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Kombucha, the Ultimate Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Get all the facts about kombucha tea including what it is, how it's made and what it tastes like, all from an expert brewer

Kombucha tea is all the range state-side (particularly LA and NYC) and we’re slowly starting to see it more and more in our supermarkets and on drinks lists, but what is it? We speak to LA native and kombucha brewer Adam Vanni, the man behind Jarr Bar at Mick’s Garage, Hampton Wick to find out more. 

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What is kombucha?

Kombucha is raw fermented tea. We make ours using filtered water, organic sugar, organic loose-leaf tea from Sri Lanka and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Kombucha is a living, nutrient dense beverage that tastes great and also contains naturally occurring beneficial bacteria (probiotics), amino acids, enzymes and vitamins inherited from the tea, the SCOBY, and the fermentation process itself.


Where does it originate from?

Supposedly the first documented use of kombucha dates back to around 221 BC towards the end of the Qin Dynasty in China. It again is said to have shown up around 414 AD in Japan where a Korean doctor named Kombu was supposedly summoned by the Japanese emperor Inyoko to treat him for an unknown ailment. Fermentation in general is an ancient practice, and although there are many stories about the origins of kombucha, the truth is no one really knows exactly where it came from. Odds are that it originated in the East sometime after Camellia sinensis was first grown, dried and steeped to make tea.


What is a SCOBY and how does it develop?

SCOBY stands for a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. If you’ve ever seen a jar of kombucha, it’s that funky looking jellyfish-like thing you see floating around. As weird as it may look, the SCOBY plays a crucial role in the brewing process. It consumes the majority of sugar that you begin your brew with while at the same time releasing all the rich probiotic goodness that kombucha is known for.  


Where do you get a SCOBY from? Can you develop your own or do you have to use someone else’s?

If you don’t already have a SCOBY and are looking to brew, ask a friend who has made or is currently making kombucha. Odds are they have a few extra SCOBY’s kicking around, as a new one forms every time you make a batch. Otherwise you can always purchase one online from a reputable source. Kombucha Kamp, Happy Kombucha or Cultures for Health all offer healthy and robust SCOBY’s at a reasonable price as well as a variety of necessary brewing equipment. It’s possible to grow a SCOBY of your own from scratch but it can take up to 30 days and the quality can be inconsistent.


How do you make kombucha?

Kombucha is made by steeping tea in heated water, adding sugar, cooled water, starter liquid from a previous batch, and a SCOBY before covering with a breathable cloth and allowing it to ferment in a warm environment. There are obviously variations to this basic method and specific ingredients, measurements and directions for making kombucha can be found in various places online.


Is the process essentially the same as brewing beer?

I wouldn’t say the process is the same, but there are definitely many similarities between brewing both beer and kombucha. They both seek to cultivate a home for yeast and in the case of sour beer, bacteria as well. There are a few breweries that are actually making kombucha/ beer hybrids, such as Goose Island in Chicago and Unity Vibration out of Michigan. At JARR we definitely utilize certain craft brewing techniques and use the same equipment. 


It contains added sugar, but shouldn’t we be avoiding sugar in our diet?

Sugar is essential to the fermentation process as it acts as food for the SCOBY. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to make kombucha. Depending on what flavour profile you desire and how long you ferment for, you can make kombucha that is high in sugar, extremely low in sugar, or somewhere in between. We ferment for about 2 weeks and our final product is less than 5g sugar per 100 ml of kombucha – much lower than any soda or fruit juice.


Is it naturally alcoholic or caffeinated? Can you buy alcoholic or caffeinated versions?

Your standard aerobic (with oxygen) kombucha ferment generally produces less than 0.5% alcohol. Regardless, we monitor this process closely by using a sacrometer and testing every couple of days. Secondary fermentation, which is anerobic (without oxygen), is when you need to worry about alcohol levels rising. We make sure to halt the fermentation process by immediately refrigerating the kombucha once it has been mixed with any fruit juice or puree. There are two kombucha breweries I know of that do produce alcoholic kombucha; Kombucha Dog in Los Angeles (one of my favourites), and Beyond Kombucha out of New York City.

