Guest Posting: The History of Kombucha – Part Three, by Tadeusz Zagrabinski
This third and final part follows on Part Two posted earlier this month.
This is the last part in this series, and it will cover the time from around 1995 till present.
As I mentioned before, the previous time span (from 1913-1995) was largely influenced by Germans. This time it’s the US that starts playing the crucial role.
And that has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of food and lifestyle trends originate in California and later are spread throughout the US, starting with the East Coast and eventually become international trends. High Country was no different. Kombucha that went through a “make over” during this time period – from a heavier, medicinal drink to a functional lighter and more enjoyable beverage, with extra benefits. This was the change number one.
The second major change, or a shift, was for kombucha to become a significant beverage industry that started pushing away the GMO laden HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) loaded sodas that ruled on the shelves of American stores.
From a home brewed drink, kombucha became a hippie rebel, with the image of a cool and healthier soda alternative. A drink for newer generations that were looking exactly for something like this.
Although, I set up the initial starting date for this time period as 1995, there were some other events that happened a bit earlier, and they led to this date, so I will also cover them here.
One of those things was an article that was written in 1994, in the New York Times Magazine. And in those days, when something was written in the New York Times, it was catching people’s attention.
The title of this article was: A Magic Mushroom or a Toxic Fad and it started with the following sentence:
In cupboards and closets across the country, kombucha mushrooms are floating in bowls of sugared tea and saturating a growing number of homes with the smell of vinegar and the hope for restored vigor.
Among other things, this article quoted an overwhelming demand for the cultures stocked by one of the health food stores in Manhattan.
Also in it, we can find a bit more about the beginning of growing kombucha interest in the US. Here’s another quote:
The American kombucha vogue began in 1992 when Tom Valente, the publisher of Search for Health, a bimonthly magazine in Naples, Fla., touted its virtue to the 5,000 readers of his magazine. Mr. Valente became the American distributor of one of the few books on the subject, Kombucha: Healthy Beverage and Natural Remedy From the Far East, by Gunther W. Frank (Wilhelm Ennsthaller, Austria, 1991).
Another notable information from this article, is the mention of (now deceased) Dr. Keith Steinkraus. Dr. Steinkraus was an expert on fermented foods and an author of a book Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods and at the time of the article (1994), he said that he has been drinking kombucha for the last 10 years. So that placed kombucha in the US in at least 1984.
1995 was the year that brought us quite a few developments related to kombucha.
The most significant one was the one that jump started the whole commercial kombucha movement, namely it was the establishment of GT Dave brand by George Thomas Dave. At that time it was called GT’s Kombucha and it became the first commercial kombucha company in the US. Within 10 years, his brand was nationally distributed and later it changed its name to GT’s Living Foods. Dave was brewing his kombucha for at least 3 years prior to that time.
Also in 1995, but in February, Colleen Allen set up Original Kombucha at the beginning of Internet age, providing many people with much needed information about kombucha. This was one of the first sources available at that time. This portal can still be found online, but under a different name.
Another notable development of 1995 is the release of the book titled: The Kombucha Phenomenon. The Miracle Health Tea. That happened in in July. The book was written by Betsy Pryor (and Sanford Holst). Besides publishing the first US book, B. Pryor was also very active in kombucha culture distribution. She also appeared on “The Today Show” which further helped with spreading the kombucha “gospel”.
1995 was also the year in which Michael Roussin, who was interested in kombucha because of his own health problems, started sending kombucha samples to a lab for analysis. He wanted to find out everything he could about kombucha. The results, which he obtained, were combined in a paper called Analyses of Kombucha Ferments and were published in 1996. At that time and in the following years, those findings were a goldmine for many people trying to find out more about kombucha. Even though there were some shortcomings in those findings, like not finding glucoronic acid in kombucha (which was not true, but you can find out more about it in Hannah Crum’s book on page 352.
With all those exciting developments, came also some “darker clouds”.
In the same 1995, a story broke out that two women in Iowa that brewed kombucha got ill and that one of them passed away. The CDC issued a statement that kombucha was “possibly associated” in this death. Even though it was later proved that kombucha was not the direct cause of that death, this particular story was repeated over and over, scaring some people to kombucha for years to come. Even when I moved to Germany, this story was repeated over here, some 20 years later, haunting many kombucha brewers.
