When Harsh Verma returned to Goa from his trip to the United States, the foremost thing on his mind was to pick up the SCOBY he had left in his friend’s care. Unfortunately, a particularly torrid monsoon had killed the SCOBY, or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. To be more accurate, Verma’s pet bacteria had grown a layer of fungus, and could no longer be used to brew kombucha, the fermented tea he had grown accustomed to drinking.
Verma was heartbroken. The SCOBY, often referred to as the “mother”, looks a bit like a hunk of gelatinous pork fat and is the magic element which turns a batch of regular tea into a drink which is alive, probiotic, good for gut health – and the latest fitness craze among a growing group of health-conscious Indians.
An effervescent and mildly alcoholic beverage, the kombucha appears to have originated in China in 220 BCE during the Tsin Dynasty, after which it traveled to Japan with a physician named Kombu (rumoured to be from Korea) – hence its name, kombucha, cha meaning tea. Since then, the kombucha fad has found takers far and wide.
In India, the kombucha wave appears to have begun in Goa, before reaching Mumbai, Pune and Chennai. Although it is a relatively new trend here, Verma, 26, says he has been drinking the fermented tea for as long as he can remember. “Growing up, it was the only fizzy drink that we were allowed,” he said. “My mother suffered from arthritis pain and somebody suggested kombucha to help with her condition. It really made a difference for her.”
In Mumbai and Pune, the drink has steadily gained popularity among those who suffer from arthritis, as well as athletes – the glucasomine present in the drink helps with joint pain.
Verma confessed he never liked the drink much while growing up. “It’s a great detoxifier and it makes you feel lighter,” he said, explaining why he took to it as an adult. “Plus, it doesn’t leave the weird chemical-like taste at the back of your mouth which I feel other drinks tend to do.”
When his SCOBY died, Verma was left with the option of heading to one of Goa’s many supermarkets, which have recently begun to stock bottles of kombucha.
Thankfully Verma’s friend, the SCOBY-killer Nupur D’souza, was determined to replace the bacteria she had been entrusted with. After searching high and low, she finally managed to procure a healthy SCOBY from a friend travelling to India from Switzerland. According to D’souza, a Goa-based writer and photographer, kombucha (the drink) is easily available in parts of Goa like Vagator, but healthy bacteria is less easy to come by.
Bucha Bar, a small-scale Mumbai-based Kombucha bar started by Harsh Negandhi, also had its beginnings in Vagator. “It was in September last year that I tasted kombucha for the first time at a friend’s house,” said Negandhi. “We started experimenting with flavours and selling it in our locality. When we saw that the people were reacting positively to the taste and the concept, we decided to expand and started a delivery service within Mumbai.”
According to Negandhi, Bucha Bar’s kombucha is less sour than the stuff you get in Goa’s supermarkets, because the SCOBY is left to ferment in the sugary black or green tea (the only two flavours on offer by the brand) for four days. “It can be left up to seven or even 10 days,” assured Negandhi.
Experimenting to add flavours to kombucha is also not new. “I tweak the kombucha by including some lemongrass into the drink and using jaggery [instead of refined sugar],” said Verma.
Another Mumbai-based kombucha brand, called Bombucha, has been making appearances in two places most beloved by hipsters – Bandra’s farmer markets and Instagram. Bombucha’s proprietor also uses different herbs and fruits to produce new flavours like apple spice, beetroot, pomegranate, vanilla and coffee. Started by Nitin Gandhi and his girlfriend Monica Pawlowska, Bombucha has become popular among the health-conscious crowds in the city.
Towards the end of 2015, Gandhi, then the owner of The Curry House in Mumbai, found himself fatigued from the demands of running a restaurant. “I was tired of seven-day weeks and constantly working,” said Gandhi. “I wanted to do something that would leave me some time for myself, to live a little and enjoy. Plus, I wanted to work with something more healthy.” Soon after, Gandhi sold his business and was on the lookout for something new. It was Pawlowska who introduced him to kombucha. Growing up in Poland, kombucha was a regular feature in her life.
“I got her a SCOBY and we started brewing and experimenting and making our friends try out our concoctions. They really loved it,” said Gandhi. “The demand for kombucha is still not very high since it is popular among only those who are very careful about their diet, but we deliver 100-200 bottles per week.”
Shonali Sabherwal, macrobiotic nutritionist, chef and a self-confessed kombucha fan, was introduced to the drink nearly 15 years ago while studying in the US. She currently brews two types of kombuchas, with black and green tea, at home for her clients, but is experimenting with brews and flavours to start her own line of kombucha drinks. Sabherwal advocates fermented food, including kombucha, for her clients regularly, but warns that people must be cautious in their consumption.
“Kombucha is healthy because it is full of good bacteria,” said Sabherwal. “Gut enzymes, the good ones, don’t stay and need to be replenished. Drinking kombucha will do that for you, but people need to remember that it is a live food and might not sit well with everyone’s digestion. In my experience, what I have seen is that Indians have a lot of digestive issues. If they suddenly start drinking kombucha they might experience a higher gas build up but not understand why. Or someone could be intolerant to histamine foods. It needs to be introduced slowly into the diet.”
Among some of Sabherwal’s celebrity clients, Bollywood actor Siddharth Malhotra asks for kombucha on a regular basis – but the demand is still nascent. “The kombucha trend is on the rise, but it isn’t still popular enough to have a huge demand,” she said.
These days a healthy SCOBY can be bought online and be shipped around the world, but many still believe that a SCOBY has to be gifted to you. “I have seen yeast handed down from generation to generation with bakers and brewers,” said D’souza, who became intrigued by the process after she found a healthy SCOBY for Verma. “They try to maintain the same strain of yeast to reproduce similar taste and flavours.”She has begun to brew kombucha of her own.
“I received a text message the other day from someone who had eaten my food almost 2-3 years ago, asking for some kombucha and a ‘mother’,” said Sabherwal. “I usually bury the mother when I have a baby [a fresh layer of SCOBY] because I feel it is just respectful, but they can be gifted too.” In each batch, the SCOBY takes the shape of the jar it occupies, multiples and forms another layer which can be separated and given away or be used for another batch for simultaneous brewing. “Taking care of a SCOBY is like taking care of a baby,” said Gandhi. “You have to look after it, feed it and use it or form little SCOBY hotels [SCOBYs preserved in tea in glass jars] where it can stay alive and healthy.”