It all started with a friend attempting to explain what kombucha tastes like to their very Sri Lankan palate, describing it as “something in between beer and vinegar”, and weirdly enough we were intrigued. Several months of obsessive searching and having tasted home brews, professional brews, local flavours, and multiple classics, we can confirm that while it may vary based on your preference and how mild or strong your brew is, the taste of kombucha is not all the way vinegar – a mild cider that is sweeter than beer. This is the best we can do for now, but there’s definitely more to kombucha than its characteristic tang.
Kombucha and its ever-growing reputation has really shed some light on the importance of adding fermented foods to one’s diet and the benefits it brings. There’s actually quite a lot of fermented foods that you may be having which you didn’t even know were fermented – cheese, yoghurt, wine, beer, miso, and sourdough are some of the more common ones. But with the world quite literally becoming one and with cultures interlacing in the most beautiful way, there are a few names that are well on their way to becoming household names, such as sauerkraut, tepache, kimchi, and of course kombucha.
Fermentation is a process that involves the breakdown of carbs by bacteria and yeast. It results in a distinctive tart flavour characteristic of foods like cheese and yogurt. You can pretty much ferment any food item; it will increase its shelf life and bring with it multiple health benefits. Nutritionists have gone so far as to state that these foods may reduce heart disease risk and aid digestion and immunity.
Kombucha is thought to have originated in China about 2,000 years ago. It is made by adding specific strains of bacteria, yeast, and sugar to black or green tea, and then allowing it to ferment for some time. The starter that you use to activate the fermentation is a living symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, aka. a SCOBY.
You’re hearing the word bacteria a lot and in practice, we are taught that bacteria is harmful, but the fermentation process gives way to living bacteria that is probiotic. Probiotics are said to provide your gut with healthy bacteria and these bacteria can improve many aspects of health, including digestion, inflammation, and even healthy weight loss.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, discusses the connection between your gut health and your state of mind, stating the importance of taking care of your gut health, which can be supplemented by taking foods rich in fiber and also probiotics. Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, a registered dietitian in New York City, has also expressed that sources have claimed that kombucha can positively impact gut health by decreasing inflammation and providing antioxidants because of the probiotics; however, most medical professional do advise that you do not indulge in excess and to always read the labels.
The Sri Lankan scene
Commercially produced kombucha is relatively new to Sri Lanka, although not as new as you may think. While our first experience with the drink was courtesy of a mad scientist-type who brewed it in their home for fun, the drink is now readily available courtesy of multiple outlets.
We have several brands making their rounds, and so we reached out to a couple of them to pitch their product to us, where they gave us the lowdown of “why kombucha?” and “how to kombucha?”
CeyBucha Founder and brewmaster Oneida Van shared with us that like many entrepreneurs, she too was borne of lockdown boredom. She said that her very first brew happened somewhat by chance, having left her sweet tea sitting for an extended period of time until it developed a light fizz. “I got something somewhat fermented, slightly fizzy, but it was not quite kombucha,” she said.
Despite the results, it was enough to get her interested, which then got her reading up on it and as soon as lockdown restrictions began to lift, she reached out to a friend of a friend and got her hands on a cup of starter kombucha and a SCOBY. “This is when I was truly able to start making kombucha and I decided I am going to become a kombucha girl.” The hobby became a business when the picture she posted on social media garnered enough attention from people looking to buy it.
Since Oneida is definitely a more reliable authority than ourselves, here’s how she explained it: “Kombucha does not taste like tea or ice tea. It is slightly tart because of the naturally occurring organic acids that are super good for gut health, by the way. I would say it is more towards the taste of a dry apple cider than tea for sure. You can drink it just because you like it or because you’re looking for an alternative to that cider/beer to cut calories and alcohol, or you could just want to cut down on the sugary and artificially flavoured fizzy drinks but love fizz,” she said.
The healthy side of things
We may be a little too obsessed with how it tastes, but there are those who drink it as a health tonic or a supplement. Mohkshakombucha Founder Anupama Gunathilake shared that her reason for turning to kombucha was entirely health-related. Anupama shared with us her story where she endured a cycle of overindulging dieting to compensate and as a result, she said she suffered greatly due to terrible gastric attacks. The constant complications led her to look for solutions, in both food and exercise, and in doing so, she came across kombucha.
She said that back in 2019 when she began her venture, she tried every possible brand in the market, albeit there wasn’t a lot available. She referred to Laa Dhalu and two other brands that were only available at Good Market. She said in trying kombucha, it evoked a memory where in 1997, her mom who is from Kandy actually brewed kombucha in their home. “When I first tasted it after all those years, it brought back that nostalgic memory of having tried it, and that weird mushroom-shaped thing that we used to make this fizzy drink,” she said and her fate was sealed.
Anupama said that she drinks a cup of kombucha daily and swears by it, stating that she has pretty much been cured of her gastritis. Mohkshakombucha, according to its loyal fans, is said to be a milder flavour than its market counterparts, and they also happen to be the world’s first brewers of an Ayurvedic kombucha made of beli mal, ranawara, and kothala himbutu.
We know it’s healthy and we know it’s tasty, so why is it that we are only hearing about it now? CeyBucha’s Oneida attributed it to the super-charged interest amongst the general public about their health. “Colombo is slowly becoming more health-conscious and looking for healthier food and beverage options. Kombucha is a great refreshing drink that is healthier but still tasty, fizzy, and refreshing,” she said.
Oneida expressed that while she has really only ever connected with her customers via social media, and she doesn’t do direct sales, she has been blown away by the response she received. Anupama, who has been around for some time now, shared that her interest in the drink hasn’t weaned and at present, she is running a small handmade operation at her home. However, considering the volume of orders she receives, she will soon have to expand.