1996 brought us a new name for the kombucha culture, namely the acronym SCOBY. For that we can be grateful to a software engineer and an avid kombucha brewer Len Porzio. The new name came out of necessity to distinguish between the culture and the drink, during online discussion.
Leon, is also known for his online portal called Kombucha, the Balancing Act.
Leon, like many others started brewing kombucha as a remedy for his own health problems.
To find out more about him, check the interview with him on Kombucha Camp’s site.
For next notable developments, we have to wait to the year 2001. In that year kombucha Wonder Drink is started by Stephen Lee, as a result of his business trips to Russia. He later wrote a book about kombucha titled Kombucha Revolution. Soon KWD became available nationwide, along with “High Country Kombucha”, established in 2003 and obviously, GT’s Kombucha.
In the following years more and more kombucha breweries get established and it seems that this trend will continue without any problems. And than 2010 happened and kombucha made the national headlines. This time in a bit of a negative coverage.
Kombucha was being touted as a non-alcoholic beverage. After testing some of the brands that were available at Whole Foods, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) found out that the alcohol level in some of the bottles way exceeded that allowable 0.5 %. All that resulted in the so called Great kombucha recall of 2010! Almost all kombucha was recalled from the stores, some of it voluntarily and now the brewers had a choice. To pasteurize their product, like the FDA suggested, to label it as alcoholic (which would require the brewers to acquire liquor licenses, or to reformulate their products to meet the legal alcohol limits).
This forced a lot of brewers to change their brewing processes, some kombucha was re-labeled as alcoholic and some kombucha breweries closed down. This was the negative part of the whole commotion. The positive thing was a nationwide advertising that kombucha received, as this recall was covered by all the press and TV stations for days. As a result, many people found out about kombucha for the first time.
Kombucha was also in the center of another “scandal”. in 2010, Lindsay Lohan, a NY actress was caught driving DWI (driving while under the influence) and she claimed that she only had kombucha. That whole media attention lasted from 2010 till 2011 and despite some, on the surface, negative coverage, it was again a free advertising, as more and more people heard about kombucha. And more and more people got interested in it.
Besides, not everybody was seeing the alcohol issue as something negative. On the contrary, for some it was the attractive part to finally try this new beverage.
Next years bring more press coverage as kombucha became a cult drink for many celebrities and some of them are caught holding a kombucha bottle while shopping or taking a walk. There were quite a few printed stories. Just for reference, I will quote these three:
in 2012 The A-list love it – but is ‘anti-ageing drink’ kombucha actually doing more harm than good? and Is Celebrity Favorite Kombucha Really a Health and Anti-Aging Cure? and this one from 2013 Kombucha: A Drink For Your Health?
In 2013, Eric and Jessica Childs, of Kombucha Brooklyn fame, released their book called Kombucha!: The Amazing Probiotic Tea that Cleanses, Heals, Energizes, and Detoxifies.
Kombucha continued to thrive as more and more commercial breweries opened up and in 2014 KBI (Kombucha Brewers International), a trade association was founded by around 40 companies around the world. And finally, in 2016, The Big Book of Kombucha was released.
This book is the most comprehensive book about kombucha on the market today, combining all the aspects of kombucha from instructions on how to make it, to cooking recipes, kombucha’s history and much more.
As it is with many trends, after becoming popular in the US, kombucha exploded in Canada.
The first Canadian brand was RISE Kombucha established in 2008 and the creation of RISE kick started the kombucha industry in that country, with many new brands that were created, especially around 2014-2015.
A similar thing happened with Mexico.
Mexico borders with California and California is the mecca of kombucha, so it was only the matter of time before kombucha set foot in that country. Through Mexico, but not always, kombucha spread into other Central American countries and it reached the South America, where it exploded in countries like Brazil. But kombucha was not unknown there, before it became highly popular.
In many of the South American countries, there’s a significant German population. Some of it comes from the times after WWII. I personally know few brewers in Brazil were familiar with kombucha through the fact that their mom was making it or even because they lived or studied in Germany and later they went back to their country (so there’s still that German connection here).
The German connection is also quite significant in Australia and in New Zealand. These are also two other countries in which kombucha exploded in popularity.
But it’s no surprise. Both countries use English and it’s much easier for information (like news) to travel, when it’s written in the same language.
