Before being the coke of the hippies , kombucha was the coke of the Soviets. Until 1986, when the multinational was able to enter Moscow, in many homes a mushroom was cultivated that was used to make a drink with bubbles of a residual alcohol content, almost undetectable, but which gave a certain joy to the body. They called it chayniy grib (mushroom tea).
When in 2016 the founders of the Komvida brand , Beatriz Magro and Nuria Morales, decided to replicate in Fregenal de la Sierra, a town of 5,000 inhabitants southwest of Badajoz, the fermented soft drink that was triumphing among California hipsters , an octogenarian neighbor spoke to them of a mushroom that his mother cared for in an enameled bowl during the postwar period.
His doctor had brought him by car from Madrid to make a fermented drink that would relieve his gallbladder ailments. The lady died at the age of 93 without being able to confirm or deny the role of the fungus in her longevity.
The origins of this drink date back to 220 BC in the Chinese region of Manchuria. It is named after the Korean physician Kombu, who introduced it to Japan as a medicine for the Emperor Inkyo. It is believed that it came to Europe in the early 20th century via Russia.
In the sixties it lived a golden age thanks to a Swiss study that compared its benefits with those of yogurt. At the end of the eighties and nineties it became very popular among AIDS patients, who drank it to strengthen their immune system.
Hipster culture resurrected kombucha in the 21st century. The neighborhoods of San Francisco and Brooklyn, yoga schools and meditation centers brought it back and, according to a report by Zion Market Research, it is the fastest growing beverage segment globally, according to its estimates it could mean in 2022 a $ 2.5 billion business (about € 2 billion).
In 2015, Beatriz Magro went around the world to find out what she wanted to dedicate her life to. The day he tasted the kombucha he was clear, and from San Diego he called Fregenal de la Sierra to inform his partners that he had found the perfect product to start a start-up.
Before, he asked to browse the market and, according to his account, that fermented soft drink was in “the last corner of the herbalists.” In Spain it is still a “small and immature” market, say Raúl Frutos and Fernando Martín, two Andalusian engineers who opened their kombucha factory, Víver, in Granada on March 8, 2020, at the gates of the first confinement.
After several years in Chicago they decided to bring the drink to their hometown because it seemed “a good alternative to sugary sodas and alcohol.” When they did their market research, kombucha was a fringe drink only consumed by “health food fans.”
Matthew Calderisi opened his Ferment 9 laboratory store in the Sant Antoni neighborhood of Barcelona in 2017. All kinds of fermented foods and drinks are made in its space: kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt and, of course, kombucha. At age 13 he learned the traditional method from his English mother, an expert in fermented ginger ale.
Now, when he is 43, he ferments almost everything that passes through his hands. In his opinion, the production of this drink has always been “a very homemade and traditional process that passes from generation to generation.”
“No western population has ever drunk kombucha marketed in a bar or restaurant. In the West, fermentation has been practically relegated by industrialized processes, which have caused a lack of natural products, whether fermented or unpasteurized. It’s funny that now
Kombucha is obtained from the double natural fermentation of tea, preferably green or black, and sugar. This is added to a colony of bacteria and yeast that looks like a whitish disc with a gelatinous but consistent texture called a mother or Scoby, short for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.(symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts).
During the natural process, which lasts between three weeks and a month, the Scoby eats a good part of the sugar and leaves fine bubbles that give the drink its peculiar texture. Fruits or spices can be added to this classic version to vary its flavor. “In Spain there is still no law that establishes what is kombucha and what is not,” says Raúl Frutos.
From their factory in Granada they produce 5,000 liters of Víver per month, “a kombucha without traps”. This means, according to his partner, Fernando Martín, using organic ingredients, not adding gas, not pasteurizing and respecting fermentation times of at least one month. And they give a hint: “Be suspicious of a brand that does not have particles in the bottle.”
The KBI Association (Kombucha Brewers International) was founded in the United States to protect traditional methods and the purity of the original recipe. After years of legal debates, it has published a code of good practice that establishes the differences between traditional and processed kombucha, the latter being any that includes a step not included in the traditional method, such as pasteurization.
It also defines that the alcohol level must remain below 0.5%. Hannah Crum, president of the KBI, is considered the mother and protector of this drink, and is the author of a kind of bible on the subject, The Great Book of Kombucha. With her, Bea Magro and Nuria Morales learned to standardize their production.
“He advised us to find the balance between acidity and sweetness,” they explain. Komvida – that’s the name of its brand – is IFS certified, a quality and food safety standard. “It is important to open up to large markets.” Komvida is marketed in Carrefour, Alcampo, Ahorramas and in Starbucks in Spain and Portugal. They have just opened a store in Madrid where they teach how to make homemade kombucha.
In the hipster bible , Scoby — who would be the mushroom in post-war Spain — must be pampered like a delicate pet. “There are those who claim that he plays the guitar every day. We don’t get to that much, but we treat her well ”, say Raúl Frutos and Fernando Martín. “Temperature and correct food are enough.”
This fermented tea is blessed with a magical halo of health and wellness . It is believed to be able to speed up slow digestions, help treat diabetes and hemorrhoids, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, or improve liver function.
But of all these benefits there is hardly any data, at the moment. In a small trial, the results of which were published in the Annals of Epidemiology , this drink was given for three months to 24 non-insulin dependent diabetic adults who managed to maintain normal blood sugar levels. The study authors, however, warn that many of the properties attributed to kombucha are unverified, based on animal tests or exalted personal anecdotes.
“The European Food Safety Authority controls any health claim on a product, and until there is enough European research on probiotics or the benefits of fermented products, we at Ferment 9 are not going to disclose that information to facilitate a sale.
But that does not mean that it does not have benefits, but that we are at the forefront of the manufacture of non-fermented foods and that the authorities will arrive later. The best we can say is, ‘Give it a try, and if it suits you, great,’ says Matthew.
The producers interviewed in this report agree that there is “good vibes” between them. “We do not compete with each other, but with the large multinationals of sugary drinks”, explains Martín. “Our ambition”, says Magro, “is to go to the bar on the corner and where they are having a soda today, tomorrow they drink a kombucha.”
In much of Spain this fermented tea is a novelty. “Many believe that it is a medicine and they ask you at what time or with what foods they should take it”, says Fernando Martín.
“Others are scared that it is a living drink, they are surprised by the texture of the bubble or they think it is algae,” says Bea Magro, who assures that Fregenal de la Sierra, the town where they have their factory with the capacity to produce two million of bottles per year, it may be the place in Spain where the most kombucha is drunk per inhabitant.
The palate needs some education to enjoy a fermented drink. It is not a very long process, there are those who say that the second sip of kombucha already tastes much better than the first. In 2019 a young woman named Brittany Tomlinson (23 years old) became an internet star when she posted a video of her face while drinking her first kombucha.
He called it The Six Stages of Pain.The sequence shows a wide range of facial expressions that has been studied in the Department of Psychology at the University of Berkeley for showing between five and seven perfectly identifiable human emotions, ranging from surprise and initial disgust to pleasure, passing through a moment of doubt and reconsideration.
Since then, Tomlinson has been receiving offers from kombucha producers who assure him that his choice of that day, an industrial version of cola and raspberry, was perhaps not the most successful.