I’m a huge fan of fermented foods, both for their flavour and their potential to improve our gut health and the diversity of our microbiome, which exciting research shows may help to regulate our immune system and have a role in preventing chronic diseases. There are a lot more studies to be done, but in the meantime I’m enjoying exploring the flavours of fermented foods and drinks – sauerkraut and kimchi, which I’ve written about before, but also kombucha, a fermented, effervescent ‘living tea’ that contains friendly bacteria and makes a complex, sophisticated alternative to a glass of wine when I don’t want to drink alcohol but don’t fancy the usual soft drinks on offer.
We speak to Louise Avery, founder of LA Brewery, which produces delicious kombucha blends, to find out more about this fermented drink…
What does kombucha taste like, and where did you discover it?
Louise 'About 10 years ago I went on a trip to the US and tried kombucha for the first time. It has a Haribo-like taste sensation – fizzy, sweet, sour, a bit mouth-puckering, in a good way! I loved it from first sip. When I came back home to the UK, I could only find it in health-food stores, and the versions on offer were more like cider apple vinegar than the drinks I’d been enjoying. I began making my own kombucha, buying the mother culture and beginning my first experiments with fermentation.'
So, what exactly is in kombucha?
'I describe it as a ‘living tea’. We take chemical-free black and green teas, then add sugar and our culture (a combination of good-for-us bacteria and yeast). The yeast consumes the sugar, converting it to ethanol and CO2. At the same time, the bacteria consumes the ethanol, converting it to acetic acid, which is what gives it the sour note. Later, we add fresh ingredients that enhance the natural flavours of the kombucha – lemongrass, strawberry and black pepper, and ginger. Homebrew kombucha can stronger than commercial brews and, therefore, we advise drinking a small glass (around 150ml) a day as your body adjusts to the live properties of the drink. Bought versions are milder; so you can drink a bottle a day of LA Brewery Kombucha with no side effects.'
There are lots of health claims about kombucha – that the antioxidants it contains may protect against cancer, reduce risk of heart disease or help manage Type 2 diabetes. Where do you stand on those?
'When I first discovered kombucha I was intrigued by the health benefits it was credited with, but there were scare stories, too. The truth is, it’s neither panacea or peril, and there needs to be a lot more research so that any claims can be based on strong scientific evidence. Brewing is also a complex process and every decision will have an impact on the amount of bacteria in the blend. I’m more excited by the idea of kombucha as an alternative to alcoholic drinks, which may also have additional benefits for our wellbeing. People report digestive benefits, or say it gives them energy.'
When you’re unwell or having treatment, you may be advised to avoid alcohol for a while. Or perhaps you’ve just decided that you don’t want to drink it any more. Why does kombucha make such a good alternative to wine, beer or spirits?
'Soft drinks can often be one-dimensional in flavour; they lack the complexity of a good glass of wine, or the hoppy depth of an ale. Our mouth and tongue are covered with flavour receptors that detect sweet, sour and umami tastes – all notes that kombucha contains. The other thing you miss out on when you’re not having alcohol is the sense of ritual and occasion – the ice in the glass, the pouring of the liquor. I want LA Brewery kombucha to give people that sense of drinking something special. It’s why I’m working on a champagne-style kombucha at the moment, and also developing a blend with hops and another that will taste more like a spirit.'
What’s the best way to enjoy kombucha?
'You can drink it at any time, chilled from the fridge. Lots of our customers have it with lunch, instead of a fizzy drink. Or they enjoy it in the evening, as an alternative to a G&T or glass of wine. I like to have a bottle mid-afternoon; the mild caffeine helps me through the 4pm slump!'
It’s the moment for fermented foods