Guest Posting: The History of Kombucha – Part One, by Tadeusz Zagrabinski
This article follows on from the Introduction posted last month.
For the ease of presentation, I have decided to present this entire topic in three different parts.
Part 1 will describe the period spanning from the beginning up till the year of 1913, a year in which the first scientific papers in Russia & in Germany were published about Kombucha.
Part 2 will describe the time period of 1913-1995, a pretty well documented period of strictly medicinal Kombucha.
And finally the last part, Part 3 will describe the recent history, which goes from 1995 till present, the history of re-defined Kombucha.
When looking at the history of Kombucha from the sources that are currently available, you automatically think about at least two thousand years. And that was also my assumption for a long time, but the time came when that assumption had changed. And it was not caused by some new discoveries about Kombucha history, it just happened when I started using logical thinking instead of taking everything that is being written about Kombucha for granted.
And what most of us take for granted is the ever repeated statement that Kombucha is at least two thousand years old & there are historical facts that prove it.
One of the eye-openers for me was a statement “It may have originated as recently as 200 years ago or as early as 2,000 years ago” that is being quoted by Wikipedia in the paragraph about Kombucha history. And it’s a quote from an article that appeared in “The Atlantic” in 2016. The title of this article is: “The Mystery of Kombucha Culture” & subsequently in a second article “Is Fermented Tea Making People Feel Enlightened Because of … Alcohol”
At first I was kind of taken back by that statement, but when I did more research, I must admit, I tend to agree with that, more now than ever before.
So let’s take at this particular time period, which I recently started calling a “Period of Myths & Legends”. And there’s quite a good reason for that, as all the well-known stories are not entirely true. Two of them are quite predominant: the 221 B.C. story & the 414 A.D. story. But I will get back to them in a moment.
One of the first stories about the origin of Kombucha is the story of the Chinese farmer & the accidental creation of Kombucha. This is probably one of the most plausible stories out of all, that are circulating around.
So in this story, a Chinese farmer makes himself tea, but he does not drink it all as he has to leave his hut for a couple of days. When he returns, he notices something strange growing on top of his tea. He does not throw this tea away & he tastes it. It tastes good & he feel rejuvenated after drinking it & this is how the first Kombucha supposedly started.
When we look closely at this story, it actually makes sense & is very probable. First, it would bring us time-wise to the old times before the 7th century, when the tea was consumed differently & it was actually sweetened at the time, to get rid of bitterness (for more, please check the Introduction). Honey was predominantly used at that time as the sweetener & honey could have been the thing that attracted a fruit fly. A fruit fly that carries acerobacter bacteria (which live on the fruit fly’s legs) & that particular fruit fly falling into the sweetened tea would give birth to the first Kombucha culture.
The role of a fruit fly was first mentioned by a Russian scientist A.A. Bachinskaya who studied Kombucha at the turn of the century.
From the same source we can also learn about another fable, this time from Russia, in which “the first kombucha culture originated from an ant. As the story goes, a monk with healing powers was summoned to help an ailing emperor. The monk promised to treat the emperor’s sickness with an ant, dropping a single insect into the emperor’s tea and advising him to wait for the “jellyfish” to grow and transform the tea into a healing potion. As the story goes, the emperor followed the monks’ advice and was healed.”
Let’s now go back to the 221 B.C. story. Here, we have a Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (personal name Ying Zheng). He was a founder of Qin dynasty & was the first ruler to unify China. He was also obsessed with finding so-called the “elixir of life”. A magic potion that would enable him to become immortal. Now, this is where Kombucha is supposed to be mentioned as this “elixir of life”. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Modern sources point to quite a variety of substances that were considered to be this life-prolonging substance. Some of the sources point out to even mercury, which could have ended this emperor’s life.
Tracing back to the origins of this story, I went back to original books by Günther W. Frank. He was the first person who wrote books about Kombucha in Western Europe, in Germany to be exact. He was also the first person who created the first Kombucha related online website called “The Kombucha Journal” in 1996, which became available in many languages & which became the main source of information for a lot of future Kombucha brewers.
In his book “Kombucha. Mythos, Warheit, Faszination” published in 1999 & which translates into “Kombucha. Myths, Truth, Fascination” he mentions the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang by his personal name & he mentions his fascination & obsession with the “Elixir for long life”. He also writes that some of the mushroom types were considered to be the means to achieve immortality. The most known out of them is the Ganoderma japonicus (more likely G.Lucidum), also known as Divine Tche or “Ling-tsche”. This particular mushroom (real mushroom & not the so-called Kombucha mushroom) is better known as Reishi (Lingzhi – or divine mushroom) & is “the ancient “mushroom of immortality”, revered for over 2,000 years“. So, as we can see, that there’s absolutely no mention of Kombucha here & that all the references to the so-called “elixir of immortality” refer to the Reishi mushroom. So, it is quite far fetched to mix in the Kombucha culture, being called a tea mushroom at those times (1990s), with other medicinal mushrooms.
Another thing worth mentioning here, is the fact that there are many medicinal substances in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) that refer to immortality. One of them is Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), a very important herb in TCM, also known as “the herb of immortality”.
Kombucha is also described as “Tea of Immortality” but when you take into consideration that medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Chaga, or Birch Polypores are also traditionally prepared in the form of a “tea”, that “Tea of Immortality” might not necessarily refer to Kombucha at all.
