tea," but don't be fooled by the name. Kombucha tea (pronounced "come-boo-cha") is not made with any mushrooms and it's really not a tea. Kombucha is not even it's true name!

 

Kombucha Tea Is Not Made With Mushrooms

Sun illuminating mushrooms in forest.

Kombucha Tea is not made with mushrooms. There is no such thing as a "kombucha" mushroom. Instead it is made with a SCOBY, which is a type of yeast (see below).

Yeasts and mushrooms belong to the same kingdom of organisms called fungi (pronounced "fun-guy" in America and "fun-gee" in Britain), but they are not the same. They're more like distant relatives.

The reason it is called a "mushroom tea" is likely due to a misnomer. In China where the drink originated and is still consumed, the Chinese words for mold, fungus and mushroom all contain the same character, jun 菌. In nearby Japan, where the beverage has also been used for millennia, the words for mold, fungus, and mushroom also contain the same character, kinoko キノコ. For one reason or another, mostly due to the legendary health benefits of all kinds of mushrooms across various ancient civilizations, the mushroom name was associated with Kombucha Tea and the rest is history!

 

Kombucha Tea Is Not Really A Tea

Camellia sinensis tea plant orchard on hillside.

Kombucha bears the "tea" moniker because it begins as a simple brew of sweetened tea made using the leaves of the tea plant Camellia sinensis, a species of evergreen shrubs in the flowering plant family TheaceaeAll types of traditional teas- white, black, green, oolong, etc- are derived from the same Camellia sinensis plant.

Homemade kombucha tea in a large jar.

But with Kombucha Tea, once the sweetened tea is brewed and it has cooled to room temperature, a SCOBY culture is added to begin fermentation. The bacteria and yeast of the SCOBY culture consumes most of the sugar in the tea, producing a slightly sour and fermented fizzy beverage. Fruits, sweeteners, spices, medicinal herbs and other flavor enhancers are also commonly used during fermentation to enhance the taste.

 

So... What Does Kombucha Mean?

No one really knows why this fermented tea is called Kombucha. The widely accepted take on it is that English speakers that discovered the beverage mistook the Japanese word konbu-cha (literally "tea made from kelp") to mean fermented tea.

In Japan, konbu-cha is a completely different tea beverage made with powdered kelp. Kelp tea has a thick gelatinous film that resembles the SCOBY culture used in fermented teas. It is likely that English speakers became confused and incorrectly translated konbu-cha as fermented tea.

An example of Japanese kelp tea.

In Japanese, fermented tea is called kōcha kinoko (紅茶キノコ), literally "red tea mushroom / fungus". Hong Cha Jun 红茶菌, the Chinese name for fermented tea, is also translated as "red tea mushroom / fungus". 

 

Wait— Kombucha Uses A Red Tea? What's Red Tea?

A infusion of warm red-colored tea.

Well, to be sure, there is no such thing as red-colored tea leaves produced by the Camellia sinensis plant. But red tea does exist— sort of.

In China and many other parts of Asia, tea is categorized according to the color of the brew— white brew, yellow brew, green brew, red brew, and black brew. Of these types of teas, the red brew has traditionally been used to make Kombucha.

To make things confusing, red brew is achieved by using what Americans and Europeans commonly call black tea. These are the dried-up tea leaves that have been bruised to expose its enzymes to oxygen.

Black tea leaves with red-colored tea brew.

As tea leaves oxidize, they turn a deep brown, purple or black hue that easily distinguishes this variety from the other types produced by the same Camellia sinensis plant. But when dark bruised and oxidized tea leaves are brewed, the resulting brew is a rusty or red colored tea.

While most Kombucha today is brewed using a blend of both red and green brews, there is actually such a thing as a black tea brew, or Hei Cha 黑茶. This is a very different category of tea than the green, red, white and yellow brews, and it is not commonly used in making Kombucha Tea.

A cup of pu erh tea.

Black brews are very dark in color, very similar to coffee. Black brews such as Shou Pu (Pu Erh) or Liu Bao use tea leaves that not only have been oxidized, but have also been fermented with beneficial microbes, resulting in a brew that has a pitch black hue and earthy taste.

 

More About The SCOBY in Kombucha Tea

A medium sized SCOBY disc on a white plate.

A SCOBY is similar to mother of vinegar. It contains a broad spectrum colony of beneficial bacteria and yeast species that form a biofilm of cellulose. The biofilm, known as the "mother", is a gelatinous disc that looks like a slice of wobbly translucent jello.

When a SCOBY is placed in sweetened tea, it triggers a metabolic process known as fermentation whereby the bacteria or yeast of the SCOBY organically digest carbohydrates of the sweetened tea (sugar) and produce acidic, gaseous, and alcoholic byproducts.

A hand holding a small blob of SCOBY.

