Kombucha: A Leaved History

K o m b u c h a : A L e a v e d H i s t o r y

For a drink that has been around for thousands of years, Kombucha is receiving an impressive amount of attention in the present.  But this ancient beverage also has a long and complicated relationship with regulations, the touting of health benefits, and public perception.

Over the next few articles, we’ll take a look back at the history of kombucha, check out the present state of the industry and how it is perceived, and then read the tea leaves for the future of this age-old libation.

To start, we’ll need to know the basics of kombucha and dig out a bit of its history.


What is kombucha?

In its simplest form, all kombucha starts off the same: brewed tea and sugar.  Once this mixture is cooled, a remarkable hybrid of bacteria and yeast known as a S.C.O.B.Y. (Symbiotic Culture OBacteria and Yeast) is introduced and allowed to chow down on the tea-sugar mixture over a couple of weeks.  The result of this luscious lunch is a basic kombucha.  From there, fruit and/or flavorings can be added, along with any number of other ingredients for varying concoctions.

With such a basic definition, there is ample room for kombucha to grow into many sectors.  But before we discuss the future, we should enrich ourselves with the past – here is a bit of the history of kombucha:


The origins of kombucha are fairly lost to history, relying more on lore than fact.  Stories say kombucha was first created around 220 BC in Northeast China, during the Qin Dynasty.  As legends like this go, the all-knowing creator was (of course) the ruler, in this case Emperor Qin Shi Huang (more historically renowned for his erection of the Great Wall).


A couple hundred years later it resurfaced in Japan, brought over by a Korean doctor by the name of Kombu.  The Japanese Emperor Inkyo, it was said, was so impressed by the beverage that he dubbed it Kombu-cha, or Kombu’s tea, and it was heartily embraced by Japanese culture.


Kombucha started trickling into Europe in the early 20th century as trade with the East expanded, quickly gaining notoriety as a cure-all of Eastern medicine.  It seemed to have reached its moment in the sun in the 1960’s, when a Swiss study remarked upon it favorably for its rich antibiotic properties compared to those found in yogurt, but still it did not break into the North American market.


Many in the industry attribute GT Dave, a Southern Californian who initially brought kombucha to the American market after claiming it cured his mother’s breast cancer, as the domestic catalyst in the late 1990’s under the brand GT’s Living Foods.  After thousands of years and traveling across continents, kombucha had finally arrived on the shores of America.  With such a rich history that has withstood the test of time, it was clear that kombucha was not just a passing craze.

And from there, the modern history of kombucha began, with its own interesting series of ups and downs, and is projected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2022. That is where we’ll pick up our story in the next installation.