Stop by a few supermarkets in your area, and just try to find one without kombucha on the shelves. Hard task? Thought so. The trendy fermented beverage has millions of fans — U.S. grocers sell about $180 million worth per year — and it’s beloved for everything from its probiotic and antioxidant properties to, well, its fizzy and slightly pungent taste.
Although it might seem like kombucha just recently bubbled up into our grocery stores and home fridges, there’s a 2,000-year-plus history behind the brew. In honor of World Kombucha Day on February 21, we’re walking through the history of the drink: from the ancient Qin Dynasty to the present day, when ’booch legends like GT Dave of GT’s Living Foods are still innovating on time-tested recipes. Grab a bottle (Gingerade and Trilogy are great choices) and toast with us as we walk back through the years.
“The Tea of Immortality”
The precise origin of kombucha is slightly hazy, but the first recipes are thought to date back as far as 221 BCE, the start of China’s Qin Dynasty. (Hence the 2/21 date for World Kombucha Day.) Brewers in northern China and Korea figured out how to take symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast (together they form a gelatinous disc known as a SCOBY) and use that to ferment sugared tea. They called it the “Tea of Immortality” and believed there was some truth to that name. In about 414 BCE, a Korean doctor reportedly brought the method for kombucha production across the sea to Japan, where he served on the court of Ingyō, Japan’s 19th emperor, and extolled the virtues of the drink.
According to legend, that doctor’s name was Kombu. If he existed, then theoretically he was responsible for the name. In Japanese, though, kombucha refers to a kelp tea and is a different drink altogether. Combine the Japanese words for kelp (kombu) and tea (cha), and the rest makes sense. Through the ages, the tales around this storied drink ebb and flow, but for kombucha lovers, this sense of mystery is all part of the appeal.
From the Far East to western Europe
Across ancient trade routes, kombucha found devotees in India, Europe, and the Far East. Historical accounts vary, but researchers cite accounts that the drink traveled along trade routes from East Asia to Russia to Ukraine, or Germany, or Switzerland. Notably, Russian and German POWs drank it during World War I. After wartime, pharmacists across western Europe played up its Far East image, too, calling it everything from “Fungojapan” to “Mo-Gu” (from the Chinese word for mushroom).
Few places in the world took to kombucha more than in Russia, where it became a Soviet Union staple. Grandmothers administered the “chayniy grib” to generations of children, and prisoners even made it in their cells. The popularity was simple: It was tasty, easy to make, and most importantly, a digestive aid. Furthermore, research surveys claimed that kombucha could detoxify the blood, regulate appetite, and balance the intestines; years later, even more extensive informal surveys of kombucha’s benefits have diehards citing everything from preventing hair loss to increased sex drive to better-smelling underarms. However unscientific, this idea of unlocking vast benefits from a simple drink is appealing.
And it’s this overall hope for better health that’s kept kombucha thriving up through recent years. Passionate kombucha makers, much like craft-beer brewers, have perfected their techniques over time. But it wasn’t until 1995 that the drink began its transformation from a home-brewed specialty to a commercial sensation in the U.S. — thanks to a man named GT Dave.
A family operation
There’s no person more responsible for stocking shelves with kombucha than GT Dave. His brand, GT’s Synergy Raw Kombucha, is now the largest kombucha brand in the world, but his first sip came from his father’s homebrew (“which he unknowingly was over-fermenting,” GT jokes).
His passion for the drink stems from 1994, when his mother, Laraine, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. When she recuperated in 1995, she told her doctor she’d been drinking a very pungent type of kombucha. By the end of that year, 15-year-old GT was creating small batches of that same blend in his family’s southern California kitchen. When a natural food store picked up his products, his first two cases sold out within a day.
Today, GT still crafts his kombucha in small batches, produces more than a million gallons a year, and sells 40 flavors that are never heated, pasteurized, or processed. That type of operation is a far cry from kombucha’s humble origins, but because GT stays authentic to the craft established more than 2,000 years ago, its fanbase has stayed true for ages. Cheers to the next few millennia.