The fermentation process in Kombucha Tea is divided into two parts. The first part is an aerobic reaction that produces acids to get the beverage's tangy, sour taste. The resulting brew is then bottled where it will undergo anaerobic fermentation to build up carbon dioxide and achieve the beverage's natural fizz.

The second part of fermentation is also where additional flavors derived from fruits, flowers, spices, and medicinal herbs are added in.

During the fermentation process, the SCOBY protects the fermenting tea from the outside air and maintains a very specific environment inside the vessel, shielding it from the growth of unfriendly bacteria. The SCOBY mother also grows, and a healthy SCOBY mother will grow a SCOBY “baby” at the top of the brew to the exact fit of the vessel it is being grown in. The baby SCOBY can be peeled away from the mother SCOBY and grown in a separate vessel as a new "mother".

A SCOBY layer being peeled away from the mother SCOBY.

 

Health Benefits of Kombucha Tea

Closeup picture of Health-Ade kombucha brand.

Research has shown that drinking tea derived from the Camellia sinensis plant may offer many health benefits, including improved immune system, healthy weight loss, stress reduction, and reduction in pain and inflammation. These are attributed to the presence of antioxidants in tea leaves such as catechins, tannins, and polyphenols, as well as the amino acid theanine.

But because the tea in Kombucha Tea is fermented with a SCOBY, the brew also gets infused with vitamins such as Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin and Niacinmide (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyradoxine (B6), Biotin (B7), Folic Acid (B9), B-12, and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The fermentation process also improves the bioavailability of these essential water-soluble vitamins, meaning they're easier for your body to absorb and utilize.

Additionally, the fermentation process in Kombucha Tea also delivers billions of live probiotics and other beneficial bacteria that support a healthy gut as well as boosts overall health. While no large studies have been performed, some of the many other health benefits commonly reported by people who consume Kombucha Tea include:

    • improved digestion
    • regulated bowel movement
    • reduced acid reflux
    • clearer skin
    • less pain and more flexibility
    • improved immunity
    • reduced stress
    • increased focus and mood

 

5 Tips For Maximizing Health Benefits of Kombucha Tea

1. Drink in Small Quantities and Frequently Throughout The Day

When it comes to eating fermented foods to benefit your health, slow and steady wins the race! The same applies to Kombucha Tea- the single best way to maximize the health benefits of Kombucha Tea is to drink it slowly in small quantities and frequently throughout the day.

2. How Much To Drink?

Start with 3-oz portions, 1-3 times each day, straight from the bottle into a glass. Some newcomers to the beverage may seek to soften the flavor with fruit juice, but if you want to avoid adding sugar just add a bit water. Don't worry- with time you should be able to taste the full Kombucha experience.

3. When To Drink?

The best times to drink Kombucha Tea is on an empty stomach. This allows your digestive system to focus solely on digesting and absorbing the Kombucha Tea.

For the best benefits, drink your first glass in the morning on an empty stomach. Then you can drink it in between meals, either one hour before or after eating. If you miss any of these times, you can always drink a glass right before going to bed. Just be sure your stomach is empty.

But you can drink it more times throughout the day too. Many people drink it mid-afternoon or after exercising as an energy boost. Some even use it as a healthier alternative to alcohol.

4. Be Warned: Alcohol Content in Kombucha Tea Varies!

As part of the fermentation process, Kombucha Tea can end up with either a small amount of alcohol or quite a bit. Most Kombucha Tea that is brewed and sold commercially as a health beverage contains anywhere between 0.5 to 2 percent alcohol. But there are some Kombucha Teas, known as "hard" Kombuchas, that can have upwards to between 5%- 11% alcohol by volume (ABV). As a reference point, a regular beer contains about 5 percent ABV.

If you're sensitive to alcohol or trying to avoid it, Kombucha Tea may not be for you. Consult with your health provider for more guidance.

5. Do I Also Drink The Gooey Globs and Strings Of SCOBY Floating in My Kombucha Tea?

A lot of Komucha Teas that are sold commercially, particularly those sold in cans, usually filter out the SCOBY and it's various gooey pieces. But some of the the bottled Kombucha Teas still include floating pieces of the SCOBY. 

These brown stringy and gooey pieces of SCOBY usually settle on the bottom or float in the brew, and are often concerning to those new to Kombucha Tea. But don't worry, these pieces of SCOBY are beneficial to drink!

But if you can't stand the thought of stomaching the SCOBY pieces, try gently stirring your Kombucha Tea in the bottle to help it dissolve, or you can use a strainer to remove them from your glass first before drinking. 

 

About the Author

authorRene M. Rodriguez is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and board licensed acupuncturist with 20 years experience in alternative natural medicine. He's in private practice in Los Angeles, CA, specializing in digestive disorders, skin conditions, infections, environmental illness, and mind-body health and wellness. For more information, please click here.


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