The health beverage has already made the leap from health store to cafes and now its on offer in pubs as an alternative to booze
When I was a child, homebrew meant the beer my grandad produced under his stairs. Come Christmas, my father and uncles would congregate there, holding up cloudy beer mugs to the light and nodding appreciatively.
Increasingly, however, home brewers are knocking out kombucha instead a traditional, non-alcoholic drink made with fermented tea.
Take Jonny Wilkinson, one of Englands best-loved rugby stars. Rugby types may be better known as prolific beer drinkers, but Wilkinson has been brewing his own kombucha for four years. He says introducing fermented items into his diet has brought a lightness, less conflict in my gut and a more alert, flowing nature to everything. In May, he launched his own brand, No1 Kombucha, in Sainsburys with the intention of bringing the naturally fizzy soft drink to the masses.
He is not the only one on such a mission. The fast-food chain Leon now stocks Suffolk-brewed kombucha from LA Brewery, while another British brand, Real Kombucha, will soon be rolled out in 320 Fullers pubs. In less than a year, Real Kombucha has reached almost 50 Michelin-starred restaurants, almost 300 top hotels and 55 Laines pubs, according to its founder, David Begg.
The drinks leap from health stores to the mainstream via hipster cafes has been swift. LA Kombuchas founder, Louise Avery, was partly responsible for the drinks graduation in the UK from murky cult endeavour to cafe culture. She began by brewing it at home under the brand Lois & the Living Teas. About five years ago, I started bringing up these cloudy milk bottles of kombucha to beautiful cafes around Islington and Hackney in London and they would strain it and serve it to customers. It flew off the shelves, word spread and Yauatcha, a dim sum restaurant in Soho, came knocking.
Many of these cafe owners had come to London from abroad Germany, Australia, Canada and were already familiar with kombucha. Avery says British proprietors were more sceptical, because thered be bits floating in it, like yeast; people were a bit scared and disgusted. I had to explain its a live food and it will continue to grow. In response, she took steps to make her product more palatable to mass-market consumers. I figured out a way of mildly filtering it and adding a bit of carbonation to suspend the bacteria; I make sure its chilled and I give it a short shelf life to keep as much bacteria as I can without it being an explosive product with bits floating in it.
It worked. When LA Kombucha launched in June, Avery sold 2,000 bottles. The next month, sales rose to 10,000; within six months, Leon had signed up and she had to build a second brewery.
Promising scientific findings into how our gut affects everything from mental health to autoimmune disease have boosted demand for so-called gut-healthy fermented products such as kefir (a yoghurt drink), kimchi (Korean-style fermented cabbage) and kombucha, which probably originated in China.
The brewing process for kombucha is relatively simple. Tea (either green, black or a mix of both), sugar and filtered water are sealed with a slimy-looking cellulose mat called a Scoby (this stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Scobys, which you can buy on eBay, are produced naturally by bacteria and contain the necessary micro-organisms to kick off kombucha fermentation. You float this biofilm on your mixture and let it brew for between seven and 30 days, depending on atmospheric conditions and personal taste. The tea itself ferments, while the yeasts turn the sugar into alcohol, which the bacteria converts into acetic acid, making carbon dioxide bubbles in the process. The longer it brews, the less sweet and more vinegary it becomes.