Guest Posting: The History of Kombucha – Introduction, by Tadeusz Zagrabinski
My name is Tadeusz Zagrabinski & I am the founder of Bärbucha Kombucha in Berlin, Germany.
I had recently presented a short history of Kombucha during the Virtual Kombucha Summit that took place in November 2020. Since I only had a limited time frame to do that, I have decided to expand on this topic, in this & in the upcoming posts.
It is not an easy topic to research, as the sources of information that we have are scarce, especially when it comes to times before 1913. Another thing that makes it quite difficult is the fact that the word “Kombucha” is relatively new & that all the countries that are historically connected to Kombucha (like China, Korea, Russia, or even Japan), have used different names for what we know today as Kombucha.
When we look at the ingredients of “basic” or “original”, namely tea & sugar, we generally think of China as the origin of Kombucha, as China is the home of tea. There are also a lot of stories placing Kombucha in China long, long time ago. I will try to verify them in the next part of this series.
But when we look at different names for Kombucha, we can not exclude the fact that maybe some of those names described something else than Kombucha.
As a matter of fact, Japan is the only country where the actual word Kombucha existed for a while, the problem is though that Kombucha relates to a drink made with a seaweed called Kombu. A drink that is quite popular, but it’s not fermented.
In Wikipedia you can find this particular statement:
The etymology of kombucha is uncertain; however, it is speculated that it is a misapplied loanword from Japanese. It has been hypothesized that English speakers mistook the Japanese word kombucha to mean fermented tea, when in fact, fermented tea in Japanese is called kōcha kinoko (紅茶キノコ, “red tea mushroom”).
The word “Kombucha” creates quite a problem for modern commercial brewers in Japan, as when they call their fermented tea as “Kombucha” product, they create confusion among their clientele that is familiar with the tea made from seaweed.
When we look at China, the word Kombucha is also quite unknown, as people who brew Kombucha call it “Hongcha Jun” 红茶菌 (“red tea fungus“).
There’s actually a funny story about that. We have opened our place in 2015 & in the neighborhood we have Chinese store called “China Kultur“, with very lovely owners. They were always walking past our place, but could not figure out what we were making, as Kombucha (as in Kombucha Cafe or Bärbucha Kombucha) did not mean anything to them. One day though, when we put our Scobies on window display & they saw them & they came in right away.
They knew Kombucha from home, but for them it was always Hongcha Jun.
So at least we can see that there is similarity between Chinese & Japanese descriptions for fermented tea.
Also in Korean “the word for kombucha is hongcha beoseo-tcha (버섯차), or “tea mushroom tea.”
Now let’s take a look at Russia. There, people who know Kombucha, know it as “чайный гриб” which translates to “tea mushroom” or “tea kvass”. So also not as Kombucha.
The association of tea & mushroom can be confusing as throughout the history some real mushrooms were & still are consumed in the form of tea. Especially in Russia. Among those are Chaga, Reishi, Birch Polypores & Turkey Tails.
When we look at the history of tea in Russia, it started in the first half of the 17th century & it became more affordable at the end of the 18th century. Taking this into account, it is hard to imagine that Kombucha could have been made in Russia before that time. Unless it was not made with tea at the beginning but with herbs. But I will go back to this later.
Looking at tea history in China also gives us some clues. Although tea was consumed as medicine for quite a while, but it was not the “tea” as we know it today. The fresh leaves were picked & boiled, creating a bitter-tasting liquid that was quite often sweetened. What was easily available at that time was definitely honey, and also some forms of crude rice sugar.
The tea was getting more refined around 7th century. But for quite some time that tea was what we know today as “green tea” & it was pounded into bricks. Later refinements created Oolongs & finally in the mid 17th century black tea came into being.
Lapsang Souchong smoked tea is considered to be the first black tea & there’s also a lovely story about how it came around.
Now, the reason why I mention all this is to create a background for the next part of this series in which I will try to debunk some of the circulating stories about Kombucha.
There are two interesting things stemming out of all this. One, is that the Chinese, Japanese & Korean names refer to Kombucha as a “red tea bacteria“.
Red tea (or Hong Cha) is basically what is known as black tea in the West. Almost but not quite. There are very fine teas called Hong Cha that are produced both in China & in Taiwan and they differ from regular black teas. But regardless, red or black, they do not go back more than to mid of the 17th century.
Green tea on the other hand goes way back. Green tea consumed medicinally & sweetened with honey (like in the times before 7th century), could lead us to something that we know today as “JUN” aka “Honey Kombucha”
Especially if it underwent an accidental wild fermentation.
Jun is now described as a cousin of Kombucha & is being placed in Tibet, without any historical proofs.
As a matter of fact the early stories about Jun are even less credible that the stories about Kombucha.
So if Kombucha truly originated in China & is truly a couple of thousand years old, then Jun would definitely fit the profile. Especially that “Jun” is a part of Kombucha’s name in Chinese.
If it’s not the case, then we have a problem. And the problem stems from the fact that the first Kombucha recipes that we know of were using black tea & white sugar & they are all relatively new – all of them are from 20th century.
That in itself is also strange, considering that we can find quite old recipes for making beer, like the one that goes back almost 4,000 years or lots of evidence for winemaking that goes back thousands of years back. And both, beer & wine belong to the same category of fermented drinks.
If we take into consideration the earliest available recipes that we know (black tea & white sugar), then we can speculate that Russia is the origin of Kombucha, not China. And that is simply because in China, as teas became more refined, there was no more need for using sugar to sweeten it. As a matter of fact, tea & sugar combination became a Western thing long time ago & is highly unusual during tea ceremonies in China. In Russia, on the other hand, there’s been a long tradition of strong black tea & sugar consumption.
Finally, we can not exclude the fact that Kombucha Scoby is some kind of hybrid from Vinegar Mother & as we already know, vinegar making goes back thousands of years, to at least the times of Ancient Babylon. So maybe the idea of making a “tea vinegar” led to the creation of “Kombucha”.
Or maybe it came around naturally, as it is described by one girl in Slovenia that was able to create a wild Scoby just by using rose hips & blackberry leaves. She also claims that in the area that she lives in, people have been making drinks like that for over a hundred years & it was as natural as sourdough making.
So, whatever is the case, Kombucha origins are quite murky & more research needs to be done. That research needs to be done in these specific countries: China, Korea, Japan & Russia. Only then we can know more about where Kombucha originated from & also around what time frame.
When I tried to get some information from people that know Kombucha & live or lived in China, they told me that the only information that is traceable goes back to around 150 years.
This introduction is not final & will be revised, once new information surfaces with time.
I am also looking forward to comments & suggestions.
This article is from Tadeusz’s Bärbucha Kombucha blog and appears here with his express permission.