Kombucha’s unlikely rise from Soviet elixir to modern-day miracle drink.
By Danielle Elliot
In May of 1995, Ruth Patras realized that something was wrong with her 5-week-old daughter, Ciara. Initially happy and healthy, about a month after Ciara was born, the whites of her eyes started to turn yellow. Over the next few days, the color deepened, and her appetite diminished. Patras took Ciara to her pediatrician, who sent the family to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Tests revealed that Ciara had biliary atresias, a rare liver disease in which the ducts that pass bile from the liver to the gallbladder and the first section of the small intestine become blocked. Bile serves two functions in the body, helping to digest fat and carry waste out of the liver. When trapped, the excess bile damages liver cells, eventually leading to liver failure.
Doctors told Patras that the only hope for Ciara was a complex surgery known as the Kasai procedure, in which the gallbladder and bile ducts are removed and the liver is connected directly to the small intestine. The Kasai procedure is hardly a cure, though: It’s only successful 30 to 50 percent of the time, and when it fails, patients need a liver transplant as early as age 1 or 2; even when it works, around three-quarters of patients still require a liver transplant by their 20th birthday.
After the procedure, doctors explained, the rest was up to Ciara’s immune system. Hearing this, Patras felt the first spark of hope she’d had since the diagnosis. She walked out of the room, away from other shell-shocked parents, to the pay phone at the end of the hall, where she called her husband. She told him that she was bringing the baby home that weekend, and that he needed to open a package that was waiting on the kitchen counter.
While pregnant with Ciara, Patras had heard a guest on the daytime talk show Leeza discussing a drink that could boost the immune system. Patras had already lost her mother, uncle, several aunts, and both grandmothers to cancer, so strengthening her immune system seemed appealing. She ordered a kit to make the beverage, a fermented tea called kombucha.
Through the confusing whirlwind of doctor’s appointments leading up to Ciara’s diagnosis, Patras began bottle-feeding kombucha to her sick child. One week after Ciara underwent the Kasai procedure, Patras continued the kombucha regimen. Ciara’s pediatrician objected, but within a few weeks, bile began to drain from her liver, and in follow-up exams, Ciara’s liver appeared softer and smaller. Patras knew this could be the result of a successful Kasai procedure, but suspected that, somehow, the kombucha was involved. She waited nearly a year before telling Ciara’s pediatrician about it again. When she did, the doctor ordered her to stop giving it to Ciara immediately. “She actually reprimanded me,” Patras told me.
The doctor said that there was no scientific evidence for kombucha’s safety or efficacy, but Patras didn’t need any: Her daughter’s health was proof enough.
Some $600 million worth of kombucha was sold last year, peddled everywhere from bodegas to bars to Bed Bath & Beyond. It’s on tap at cool coffee shops; it’s in your neighbor’s fridge; it’s on Entourage and The Mindy Project and Flaked. Its ubiquity in post-Portlandia America has been largely powered by the reverberations of the claims that attracted Patras over 20 years ago: that it supports digestion, metabolism, cell integrity, immunity, appetite control, weight control, liver function, and healthy skin and hair — or as artsy labels put it today, by promises that it will “rejuvenate, restore, revitalize, recharge, rebuild, regenerate, replenish, regain, rebalance, renew.”
A small fraction of today’s kombucha drinkers consume it in hopes of curing cancer or alleviating psoriasis. The vast majority are just taking part in the recent aspirational hegemony of “wellness” — the cultural tidal wave that has given us skincare as coping mechanism, turmeric lattes with almond milk, and brain dust — hoping that kombucha might be part of the recipe, whether it balances their microbiome or simply boosts their energy levels.
Bruce Chassy, a professor emeritus in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says there’s a short explanation for why people have turned to kombucha to be healthy, or at least for a whiff of wellness: “More and more people are mistrusting of many, many different things, whether it’s politicians or corporations or traditional medicine.”
Americans are choosing to believe in their intuition, to choose whole foods and natural products instead of processed foods and pills. “The more important part of this is that people have changed remarkably in what they will consider as evidence or reason for forming an idea about something,” Chassy says. “We’re inundated with information and conflicting claims. People are believing what they want to believe, and ignoring the rest.” (Case in point: The debate over genetically modified organisms, in which Chassy is embroiled after documents showed that he accepted money from Monsanto even while presenting himself as an independent academic researcher.) Seeded by dubious prophets with tidings of good health, and stoked by thrifty entrepreneurs, the kombucha phenomenon took root in America at a perfect moment — just as some people began to lose trust in modern medicine and wanted to believe in something more.
A few months before Ruth Patras heard kombucha touted on a daytime talk show, a group of housemates in Portland, Oregon, tried it for the first time after a friend left some behind. One of them, Robert Deering, was especially intrigued. Deering holds a BS in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a master’s in microbiology from the University of Washington; after grad school, he spent a few years working in a cancer research lab in Seattle before moving to Portland. Curiosity led him to the library at nearby Portland State, where he found a 1940s book on fermentation with a short section on kombucha. It explained that kombucha starts with a SCOBY — a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast — which forms in the organic compound cellulose.