This will also be the case with kombucha in England and Ireland later on.
Back in Australia, we have Harald Tieze and his book Kombucha The Miracle Fungus, which contributed greatly to popularity of kombucha in that country. That book was released in 1995. In his book, Harald mentions another person as the kombucha pioneer in Australia. That person was Jose Perko from Queensland.
Commercially, kombucha started with Mojo Kombucha in 2009. Soon after, kombucha became very popular and it even led to Australia being a major exporter to countries like England. But that happened a bit later. As far as other German connections go, Karl Kombucha was established and is operated by a German native in Australia.
Some other notable developments in the early history of kombucha happened in the UK. There we see a creation of a kombucha network and also a kombucha book. Both have a quite an impact on new generations of kombucha brewers.
All thanks to a couple of Brits, Alick and Mari, who devoted a lot of time and effort to spread the kombucha awareness on the islands. We’ll start with the book.
Its title is Kombucha Tea for your Health and Healing.
In that book we can find out a lot of interesting things about kombucha in those early days. But first, an introduction: Alick and Mari Bartholomew, the book authors are the founders of The Kombucha Tea Network UK. This network had a huge impact in UK (and not only), as far as the spread of kombucha knowledge and the distribution of kombucha cultures.
The book has an Introduction written by Dr. Neil Campbell-Brown and he writes that he received the culture in 1981 in Hong Kong and that he brought it with him to UK. In UK, he used it for 10 years, first to find out its (kombucha’s) effects on himself. And then on his patients.
He also makes an interesting statement: he claims to have read a Chinese book on kombucha’s therapeutic values. (It would be great to locate that book!)
Alick and Mari picked up their first culture in California in 1993. They had a vision of helping hundreds of thousand people in UK. For that reason they started the Kombucha Tea Network.
Although the kombucha culture was being sold in the US, they have decided to give it away freely in UK.
At that time, kombucha was becoming popular in Australia and Alick saw a review of Harald Tietze’s book in Australian magazine.
Alick and Harald co-operated on a revised addition of this book. Once it was published, it was an essential source of information for thousands of Network’s members. After about four years, with all the experience gained and with new information about kombucha, they decided to publish their own book. That was in 1998.
Another notable development coming from England was the establishment of UK’s first (and first modern European) kombucha brewery in Sussex, in 2003. It was Go! Kombucha founded by Gary Leigh. That kombucha was an inspiration for a lot of future commercial kombucha brewers.
Go! Kombucha was the only kombucha brand in UK for a long time. It was only around 2015-2016 and later when kombucha boom finally hit England and Ireland with brands like Jarr Kombucha and much, much more.
Other developments that are worth mentioning in Europe, are the newly emerging brands in countries like France (Karma Kombucha), in Norway (Kombucha Bryggeriet) and in Sweden that were set up after 2010, but before 2015.
From 2015, modern kombucha breweries started to appear in many European countries.
After 2015, kombucha also reached Japan and finally China. In Japan, the newly set up breweries had a problem. Kombucha name was already established and accepted around the world as a “fermented tea drink” but in Japan “Kombucha” was still a kelp tea – for more see this article in the Japan Times.
I have previously mentioned Germans spreading kombucha and kombucha knowledge around the world. But they are not alone. In the last six years we also have many Americans doing exactly the same. I personally know of a bunch: Adam Vani who started Jarr Kombucha in London, Eric Laesk with his Laesk Kombucha in Denmark, Kellie Fagan with her Cultcha Kombucha in Amsterdam. Not to mention yours truly in Berlin. And I am sure that there are still few more.
And speaking of Berlin, here is another part of kombucha history.
My kombucha story and the creation of Bärbucha Kombucha
My name is Tadeusz Zagrabinski and I am the founder of Berlin’s first kombucha brand.
My interest in alternative medicine and natural healing substances started around 1990. So kombucha came under my radar quite early. It was around 1992.
In 1990s, I was an executive Chef in restaurants in Connecticut, in the US. It was a very busy period of my life and I did not have much spare time to play around with kombucha. Luckily a friend of mine started brewing it around 1993 and I was always given some, in exchange for some vegetables from my garden. A year or two later, I borrowed G. Fank’s book from my friend. It was a revelation at that time to find out more about this drink, especially about its health benefits and also the fact that kombucha was also made in Poland. I originally came from Poland and I have heard of it when I lived there.
