Fermented beverages at work? Sure, but not the alcoholic kind. Kombucha, a fermented black tea and sugar beverage, is all the rage among many health-seekers and trend-followers.
Kombucha is fermented with a combination of bacteria and yeast called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which forms a mushroom-like pancake on top of the tea during the fermentation process. The yeast eats the sugar, and the bacteria work with the enzymes in the tea, creating a fizzy, sweet-and-sour drink in about ten days. The beverage can then be bottled and sold, although many people enjoy making their own.
Kombucha is usually made with black tea, although green tea works as well and makes a lighter brew. Many Kombuchas are infused with fruits or herbs, giving them a wide range of flavors. Although the taste can be startling at first, many people enjoy the tangy, effervescent flavor. The fermentation process generally results in alcohol contents of under .5%. However, sometimes fermentation can continue in the bottle, resulting in higher alcohol levels: up to 3%! Some bottled Kombucha was recalled in 2010 until manufacturing changes could address this problem.
As is common with food trends, many people are hailing Kombucha as a wonder drink, a panacea for everything from cancer to the effects of aging. Indeed, the fermentation process does create probiotics, which have been shown to help with digestion. It also creates antioxidants, which some claim can help boost the immune system. However, evidence for these claims is anecdotal, with no scientific evidence to back them up.
Although bottled Kombucha is generally safe for non-immunocompromised people, the “brew-your-own” method has some risks associated with it. The primary problem is that the exact properties of the final drink are difficult to control, so different batches will have different attributes. In 1995, two women were hospitalized with excessive lactic acid after drinking Kombucha from the same SCOBY for two months. Although a definitive link to the home-brewed Kombucha was never proven, the FDA issued a warning about the beverage. Further, the fermentation process is vulnerable to contamination under non-sterile conditions. Dangerous molds can enter the beverage, which would not harm a healthy person drinking a small amount, but could be fatal to someone with a compromised immune system.
While the scientists work out the details of home-brewing Kombucha, you might be better off trying it in a bottle first. It has less sugar than soda, and the tangy flavor makes a nice change. Cheers!