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First kombucha

Tea fungus isn’t the most enticing name for a drink, is it?


The booch. Sea treasure. Manchurian mushroom. Volga jellyfish. Russian flower. Tea vinegar. Miracle mushroom. Much cooler.

Kombucha and scoby

Kombucha is a cold sweet green or black tea fermented using live bacteria that form a gelatinous SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast) over the top.


It’s been hailed as a miraculous drink, capable of curing everything from cancer and radiation poisoning to HIV-AIDs and diabetes. It’s even been touted as the elixir of immortality. Although few formal studies have been done, it’s generally known as a probiotic ‘health’ drink that helps digestion, immune system functioning and gut microbiome.


To the uninitiated, kombucha can be an acquired taste. It’s tangy and tart and (almost) sweet all at once. And gently fizzy from the fermentation. A sort of lovechild of vinegar and lemonade. Traditionally it was all home-brewed but now there are a lot of commercial kombuchas available, in all sorts of fruity, floral or herbal flavours to make it more appealing.


From a naming perspective, it’s hard to pinpoint when people settled on the actual word kombucha. Different cultures (pun intended) throughout history all had different names for what’s essentially the same drink – so the actual word is relatively new (or is it?). Equally, the exact birth date of kombucha is not only hard to know for certain – no one seems to be able to agree as to whether it’s 100s or 1000s of years old. As you’ll see, the histories and stories are as cloudy as the scobies that ferment the tea.


Let’s start with the ancient Asian origin stories. There’s a couple of well-known and oft repeated classics.


It just seems to make sense that kombucha originated in China or Japan. After all, to western ears, the name sounds Asian right? And we know tea and tea culture originated there.


The first myth occurs in 221 BC in what is now northeast China. It was believed that Qin Shi Huang, China’s first Emperor and brain behind the Great Wall of China, was obsessed with finding the elixir of life and regularly enjoyed a drink known as the ‘Tea of Immortality’, created by one of his many alchemists.

Qin Shi Huang, China’s first Emperor

He was a great ruler, but not an immortal one – he died aged 49 on 12th July 210 BC – and was buried in a city-sized mausoleum guarded by over 8,000 terracotta warriors. Sadly, there is no documentary evidence as to whether this tea was kombucha or not, but Qin Shi Huang was known to have banned and burned books (and scholars), so it could be true.


One thing in its favour was that we know fermentation and tea culture were both prospering around this time, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. Perhaps it was a pot of green tea, traditionally sweetened with honey, that was left forgotten in a courtyard that formed the first kombucha scoby?


There is a later story, set in Japan in 414 AD, that gives a potential etymological clue as to how the name kombucha came about. We know from the first written Japanese records called the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (albeit written posthumously about 300 years later) that Emperor Ingyō – who ruled from 410 to 453 – suffered from an unnamed ‘paralysing’ illness.

The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Japan's first written records

In early 414, he sent an envoy to Silla, a Korean kingdom, to find a doctor. At the time, Korea was known to be the ‘home of healing science’, so this makes sense. The physician is said to have diagnosed Ingyō’s condition as an ailment of the legs and cured him by August. The records don’t record the name of the doctor but any quick search on the internet will tell you it was attributed to Dr. Kombu (or Komu-ha), hence the name. So a recap: a miraculous doctor called ‘Kumba’ who used a tea called ‘cha’. Eureka!


Not so fast. Firstly, Kombu is not a traditional Korean name (or Japanese for that matter). Around Ingyō’s time it was actually the name of an edible kelp that was widely used in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisines. So, could it have in fact been a tea made from seaweed? It’s certainly thought to be health-giving, packed with iodine and great for reducing blood cholesterol, and was/is used as the basis of all kinds of local broths and sauces (but crucially it wasn’t fermented).

kombu kelp

The word kombu first appeared sporadically in poems and literature in the 5th to 8th centuries and pops up again in the Engishiki (‘Procedures of the Engi Era’), a Japanese book about laws and customs written in around 927. It was not until 1867 that the word first appeared in English, in a Japanese-English dictionary by James Curtis Hepburn, an American medical missionary.  