Now let’s take a look at the second prominent story which supposedly gives us the beginning of the name – Kombucha. In this story, a Korean doctor named Kombu from the kingdom of Silla, who in the year of 414 A.D. goes to Japan & he treats the Japanese emperor Ingyō.
This story is also repeated by G.W. Frank in the above mentioned book.
There’s also a source of reference given for this information (as well as for the 221 B.C. story). That source is the encyclopedia that was published in Germany in 1980 & which is titled “Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizine” which translates into “Illustrated History of Medicine”.
It is a 9 volume book which describes the history of medicine around the world. In the volume 2 (pictured), which I have specifically acquired, there’s just one sentence about it.
“Gewönlich datieren wir die offizielle Einführung Medizin auf das Jahr 414 unserer Zeitrechnung, als nämlich der koreaniche Mediziner Kombu aus dem Königreich Sylla mit dem Auftrag in Japan eintraf, der Kaiser Inkyo zu behandeln”
And this translates to: “Usually we date the official introduction of medicine to the year 414 CE, when the Korean medic Kombu from the Kingdom of Sylla arrived in Japan with the order to treat the Emperor Inkyo.”
So that’s it. No more, no less.
How Dr. Kombu treated the Emperor & what he used will remain a mystery.
But, let’s say that he used a fermented tea to do that, which is nowhere mentioned & let’s say that this emperor named this fermented tea after this doctor’s name. This would give us the beginning of the name Kombu + Cha. But then how come this Kombucha name does not denote fermented tea drink in Japan (instead of an algae-based non-fermented drink)? Also, why is this name not used in Korea? And why there are no known historical mentions of Kombucha after 414 A.D.?
The explanation can be quite simple. Especially if the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is correct by stating that “the first known use of (the word) Kombucha was in 1944“.
And that is probably true considering that there were & there are many names that were used to describe Kombucha in different countries around the world.
Some of them are mentioned in Hannah Crum’s book – “The Big Book of Kombucha.”
One more thing worth mentioning about this book – Hannah Crum, also came to the same conclusion that the above-mentioned stories belong to the myths & legends (see pp.96, 140 & 174).
So we have two crucial stories, one about the time that Kombucha was first mentioned & the second one that supposedly gave us the name for this fermented drink, and neither one of them really confirms that. Quite the contrary. So if Kombucha is really as old as it is claimed, then we need to find better sources to prove it.
Moving along the timeline, we come across two other Kombucha related stories. They both involve warriors & in both cases Kombucha is supposedly used, to give those warriors strength & stamina before battles.
The first one brings us to the Mongol empire under Ghenghis Khan, somewhere around 1180s till 1227.
During those years his brave warriors were said to be drinking Kombucha before fighting. That is again only a story, or better said a myth. There are no historical records mentioning Kombucha during that time period. At least none that I am not aware of.
But on the other hand, there’s a fermented drink that was most likely consumed at that time. The name of that drink is Kumis (or Kumys). It is a slightly alcoholic drink made out of fermented mare’s milk. Also, unlike the history of Kombucha, the history of this drink can be traced back to at 5th century B.C.
Keeping in mind that Kumis is of Mongol origin, it is highly unlikely that those nomadic warrior tribes were making & consuming two different fermented drinks.
The second story describes Japanese warriors – Samurais, that were also supposedly drinking Kombucha before battles. But again, no historical proof is given to back that up.
Speaking about warriors before battles, there’s a funny story that I learnt from some Turkish friends. Kombucha is quite popular there & has been for a while. In some parts of Turkey, there’s a tradition of men drinking Kombucha before their wedding night to be able to “perform” during that crucial night.
Japanese Samurai brought us basically to about 1870s & we are still looking for some historical documents mentioning Kombucha.
There’s still another story/myth, this one comes from Caucus mountains in Russia & it’s a story of certain areas in which people, living simple lives lived up to a hundred years, or longer. One of those places is Kargasok. One of the reasons for their longevity is the consumption of the so-called “Yeast Enzyme Tea”, also known as Kargasok Tea.
I am quite sure that this particular drink has nothing to do with Kombucha, considering the name (Yeast Enzyme Tea) & the information in this particular article – “Effects of Kargasok Tea” , describing what Kargasok Tea really is.
Later in time, due to confusion, Kargasok Tea was being used as one of the names for Kombucha. And that makes you wonder, was this just one instance, or is it that more of those names have nothing to do with Kombucha.
Coming to the end of this first Era, we have two different reports placing Kombucha in the area of Manchuria & Korea, during the 1904-05 war between Russia & Japan & supposedly the Russian soldiers brought the culture back home from that area.
There are also some other reports placing Kombucha in Russia, at the end of 19th century. Unfortunately, I am unable to verify those reports so I will not go into details about them.
What we definitely do know is that Kombucha came to Europe from Russia at the end of WWI & that even before that, in the years of 1910 -1914, Dr. Bachinskaya, a Russian biologist conducted experiments on different Kombucha cultures at the Botanical Laboratory Medical Institute in St. Petersburg, in Russia.
But that’s the subject of Part II.
Thank you for reading. My name is Tadeusz Zagrabinski & I am the founder of Bärbucha Kombucha in Berlin, Germany.
This article is from Tadeusz’s Bärbucha Kombucha blog and appears here with his express permission.