In an earlier article, we looked at the origins of Kombucha both historically and home in Australia. But could such a fascinating drink really have such humble origins, or is there something left untold in the “true” story? Are SCOBYs actually an alien life form sent from space to invade our gut biome? While we can never be sure, let’s say: probably not. And yet from its humble origins, Kombucha has acquired hundreds of legends, stories, and anecdotes about the drink and its history.
Just like a kombucha culture itself, these stories have been passed from brewer to brewer, growing, and leaving the original source clouded in mystery. Today we are going to look at some of these tales from kombucha’s past... believe it or not!
The Ancient Legends of Kombucha’s Discovery
The true origin of kombucha is about the same as most other fermented food and drink: at some point, people happened upon a microbial culture that not only preserved a food source but also made it taste pretty good to boot. Not so glamorous. But given the unwritten history of the drink, who’s to say the following legends aren’t the true version of events?
How Kombucha almost Defeated an Army
One of the most popular origin stories of kombucha is set in Qin dynasty China around the year 221 BC. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the founder of his imperial dynasty and inspired many great changes in his kingdom, such as initiating the project that would later become the great wall of China. He also happened to be a harsh and demanding leader, with a peculiar obsession: to find an ‘elixir of life’ and discover the secrets of immortality. Supposedly, the Emperor would try nearly anything that claimed to be such an elixir. So the tale goes, kombucha was dubbed the ‘elixir of life’ at this time, owing to its positive health effects.
Unfortunately, the historical record on this is spotty, and the fact that Qin is not alive today operating his own kombucha brand should give you a hint of the story's truthfulness. Rather it seems that Qin ultimately died in search of his elixir, ironically from consuming toxic medicines that were supposed to help him live forever.
But what if kombucha were the miracle elixir of life? Then we may never have seen the famous Terra Cotta Army in Shaanxi, constructed to guard Emperor Qin in the afterlife.
Nowadays, kombucha and other fermented products undergo rigorous lab and QC testing to ensure safety (and deliciousness). It may not make you immortal, but it definitely won’t kill you either.
The Royal Cure
Another legend tells of an ailing Japanese emperor of the 4th-century AD. Emperor Ingyo sent for a renowned physician by the name of Kombu, who sailed from Korea to help heal him of sickness. As the legend goes, the doctor brought a fermented drink that cured the emperor. The emperor was so grateful to the doctor and enjoyed the drink so much that he named it after the doctor himself. Taking the name Kombu, plus the Japanese word for tea, you get ‘Kombu-cha’.
Another great story, though another one that may not hold up to historical evidence. Ingyo existed and was actually very sick at one point in his reign. Dr. Kombu may have even existed in some form, but the use of kombucha as a miracle cure is pure folklore. This myth may have originated as a sort of folk etymology to explain the supposed Japanese origin of the word 'kombucha'.
Kombucha at War
Another set of historical tales are the consumption of kombucha by the Samurai of Japan and the Mongol horsemen, who supposedly kept an active culture in a bottle while they traveled. The bottle could be regularly refreshed with new sugared tea and enjoyed continuously. Beyond ancient times, kombucha’s experience at war continued into the modern era. As war rocked the world in the early 20th century, kombucha cultures were moved from east Asia through Russia and into Europe. Accounts from the first world war tell of exhausted soldiers in small Russian villages being served a mysterious fungus-based beverage. This Russian remedy was so effective in lifting spirits among the soldiers, and so dang tasty, that cultures were brought back into western Europe by returning troops.
Following the world wars, kombucha continued to grow in popularity in Europe. At this point, it was still a homemade product and was brewed on a small scale. In Italy, it was well-loved enough to even inspire a popular song by composer Renato Carosone. His song “The Chinese Fungus!” (original Neapolitan Stu Fungo Cinese!) sang about the enjoyment and health benefits of the drink we now know as Kombucha.
Kombucha meets California
As early as the 1880s Chinese railway workers came over to Mexico and brought with them their signature sparkling beverage thus marking the first arrival of kombucha to the continent. Later on, the drink would surge in popularity among the hippie movement in 1960s California, who were always on the lookout for new alternative health products.
Kombucha gets its Day
What does kombucha have in common with Emoji and Pretzels? They all have their own officially designated holiday. Actually, it was only in 2020 that World Kombucha Day was established to celebrate the drink and the people who drink it. The date chosen was February 21. This date is in reference to the original legend of kombucha’s discovery in 221 BC. The day is intended as a celebration for kombucha lovers, and as a way for brewers to raise awareness about their products and grow the industry even further.
Monceau and the Rise of Modern Craft Kombucha
There are even more myths, legends, and anecdotes in the deep history of kombucha than what we have covered here. With the rise of the modern kombucha industry, we rely less on myth and more on research and testing to produce the best Kombucha we can. Beyond the scientists, kombucha’s status continues to rise with consumers as more people are looking for low alcohol alternatives that have more complexity and health benefits than your average soft drink.
All of these amazing tales contribute to making kombucha more than just a drink and we at Monceau are excited to play our part in such a long and unique tradition.
One thing is for sure, there is no hidden mystery behind what makes Monceau pet-nat kombucha unique. Organic, naturally fermented, and live — made with the passion of a natural winemaker — the only thing legendary is how good it tastes. With more drinkers than ever, kombucha is sure to be a part of many peoples’ personal tales and legends. Why not make it part of yours?