(On a side note, umami, or fifth taste, was first identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda through scientific experimentation with kombu, which he said gave a sweet, sour, bitter and salty taste.)


Doesn’t it seem odd that a tea that is renowned for its curative powers, that’s even said to endow immortality, isn’t written about in detail in any ancient text? Especially as the stories then go cold for hundreds and hundreds of years.


We pick things back up in the 19th century. In 1805, a travelling Russian intellectual called I. Ryadovsky writes about drinking “vinegar” and eating fermented Chinese peas while traveling in Mongolia. It’s the first of lots of sudden references to kombucha spreading across Russia.


Whether the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 or the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, Russia is heavily involved in Asia, battling on many fronts in China, Korea and Manchuria (present day northeast China). It is thought returning Russian soldiers brought back all sorts of curiosities from their months and years abroad, including the secret to fermentation cultures.

In the late 1890s, Dr. Nikolay Vasil’evich Kirilov, a Russian ethnographer (who specialised in the spread of plague) and champion of eastern medicine, conducts the first known kombucha experiments. He gave elderly Siberian people in remote communities kombucha to see its medicinal effects. In his conclusions he notes “a reduction of symptoms from arteriosclerosis [arterial hardening], benefits to digestion, and assistance in battling gastrointestinal issues.”


Just a few years afterwards, kombucha is starting to be researched in earnest. Between 1910-1914, Russian biologist Dr. A. A. Bachinskaya conducted many experiments on different kombucha cultures at the Women’s Botanical Laboratory Medical Institute in St Petersburg.

Women’s Botanical Laboratory Medical Institute in St Petersburg

She published four articles on the biology of the culture, concluding that the bacteria common to all kombuchas was probably spread by insects – the Acetobacter on their legs multiplies quickly under the right conditions, turning wine, beer, sweet tea (basically all sugars) into acid (the vinegar taste). In Russian, these cultures were called ‘tea mushroom’ or ‘tea kvass’ and became so common and normalised that home brews start appearing in paintings and literature of the time, and were called gribok or ‘little mushroom’. It was even traditionally given to colicky babies to alleviate their symptoms.


And now the legend and magic of kombucha starts to travel deeper into Europe. In 1896, German pharmacologist and toxicologist Rudolf Kobert, publishes a guide ‘About Kvass and Its Preparation’.

Rudolf Kobert, German pharmacologist and toxicologist

Obsessed with traditional Russian folk remedies, he writes another book in 1913 called ‘The Kvass: Safe, Inexpensive and Popular National Drink’. In 1917 he publishes in the German amateur microscopy magazine Mikrokosmos that kombucha is helpful for intestinal disorders, haemorrhoids and rheumatism.


In 1915, a Russian professor called Stephan Bazarewski wrote in ‘Correspondence for the Association of Nature Researchers in Riga’ that among the Latvian population on the shores of the Baltic Sea, they had a folk-remedy called ‘brinum-ssene’ (wonder-mushroom), a mushroom that was reported to have “a wonderful healing power for many diseases”. Bazarewski went on to say that "this mushroom is useful for all diseases”.


In 1927, a German doctor called Dr H. Waldeck publishes his own heartfelt kombucha experience, which cured his persistent constipation in Poland during the First World War.


"It was during the World War, in 1915. I was lying in my quarters in a pharmacy in Russian Poland. Since I was plagued by stubborn constipation - the fault of head field rations - I sought out my host [a Polish pharmacist]… [he] told me in a furtive whisper that if I could procure some tea, sugar and cognac or rum, he would brew me a sure-fire "miracle potion". To my curious question as to what this potion might be concocted of, he merely replied, "Miracle mushroom!" When I then asked what kind of extraordinary mushroom that might be, the pharmacist retorted roguishly, "It's a secret!"… Back in my room, I sipped cautiously this Russian miracle mushroom potion". It had a somewhat wine-like alcoholic aroma and a by no means unpleasant sweet-sour taste. I would surely have consumed it with greater gusto, were it not for its murky appearance, and if it weren't also for the daily warnings at that time in the posted orders of the day concerning typhus and cholera infection. Nevertheless, I obediently choked down a half-cup of it… Next morning, the hoped-for effect - mild, emancipating, and without the stomach discomfort that accompanies the use of other laxative preparations - made its appearance.”


