What is the Origin of Kombucha?

What is the Origin of Kombucha?

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The Origins of Monceau and the Origins of Kombucha

We first encountered kombucha in a neighbourhood Melbourne cafe. It was a small little gingery bottle, one of the forerunners of commercial kombucha making in Australia. We had already dabbled in beer and winemaking and soon became fascinated with the wonders of the kombucha yeast culture. A friend shared with us some of their kombucha SCOBY and we started experimenting with ferments at home. The rest is history.

And so goes Monceau’s story, but there’s a more ancient history to the SCOBY itself. It’s one of the most talked about fermented drinks in the world right now and for good reason. It’s said to have a number of health benefits, from helping with digestion, to boosting your immune system, and providing a rich source of nutrients and antioxidants. But where did our beloved fermented tea come from?

The Classic of Tea

The Classic Of Tea

Kombucha is said to date back some 2000 years ago to Northeast China and the Han Dynasty. But it was first documented by the Chinese physician Lu Yu in his book, The Classic of Tea, written in the year 760. It’s naturally made by culturing a sweet tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The process was passed on to communities in Japan and Korea, and eventually made its way to Russia and the rest of Europe, in the early 20th century, where it was known as the “Immortal Health Elixir”.

The English language term “kombucha” is a curiosity. It appears to arrive from the Japanese words kombu (seaweed or kelp) and cha (tea). But that’s clearly a misnomer. Kombucha is unrelated to kelp, nor to the fungus or mushrooms (as some other colloquial names for kombucha would suggest). The common understanding today is that English speakers borrowed the Japanese word kombucha (which in Japan literally refers to a type of kelp tea) and misapplied it to what we now know as kombucha.

Kombucha is unrelated to mushrooms.

Sorry, fun guys. No mushrooms in kombucha. (From James Sowerby's Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms.)

Kombucha in Australia

Australia’s first commercial kombucha makers began recently, only in 2009. Several of the early companies now belong to multinational corporations who have commercialised their processes, turning what were once simpler raw kombuchas into more mass market soft-drink-like products that include sweeteners, artificial carbonation and even pasteurisation.

Despite commercial kombucha’s relative youth in Australia, however, there is a longer history of home-brewing.

We at Monceau are always encountering Australians who have been making kombucha in their own homes for decades. When we were building our brewery and picking up hardware supplies, we spoke with a handyman at Bunnings who reminisced of making kombucha in the 70’s. Furthermore, a long-time mentor of Monceau who happens to be an avid wine drinker and restaurateur likewise was making kombucha at home before most Australians had heard of it (and before most of the Monceau team was born).

Kombucha has a long and rich history and generosity has been at its core. The kombucha culture has proliferated courtesy of people the world over sharing their SCOBY cultures from one maker to the next. When we first developed Monceau we worked with a range of different SCOBY cultures: one that our founder had been cultivating for years, one that was donated by another commercial brewer, and several that we purchased from different brewers and suppliers.

It took us many months of trials and experimentation to settle on the SCOBY culture that produced complex flavours most akin to wine and cider. And over time we have grown and nurtured this unique strain that now goes into every batch of Monceau. And so too are we becoming a small part of craft kombucha’s history. We see our nurturing of a single culture as akin to that of artisanal craft beer brewers and sourdough bakers, who too have their own unique yeast cultures that they grow and cultivate over time. These cultures become an integral part of a product and are, in essence, the DNA of one’s business.

Depending on the environment, teas, fruit and brewer’s production methods, SCOBY cultures evolve, so that there are now unique strains of craft kombucha around the world, producing ferments varied in acidity, flavour profiles and even alcohol.

A prominent example is the jun kombucha; the jun kombucha scoby is typically used with a green tea and honey base. We’ve experimented utilising a jun kombucha SCOBY and have found that it can be used to make delicious ferments of all kinds (with all types of different black and green teas), just as we do with our Monceau SCOBY culture. (Watch this space!)

Fucha Kombucha
(Kombucha in the Future)

Recent decades have seen growth in so-called functional drinks or wellness drinks: from probiotic drinks, to energy drinks, to sleep assistive drinks. But we see a different vision of kombucha. We see kombucha not as a soft-drink or functional drink, but instead as an integral part of the fermented world of wine, cider and beer. Where wine uses yeast (wild and cultivated) to ferment sugars from grape juice, and cider uses yeast to ferment sugars from apples and pears (perry), and beer uses yeast to ferment sugars from grain, kombucha uses yeast to ferment sugars from cane (sweet tea) and fruit.

Not only that: at Monceau we borrow the methods of natural wine-making, using the same ancestral practices to leverage our yeast culture and create complex flavours just like those created by our cousins in wine, cider and beer making. It’s this relationship that leads us to believe that kombucha will continue to flourish, but rather than just on the supermarket shelf, it will show up more and more on a wine menu, in a corner bottle shop, and on the table at dinner parties.

We hope to be at the very forefront of this experimentation and development. We are fermenting innovative hybrids, playing with ferments at different temperatures, with different teas and fruits. Where wine and beer and cider have developed over centuries, to form deep variations of styles and methods, kombucha is in its infancy; despite its long history, the craft of kombucha-making will continue to evolve for many years ahead.

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