With time more and more things were coming out about kombucha.
I do remember reading the above mentioned article in NYT. It was amazing how kombucha was becoming popular among people throughout the US.
Over the years I was still occasionally given kombucha bottles by my friend, but I could not break myself into making my own. But I did research all the available information, as soon as I got my first computer. That is why I was aware of all those above mentioned websites and most of the people that were involved in the spreading the kombucha awareness in the 1990s.
When I reflect on the fact that it took me so long to actually start brewing myself, the only excuse I can come up with is that for some reason I saw it as too much of a commitment and I did not think I had enough time for that.
2010 forced me into making kombucha myself, as my friend moved to another state and my kombucha source dried out. That was around summer time, exactly around the time of the kombucha recall. That recall drew a lot of attention and many of the people that I knew heard about kombucha for the first time. Their reactions were usually similar: “Kombucha? Alcohol! I have to try it.”
Next came the publicity involving Lindsay Lohan and it was again: Kombucha, alcohol and “I have to check it out”.
I continued brewing kombucha at home and in 2013 when I first came to Berlin for a longer time, I brought the SCOBY with me. In Berlin, I introduced kombucha to many people by giving it away and by bringing some to parties, birthdays, etc. Everyone was curious what we were drinking (instead of alcohol) and they always wanted to try it.
When I went back to the US, I traveled back with my SCOBY.
In 2014 I finally moved to Germany and I took my SCOBY and some other cultures with me.
At that time kombucha was already very popular in the US. Surprisingly, it was quite forgotten here in Germany. The only things that were available were pasteurized “impostors“ carrying the name of kombucha. Only after a really hard search, I was able to find a couple of bottles of French, unpasteurized kombucha. But I had was no pleasure in drinking it.
That gave me an idea of the business plan in establishing the first unpasteurized German brand, right here, in Berlin. I did some research and in the meantime I also gave some kombucha workshops, including even one in German.
In Fall 2014, I coined the name for our kombucha from “Bär” (Bear) which is an emblem for Berlin and “bucha” from kombucha.
In November we trademarked this name, with the line “erster berliner Kombucha“ (Berlin’s first kombucha) and we started looking for an appropriate location.
We had two choices: to find a commercial production facility to produce it (but when choosing this way we would have to practically beg people to take this unknown product), or to find a place in which we can produce it, but also in which we can interact with people and explain our product to them.
We have decided on the option no. 2 and quite fast, we found a place suitable for what we wanted to do. In February 2015, we signed a lease and we opened Europe’s first Kombucha Café in May, 2015.
Out of necessity, our Kombucha Café became also a Fermentery (Fermenterei), in which we started producing a whole range of lacto-fermented vegetables, other ferments and we were offering fermentation supplies. We also started giving kombucha and fermentation workshops.
One of the reasons for that, but not the main one, was that in those early years it was very difficult to survive on just producing kombucha.
Now, six years later, we are still here!
At this point in time and with the current knowledge that we (or at least I) have, I can state that nobody knows for sure where exactly kombucha originated from and that we don’t know how old it is.
Right now we cannot even prove that it is older than 150 to 200 years.
For sure we need more facts and less legends and myths: Those we already have enough.
It is also quite possible that we will never know those things for sure.
But in case someone has more information or, even better and more precise information, please share it so we can all benefit from it. I can post it in the next part of this series in a form of an update.
As far as kombucha name goes, I would bet that it was borrowed from Japan, from their Kelp tea. What makes me assume that is the confusion that was present in the early days (1920s), when some of the assumptions for kombucha SCOBY were that it came from some water source (like river, etc).
The name “Kombucha” was used for the first time in Germany in 1927 (and it looks like, it eventually replaced all other names (like “Teekwass”, etc) used for this “fermented tea drink”
Thank you for reading.
This article is from Tadeusz’s Bärbucha Kombucha blog and appears here with his express permission.
- The Kombucha Phenomenon. The Miracle Health Tea, by Betsy Pryor and Sanford Holst.
- Eric & Jessica Childs in upstate New York March 2016.
- Kombucha the Miracle Fungus, by Harald Tieze.
- Kombucha Tea for your Health and Healing, by Alick Bartholomew.
- Gary Leigh himself replacing bottles in our “Kombucha of the World” bottle collection.