In your hand, a SCOBY feels like Play-Doh that’s soaked in water; in the bottom of your glass, it looks about as appetizing as a loogie. Kombucha is produced when a SCOBY is combined with sugar and brewed tea — black, oolong, or green, as long it’s from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The entire process takes about two weeks. First, the sugar and hot tea are combined. Once the sweetened tea has cooled, an acidifier — often matured kombucha — can be added to prevent unfriendly bacteria. Then the SCOBY is placed on top and the container is covered with a breathable cloth, so that air can get in but dust and fruit flies can’t. As the SCOBY lowers the pH of the sweetened tea, its rising acidity kills off pathogenic bacteria, and acid-tolerant microbes consume the oxygen in it, beginning fermentation. When the oxygen is gone, the yeast starts breaking down the sugar, converting it to alcohol; the bacteria in the SCOBY then breaks that down to form various acids, resulting in the final product: kombucha. It smells like diluted vinegar and malty yeast, and when poured into a glass, it bubbles like champagne. Once bottled, the bubbles remain, making it more interesting than water, less sweet than juice, and less potent than soda.
Deering learned that no two SCOBYs are exactly the same, and no two batches of kombucha are exactly alike, in part because each batch picks up different yeast microbes from the air. Room temperature and the water also affect the flavor, the speed of fermentation, and the development of gases. Alcohol continues forming as long as there is yeast and sugar in the mixture, so the final alcohol content depends on when the SCOBY is removed, or when the kombucha is pasteurized. If kept unpasteurized, or raw, fermentation continues, and so does alcohol production. When treated properly, each SCOBY can be used to start a new batch — or two, because every few days SCOBYs sprout a thin layer of cellulose that easily peels off the bottom and can be used on its own.
Science has yet to offer a better explanation of how kombucha develops than what Deering found in that 70-year-old book, and no one has definitively determined where the first SCOBY came from — only that kombucha has almost always been synonymous with miraculous health claims.
Egyptologist Zahi Hawass once claimed kombucha was first brewed during the reign of Khufu, who commissioned the Great Pyramid, around 2500 BCE; The Big Book of Kombucha points to a legend claiming it originated in northern China in the third century BCE, but wasn’t regularly consumed there until the seventh century CE at the earliest; authors Harald Tietze, Andra Anastazia Malczewski, and Marie Nadine Antol each claim a Korean physician named Kom-bu brought it to Japan in 414 CE, as he attempted to treat the Emperor Inkyo’s various disorders. Some say Genghis Khan’s armies carried it west, others say it traveled along the Silk Road. Whatever its ancient origins, German scientists were referencing it in their work by the 1850s.
Dozens of far-fetched stories detail the drink’s healing powers. In one tale, people live to over 100 in the 8,500-person village of Kargasok on the Ob River because they drink kombucha. There, legend has it that kombucha allowed an 80-year-old woman to give birth to her first child, fathered by a 130-year-old man. Russian and German doctors mentioned kombucha in more than 100 publications between 1917 and 1935. During that time, it came to be known as the “tea of immortality” in various parts of Europe; in France, it was known as l’élixir de longue vie.
These claims traveled predominantly by word-of-mouth, including informational leaflets, until 1994, when Tietze, a German-born kombucha drinker, perpetuated its mythos in a dubiously sourced book called Kombucha: The Miracle Fungus, which claimed to summarize the various medical benefits that European doctors, as well as people who wrote him letters, ascribed to kombucha — and which devoted kombucha drinkers once pointed to as evidence of its medical efficacy. Tietze describes, for instance, a 1987 study by Reinhold Weisner, a possibly made-up physician and biologist working in Bremen, Germany, who conducted a trial with 246 patients to compare kombucha treatment with Interferon, a common immune-boosting drug used in the treatment of various illnesses. According to Tietze, Weisner found kombucha more effective in treating asthma, 92 percent as effective in treating rheumatism, and 89 percent as effective on kidney disorders. (“There’s a long history of bad studies coming out of the former Soviet Union,” Chassy notes. “The medicine was deeply rooted in folk beliefs, and what they wanted to come out influenced what came out.”)
Tietze questionably claims that kombucha made its first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on the strength of those Soviet health studies, when Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with cancer in 1985. According to Tietze’s fantastical account, Reagan read the semi-autobiographical novel of Nobel Prize recipient Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and credited kombucha with helping him overcome cancer in the 1950s; inspired, Reagan acquired a SCOBY from Japan and started drinking a liter of kombucha every day, stopping the cancer from spreading. (Reagan in fact had a polyp and two feet of his lower intestine surgically removed.)
The White House has never confirmed whether Reagan drank kombucha, and it’s not mentioned in any official biographies — if he did drink it, he was one of the few known to do so outside niche hippie communities in the U.S. until 1992, when it emerged on the alternative health scene in California. (A mycologist in Olympia, Washington, once told the New York Times that a pharmaceutical company asked him to research kombucha in 1980.) That year, a German-born instructor offered it to a class at an LA meditation center, saying it would “help heal the planet.” In that meditation group was a graphic designer named Betsy Pryor, who might have been the first person to commercialize kombucha in the U.S. “One evening after class, where I’d silently asked God to help me keep people alive … the meditation instructor emerged from the center kitchen clutching an odd, pancake-looking thing encased in a clear plastic bag,” Pryor wrote on her now-defunct website. “[The instructor] paused, looking at me intently. ‘It’s going to help heal the planet.’ A few weeks after I started to drink the Kombucha Tea, I felt like I’d been reborn.” An immediate believer, Pryor and her partner began selling SCOBYs by mail order the next year, charging $50, or $15 if a customer was ill. A sticker on each package said to “Expect a Miracle,” and Pryor repeated this claim in various interviews.