Although the popularity of kombucha has increased significantly in the last decade, this drink is not new and has quite a history.
However, its origin is not easy to identify with certainty! Indeed, the real origin of kombucha could be as old as 5000 years or as young as 200!
We have deciphered the ancient texts and scientific studies for you, and in this article, we share the history of kombucha, from its origins to the present day.
History of Kombucha Start
To make kombucha, you need tea, sugar, and a kombucha scoby. And to make a kombucha scoby, you need… kombucha! So where did the first kombucha come from?
Kombucha was not created by humans. Its birth is a natural phenomenon.
Just like the egg or the chicken, we can’t pinpoint where the first kombucha came from. However, we can guess what happened!
The world around us is full of microorganisms looking for places to colonize and grow.
The first kombucha was born by accident, in a cup of sweet tea left on a windowsill.
Bacteria and yeast settled in the cup of sweet tea and multiplied. They created a gelatinous film, ate the sugar, and acidified the tea.
In those days, fermentation was magic!
This transformation would have led the people of that era to taste fermented tea and enjoy it so much that they would have added a little sweet tea to prolong it. This tea would have been transformed in turn into kombucha.
The gelatinous film needed to make kombucha was thus nurtured and named “kombucha scoby” (or “mushroom”). The scoby would then have been passed on through the ages until it reached us today.
When and Where are Kombucha Origins?
Tea, sugar, and microorganisms are needed for the spontaneous creation of kombucha.
Since kombucha is a natural phenomenon, we can try to determine its origin by finding out when and where the ingredients of kombucha came in contact with each other for the first time.
- Microorganisms: they are as old as life itself. Microorganisms have been present everywhere on Earth for several billion years.
- Sugar: The first signs of sugar cultivation go back 6000 years, in South-East Asia. Sugar arrived 500 years later in China. (ref)
- Tea: Tea consumption probably began in the south-eastern region of China around 5000 years ago. (ref)
In conclusion, it is most likely that the first kombucha appeared spontaneously almost 5000 years ago in south-eastern China. Kombucha origin country is probably China. However, we have no way of knowing for sure.
There are several legends and myths about the origin of kombucha. While the hypothesis outlined above is the most likely, here are three legends about the origin of kombucha.
Kombucha, China’s Longevity Elixir
The first kombucha legend dates back to 200 BC, in China. Emperor Quin Shui Huang was on a quest for immortality. He issued a decree ordering his subjects to find the key to eternal life. (ref)
“Lingzhi” or “mushroom tea” was one of the elixirs tested. Since the kombucha scoby is often called “mushroom”, many kombucha lovers believe that this longevity elixir refers to kombucha.
Kombucha to Treat the Emperor of Japan
Another legend dates from the year 415 CE when a doctor from the Kingdom of Sylla (Korea) was invited to treat the Japanese Emperor Ingyō. (ref)
This doctor would have used a fermented tea to cure the sick emperor. The doctor’s name was Komu-ha. The suffix “cha” (tea in Japanese) would have been added and history would have called it “kombu-cha”, or “Doctor Komu’s tea”.
The Ant, the Monk, and the Emperor
Another legend, this time from Russia, tells of a sick emperor who called upon a monk with healing powers. The monk promised to treat the emperor’s illness with a simple… ant!
He put the ant in the emperor’s tea and advised him to wait for the “jellyfish” to grow. The tea beneath the jellyfish (a kombucha scoby?) was supposed to cure him. (ref)
While none of these three legends can be proven, there is a strong link between kombucha and health. The beverage back then was consumed in its highly vinegary form, rich in probiotics.
Kombucha in Russia
It was in Russia that kombucha was first mentioned in a scientific study in 1913 by the researcher A.A. Bachinskaya. (ref) This Russian biologist studied cultures from several parts of Russia. In her article, she also described the characteristics of the kombucha scoby.
Kombucha was then consumed by a large part of the population as a health tonic. It was called “Чайный гриб“, meaning “tea mushroom” or affectionately “грибок“, “little mushroom”.
The Russians consumed several kinds of fermented beverages, called “kvass”. Kombucha was also called “tea kvass”.
The same year, German professor G. Lindau published an article on the consumption of kombucha in Russia. The article focused on the health benefits of kombucha. (ref)
In his article, Lindau mentions that kombucha is also called “Japanese mushroom”. So kombucha could certainly be from Asia!
Kombucha continued to be very popular in Russia until the Second World War. With sugar and tea heavily rationed, kombucha consumption dropped drastically.
Italians’ Sacred Kombucha
In the 1950s, the Italians had an intense love affair with kombucha!
Kombucha spread throughout the population, surrounded by various protocols and superstitions. It was like a chain letter! To enjoy its benefits, you had to separate the kombucha scoby into 4 parts and give 3 of them to close friends with clear instructions on how to feed them.
You could not sell or throw away your kombucha scoby, or it would lose all its magical properties. Misfortune would then befall you, and all those who had received a kombucha scoby!
Kombucha spread like wildfire in all spheres of the population.
The authorities tried to stop the kombucha craze when Italians started stealing holy water from churches. They added it to their kombucha, to enhance the benefits!
Kombucha in the 60s
A few years later, Rudolf Sklenar, a German doctor, discovered the drink in Russia and brought it home to study it. He prescribed kombucha to treat various ailments: rheumatism, intestinal problems, gout, etc. He published the results of his research in 1964. (ref)
From the 1960s onwards, many books on kombucha were published, and mothers began to share kombucha around the world. Kombucha conquered Europe and was adopted in the United States, particularly in the alternative and hippie communities.
Kombucha was then presented as a miraculous drink, capable of preventing cancer and even curing AIDS.
While many of these miraculous benefits proved to be unfounded over the years, several studies have documented the health benefits of kombucha. Like other fermented foods, it contains good probiotic bacteria and supports the digestive system.
Kombucha’s Commercial Growth
The first commercial kombucha company, GT kombucha, was founded in 1995 in the United States. By the early 2000s, commercial kombucha companies were popping up all around the world. Today, kombucha can be found on every continent.
Kombucha has also evolved. The flavour of kombucha is no longer just plain and very acidic.
People still drink kombucha for its health benefits (low sugar, probiotics, natural ingredients), but also as an alternative to alcohol, coffee, and soft drinks. Kombucha is low in sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. It has therefore won a place of choice in our glasses!
In 2019, the global kombucha market size was 1.84 billion USD. (ref)
When you love kombucha, it’s hard to live without it! Many people have taken to making kombucha at home so that they always have some on hand.
It’s amazing to think that a colony of microorganisms has travelled through the centuries to end up in our glasses!
To help keep this tradition alive, check out our article on How to Make Homemade Kombucha.