The residual caffeine content in a finished kombucha brew can be anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of the original steeped amount. The variation is largely dependent on which type of tea is used, the steep time and the fermentation cycle. White tea generally produces the least amount of caffeine, followed by green tea, whereas black tea produces the most. It’s important to note though, especially for those sensitive to caffeine, that due to the presence of L-theanine, an amino acid naturally found in Camellia sinenses which reduces anxiety, the caffeine contained in kombucha doesn’t hit you with anywhere near the same intensity that coffee or energy drinks might. 


What does it taste like? Does the type of tea used dramatically affect the flavour profile of the final product?

The most notable characteristic of kombucha is its vinegary flavour, which is due to the presence of acetic acid. Some people love the flavour, some don’t, but most find it so curious that they find themselves coming back to it again and again. It’s a flavour profile that we believe people are being drawn towards more and more as they move away from the oversaturated (and oftenartificial) sweetness that dominate today’s drinks industry.

Both the quality and type of tea used absolutely affects the final flavour profile. Our organic green sencha kombucha tea has notes of granny smith apples and citrus fruits. In our most recent batch, we added a touch of organic Ceylon black tea to the mix, which brought out the flavour of dried apricots. White tea often produces a natural champagne-like sweetness whereas oolong brings floral characteristics. The range of flavours present in what is essentially just fermented tea is amazing.


What makes Jarr kombucha different from others available?

Our kombucha is brewed with really high quality ingredients and tastes delicious. We use organic and biodynamic loose-leaf Sri Lankan tea that we’ve purchased directly from the source, organic cane sugar from Brazil, and pure filtered water. We’re also the first kombucha taproom in London, and what’s cool about that is we get to speak to people about kombucha face to face. There are a lot of kombucha companies out there who are secretive about their brewing methods, but we’re all about transparency here as we want as many people as possible to be enjoying this great drink. I’m always happy to personally give anyone who’s interested a tasting and a tour of the space – just send an email to adam@jarrkombucha.com.  

Where can we get it?

Currently we’re only selling our kombucha on draft and in cocktails at the Jarr Barr, located inside Mick’s Garage in Hackney Wick. We are open Friday and Saturday nights from 6 PM – 12 PM. We will be bottling and distributing commercially though in the coming months so keep an eye out!


How do you flavour it?

We flavour our kombucha post-fermentation with purée or fresh pressed juice, then immediately refrigerate our kegs to prevent any further alcohol from being produced. Adding any herbs, fruits or oils to the tea in the primary fermentation process can damage the SCOBY.


How can you drink it?

We currently offer our kombucha neat, with passionfruit and ginger, and in custom-designed cocktails.


Why drink it? What are the supposed benefits etc?

We don’t want to make any claims that kombucha itself is some magical elixir! It does contain certain compounds that have been proven to benefit the body in various ways, though. For instance, acetic acid, which creates the vinegar-like flavour, has the ability to interfere with the breakdown of starches and sugars in the body, balancing blood sugar levels. Citric acid is also present, which acts as an alkalizing agent, balancing PH levels in the body. But kombucha is probably best known for its probiotic content. There are many strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts often found in kombucha, a few of which are: gluconacetobactor kombuchae, acetobacter, lactobacillus (commonly found in yogurt), brettanomyces and saccharomyces.

On a very basic level, kombucha is made with tea and so inherits many of the beneficial properties of the tea with which it was brewed. As we use mainly green tea in every brew, our final product contains antioxidant polyphenols such as flavonoids and catechins, which protect cells and molecules from damage by neutralizing free radicals. This is just one of many incredible properties of green tea alone.


Why do you think it’s becoming so popular over here?

Well, kombucha is nowhere near as popular in the UK as it is in the States, but we think that it will be. On a very basic level, people are becoming much more conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies and they want healthier options. Kombucha is a functional beverage for a conscious consumer, whereas sugary, artificially sweetened sodas and “fruit” beverages aren’t functional, they’re in fact the complete opposite. Our goal is to have kombucha served in most bars, restaurants and cafes in London.

Jarr Bar is located in Mick’s Garage, CRATE Brewery, Hackney Wick.


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