Suffice to say, news of kombucha – with its many different names – was going down very well throughout Central Europe in the 1920s, fuelled by health-giving properties. In White Flag (which I presume is some sort of science magazine but can’t find any reference to) it was reported:


“The refreshing taste of this tea-beverage is generally pleasing, and its effect is ... a very good one. The taste of the fermented tea is very pleasant, being reminiscent of light, sparkling wine or sweet Most (pear juice). The effect of the tea usually shows up very fast. Most of all, it works blood-cleansing and detoxifying and is said ... [to be] very effective for constant headaches, pain in the limbs, gout, rheumatism, and other aging problems. The general effect of the mushroom-tea shows already in a few weeks through an improved general condition and in one's raised performance capacity, which may be connected with the mushroom's high vitamin and hormone effect, which are also emphasized by doctors.”


It even turned from counter-culture to commercial, advertised widely and sold at specialist pharmacies, often sold in dry form with exotic names like “Mo-Gu” (from the Chinese word for mushroom) and “FungoJapon”. There was even an extract called ‘Kombuchal’ made by a Prague company. When World War Two broke out, which rationed basic foodstuffs like tea and sugar, kombucha became less common. But according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1944 was the first time the name kombucha was used to officially describe the microbe drink.


Oddly, in the 1950s, kombucha hit the big time in Italy. Almost certainly brought back from soldiers fighting in Germany and Russia, it became especially revered in the upper classes as a magical drink. Recipes would be passed around like a ‘chain letter’, with detailed instructions that had to be followed exactly. Weird new religious-like traditions emerged. Scobies could only be shared with friends on Tuesdays, and if successful they’d be granted three wishes from Saint Antonio (patron saint of lost things). Priests even started noticing that people were stealing holy water from church fonts to make the tea’s healing powers more potent. Kombucha was BIG news, featuring in newspapers and on magazine covers – and was even immortalised in in a pop song by Renato Carosone in 1955 called ‘Stu fungo cinese’ (the Chinese fungus)!

Renato Carosone, 1955 song ‘Stu fungo cinese’

The cult of kombucha was getting more established and gathering pace. Joseph Stalin orders an investigation into its potential cancer-curing properties in the 1950s. Staying in Russia, in 1966 Nobel-prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in his semi-autobiographical book Cancer Ward that kombucha tea saved his life while exiled in the Siberian gulags (although it could be ‘chaga’, a birch tree fungus, he’s referring to…). Later, in the 80s, Ronald Reagan turned to kombucha when diagnosed with cancer himself, reportedly drinking a litre a day until his death in 2004 (aged 93!). You can see why it has such a good reputation.

Ronald & Nancy Reagan

 Of course, up until now, it had been resolutely home-brewed. The first proper commercial kombucha began with a company called GT. Founded in the Dave family kitchen in southern California in 1995 by George Thomas (hence GT) Dave – who was inspired by its healing effects on his mother’s breast cancer that had been diagnosed the year before. He started making it in bigger batches and sold his first two cases to Erewhon, an LA health food store, making him the first to put kombucha on shelves in the U.S.

George Thomas Dave, founder of GT

Today, of course, kombucha is much more widely known, available and accepted around the world. There is definitely still an air of mystery and fascination surrounding the booch but people are willing try it for all sorts of health reasons, whether anecdotal or scientific.


So although we can’t seem to pinpoint an exact date for its first fermented appearance, let’s all raise a fizzy glass to the future success of kombucha (and especially to the ancient PR team who managed to transform its name from tea fungus!).

Kombucha flavours


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