YEASTories and BACTheories 3: Kombucha, the rising star of fermented beverages

Kombuchawhaaat? If you have never heard about this beverage, do not be afraid! The pronunciation is easier than it looks and it is tastier than it sounds! Kombucha is a beverage that results from the fermentation of black or green tea leaves and cane sugar with several bacterial and yeast species – a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY). Kombucha is one of the rising stars in the revival of specialty fermented beverages that has been taking place in the market over the last recent years.

The rise of fermented beverages, both in variety and production volume, has been defined as one of the most important trends in 2019 within the food beverage sector. To give you a more objective picture, the global fermented beverages market is expected to increase steadily until 2023, reaching 935 billion euros (in 2015 it was valued at 600 billion euros). The beverage consumers and the millennials generation in particular have a high interest on experiencing novel and unusual flavors together with different textures and the fermentation process can strongly influence those characteristics.

What makes kombucha unique

But why is Kombucha so special within the large variety of fermented beverages? Kombucha is a low-sugar tea-based fermented beverage with considerable levels of organic acids, vitamins and polyphenols, known for their health benefits. By adding fruit, herbs or flavors into this mixture you get a quite unique and refreshing beverage that is, most often, sparkling and non-/low-alcoholic. Kombucha can have a drier and/or tarter character like the traditional ciders or the “Brett” beers and the production of alcohol can also be boosted by adjusting the fermentation conditions (if alcohol is higher than 4.5% it is referred as Hard Kombucha). The explosion of flavors present in Kombucha can be quite overwhelming in the start due to its high acidity but quite addictive afterwards. The definition of Kombucha is quite broad and there is a great variety of flavors and profiles in the market at the moment, going from soft-drink like beverages with low sugar and high drinkability to more dry and acidic beverages that can be in the direction of sour beers or dry cider.

Tea and sugar are two central ingredients for the production of kombucha

One of the best parts about Kombucha is that you can produce it at home with a very limited amount of kitchen gear, no fancy equipment being needed.

There are several dedicated websites with infographics and videos that can be very helpful before you do your first Kombucha brew, where more detailed explanations about the gear required as well as recipes and how to find and get the SCOBY. In a simplistic way, the production process of kombucha requires two fermentation steps:

  • Primary fermentation:the mixture of yeast and bacterial species converts the sugar into ethanol and organic acids. At the start of the process, oxygen is present (aerobic conditions), which promotes the cell division of the yeast species and later conversion of sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2). The type and proportion of yeast species varies from SCOBY to SCOBY but SaccharomycesBrettanomyces, Pichia and Hanseniaspora are some of the most common ones. When sugar is depleted, ethanol becomes the most abundant carbon source, which promotes the activity of the different bacterial species that will convert it into organic acids. Species belonging to the genus AcetobacterGluconobacter and Lactobacillus are the major responsible for the production of acetic acid, gluconic acid and glucuronic acid. Acetic acid, that gives vinegar aroma and taste, is normally the most abundant organic acid when the primary fermentation is finished. At the beginning of the process the SCOBY will be at the top of the flask and during the fermentation it starts to sink, forming a new SCOBY at the top. Thus, at the end of the primary fermentation you will have two SCOBYs that can be used for two new batches of Kombucha.
SCOBY – The Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast that is responsible for the formation of unique flavors and aromas in Kombucha (Image from BUCHI, www.buchi.com.au/)
  • Secondary fermentation: the Kombucha from the primary fermentation is filtered to remove the major particles and then flavored by adding fruit, juices, herbs, spices and/or others. The sugar addition from the flavoring step will promote the anaerobic fermentation of yeast, resulting in the formation of carbon dioxide (CO2) which naturally carbonates the final beverage. When this step is made directly in the bottle – bottle fermentation – it can be tricky since you need to calculate how much CO2 will be produced from the sugar added during flavoring. The first time you may get an over-carbonated beverage with too much fizz.

Even though there are many reports regarding the positive impact of Kombucha on the digestive system and gut health together with its action as anticarcinogenic, antihypertensive, antidiabetic, and hepatoprotective, it is important to note that currently, Kombucha cannot be granted with any official health claims. I believe that in a near future some concrete results from clinical studies will give a more accurate information regarding the active functionalities of Kombucha.

Kombucha flavoring step (image from ifoodreal, https:// ifoodreal.com/)

The Kombucha presence in the European market is still limited when comparing with the United States, where this fermented beverage can be found throughout the whole country. The implementation of Kombucha in Europe requires some more consumer education since it is a beverage with a unique and acquired taste, but it is clear that more and more people are becoming aware of its existence and benefits. Next time you see some Kombucha in a shop or pub, go for it and give it a try! Soon after there is a high chance that you will be planning your first brew of Kombucha at home.

Sources

https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/04/17/961353/0/en/Global-Fermented-Beverages-Market-2014-2016-2023-Launches-of-New-Products-are-Stimulating-the-Market-Growth.html
https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2018/05/04/There-is-a-mega-trend-around-fermentation-The-rising-star-of-fermented-foods
Coton, Monika, et al. “Unraveling microbial ecology of industrial-scale Kombucha fermentations by metabarcoding and culture-based methods.” FEMS microbiology ecology 93.5 (2017).
Professional Kombucha Brewers Workshop, Barcelona (2019).
Jayabalan, Rasu, et al. “A review on kombucha tea—microbiology, composition, fermentation, beneficial effects, toxicity, and tea fungus.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 13.4 (2014): 538-550.
Dutta, Himjyoti, and Sanjib Kr Paul. “Kombucha Drink: Production, Quality, and Safety Aspects.” Production and Management of Beverages. Woodhead Publishing, 2019. 259-288.

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Author: Diogo Portugal-Nunes

Expert in microbial fermentation and biotechnology. PhD in Applied Microbiology from Lund University, Sweden, where he investigated the application of specific bacterial and yeast species in the industrial biotechnology sector. He is currently a Product Developer at Harboe Brewery, Denmark, where he works on the development of innovative beverages, with a great focus on beer, and functional malt-based ingredients .

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