Let the booch loose: Why you should be drinking kombucha (and brewing it, too!)

UC Santa Cruz student and avid homebrewer Thomas Mahady with some of his kombucha
After kombucha tamed a lingering stomach issue, UC Santa Cruz senior Thomas Mahady became a homebrew evangelist.
(Via Thomas Mahady)

UC Santa Cruz student Thomas Mahady thinks kombucha solved his long-term stomach issues. He became an avid kombucha brewer because he couldn’t afford to buy the sweet-sour, ancient but newly trendy brew. He cooks it up in his dorm for half the price of buying it — and he thinks you should do it, too.

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I used to never worry about what I ate or drank — sugary sodas, fried, fast food, whatever. But in high school, I began to have a lingering pain in my stomach. At first I was worried about appendicitis, but it persisted for months.

Many tests — included a colonoscopy — brought few answers. Then my sister mentioned kombucha. I had heard of kombucha, but I’d tried it only a few times. I was also skeptical because it seemed expensive and somewhat weird.

Then I tried it.

Amazingly, my symptoms started to improve.

But I still wasn’t happy about the price — which can run about $5 for 12 ounces. For college students like me, that is hefty.

For those who don’t know, kombucha is a health drink that originated in northeast China (Manchuria) around 220 B.C. It has seen a steady climb in sales since the 1990s in the United States, but jumped in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people in quarantine began valuing immunity more and had a lot of time to ponder long-term health.

To give you an idea, the U.S. kombucha business was valued at $400 million in 2015. In 2021, that number was $2 billion. The global market for kombucha was $1.8 billion in 2019 and is projected to hit $10.4 billion by 2027.

Marketing clearly plays a role, but it’s also because people are beginning to realize the many positives of drinking this fizzy, sour brew. Even college students like me. Drinking kombucha is associated with boosting the immune system, promoting good gut health and adding antioxidants to your diet.

But still, there is the price.

For me, a UCSC student on a budget, it is too expensive to buy regularly. The price and fancy marketing has transformed kombucha from a hippy drink into a “boujee” — high-end — drink. That makes me mad. I think it should and can be much more available to people from all economic backgrounds.

That is why I started brewing my own. You can do it, too. It’s fast, easy and fun.

My sister first piqued my interest when she told me that her friend makes kombucha at home. I assumed it required a lot of equipment and expense, but my sister assured me all I needed was a starter, known as a SCOBY (keep reading). What began as a little experiment began a whole ritual.

I grew to love the tart, buzzy, sour-sweet, fruity, “this-is-not-lemonade-or-iced-tea” taste.

My pain subsided the more kombucha I drank. That was three years ago and the pain has not returned. I credit kombucha.

I’ve also realized how practical, affordable and fun making it can be. Now, I experiment with flavors and proportions.

UC Santa Cruz student and avid homebrewer Thomas Mahady with some of his kombucha
(Via Thomas Mahady)

It’s easy. I start with the basics: cane sugar, black (green or herbal) tea, and the kombucha starter, or SCOBY. The SCOBY (or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is the active culture within the brew. You can use and grow it from a generic bottle of store-bought kombucha.

The process (to make a vat of at least 12 to 20 glasses) costs about $10 dollars, including a few dollars extra to shell out on a large glass vessel.

The process is simple. You steep six bags of black tea in a gallon of warm water for 15 minutes. Then you stir in two cups of sugar. Let it cool and add it to your brewing vessel, fill it 80% full with filtered water, and top it off with your kombucha starter, the SCOBY.

Place a cloth over the top, secured with a rubber band, and let it breathe. You keep it in a dark, warm place and wait for about two weeks. As your kombucha ferments, it will form a thick, patty-like layer on top, called a pellicle. Although this growth might look a little gross, it can actually indicate the health and stage of your brew.

It’s cheap, easy, and doesn’t take up a lot of space. I can make 4 gallons every month inside my campus closet. Think about that.

If it’s $4 a bottle and I drink four bottles a week, that’s $832 a year. Personally, I can drink more, and I figure my habit would cost me close to $1,500 if I relied on store-bought kombucha.

That is rent money. Tuition. Food.

Sadly, too few people know about this. And way too few people who can benefit most from the millions of probiotics zooming around in each glassful are drinking kombucha.

Everybody has a right to health, and most people don’t realize that kombucha can be a start to a healthier lifestyle. Probiotics aside, kombucha is a low-sugar carbonated beverage that can be flavored to anyone’s specific tastes. Studies show kombucha can also help lower cholesterol while boosting your immune system, but also that more serious research is needed.

Still, kombucha is a no-brainer replacement for sugary, carbonated drinks, which so often lead to diabetes. For those who can’t afford organic or unprocessed foods, homebrewed kombucha can be used as a supplement for health and immune support. It can offer a morning pick-me-up instead of coffee or serve as a refreshing afternoon drink break on a hot day.

Socially, it’s also a great lubricator. It is fun to create flavors for parties and to have friends test out new flavor combinations and recipes. This is one of my favorite parts of the brewing process because It gives me an excuse to try things I wouldn’t usually try.

I’ve always hated ginger, but once I put it into a strawberry kombucha, I realized how much subtle flavors could change the experience. Kombucha brewing also helps me create unique gifts for people, as I can make custom kombuchas for their preferences while saving myself some money.

Kombucha might not be the answer to all your problems, but at least you’ll have a fizzy, healthy, homemade drink to make all your other concerns easier — and more dollars in your wallet

Thomas Mahady is a senior at UC Santa Cruz, studying literature with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in legal studies. In fall 2021, Thomas took an opinion writing course with Community Voices Editor and UCSC professor Jody K. Biehl. He produced this op-ed during the course. He is an intern at the Catamaran Literary Reader and enjoys playing basketball and practicing homebrew in his free time.

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