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Getting to the guts of a health sensation

Hella Coenen with her kombucha brew at home in rural Masterton. PHOTO/SUPPLIED


Kombucha – is it just another strange-looking health drink or does it really work?  HAYLEY GASTMEIER endeavours to find out from expert makers of the fermented drink, while wondering if her scoby is dead.


It sits on the bench or in a cupboard, brewing, often bubbling away.

Some people rave about it and feed it to their kids, while others argue it tastes like vinegar and the hype is all for nothing.

A new batch of kombucha, made with black tea, ready to go. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER
A new batch of kombucha, made with black tea, ready to go. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

According to Wikipedia, kombucha is “a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drinks, commonly intended as functional beverages for their supposed health benefits”.

Enzymes found in fermented foods (kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, tamari, kimchi) are similar to those found in the gut, making them good for the digestive process.

Kombucha is made using scoby – a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

That’s the main ingredient and it floats on top of the kombucha, which is made with tea, sugar, water, and some kombucha from the last batch.

I got a scoby off my buddy, Chloe, and began making it myself last year.

After about 14 batches, I’ll admit, with a busy schedule it’s hard to stay on top of kombucha management, and the jar at home right now will be way too sour to go near.

But all is not lost.

It turns out there are no hard and fast rules when making kombucha — and the scoby is relatively resilient.

Greytown mum Jo Kempton first began her kombucha brewing journey to improve her son’s wellbeing.

Four years later she’s upsized her one litre jar batch to multiple 60-litre barrels and is supplying the neighbourhood with the drink that she says has turned her family’s health around.

“I started off making a one-litre glass jar of kombucha on my bench — how most people start off — then I went up to a five-litre jar and then 10-litre containers, then 30-litre and now I brew in massive 60-litre barrels and I make quite a large amount.”

Ms Kempton’s son has a developmental disorder called dyspraxia, as well as an intellectual disability.

“When he was a young chap, we took him to all sorts of specialists and two in particular said ‘get his gut health to be the best that it can be, and that will help him along the way’.”

She started looking into fermented foods and drink, and not long after sent away for a scoby and got busy experimenting.

“My son’s digestive health improved a great deal, and from that his immunity improved, and his behaviour improved.

“I’m not going to say it was just the kombucha because we did lots of other things for his diet, but it’s my absolute belief that if we can get our gut health as good as possible then our overall wellbeing will follow.”

Ms Kempton said the whole family got on board with the drink and noticed health benefits.

Jo Kempton from Happy Belly Ferments. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

“We weren’t getting those bugs that everyone gets, we weren’t getting the flu.

“We weren’t the family that were sick all winter, we didn’t get sick, and that was a pretty amazing thing really, particularly when you have small children who tend to pick up everything.”

Two years ago, she started her business, Happy Belly Ferments, which led her last year to winning the Emerging Enterprising Rural Women award through Rural Women New Zealand.

Feedback from customers has been great — no more sickness, no more bloating, or stomach aches, or reflux.

Because producing kombucha is an ongoing process, many people feel overwhelmed.

It can brew from anywhere between five days to a few weeks, although the longer it brews the more vinegary (acidic) it gets. The higher the temperature, the faster it ferments.

Ms Kempton said there was no need to feel pressured — if it all gets too much, give your scoby a holiday.

“Put it in a jar with a tea towel over the top in a dark cupboard where it’s not hot and it’ll be fine . . . If you pull it out and it’s looking grotty, as they do, you can give it a rinse and just get started again.

“They come back to life when you feed them the sugar and tea solution.”

The scoby grows in size with each brew.

When it gets too big, you can either split it up and share it with others, put it in the garden, in the compost, or feed it to the chooks.

“Just tear off the darker bits and keep the lighter coloured, newer stuff.”

Hella Coenen has been making and drinking kombucha for seven years now, and runs fermentation workshops in Mikimiki, rural Masterton.

An early childhood teacher, she prefers her kombucha “more tart than what you buy in stores” so ferments hers for eight to 10 days.

A rather large, but healthy, scoby going into a new batch of kombucha. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER
A rather large, but healthy, scoby going into a new batch of kombucha. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

Her favourite recipe uses black tea, with ginger and kawakawa from her garden.

She said kombucha was good for the mood, and a great pick-me-up during the day.

People she had shared her kombucha with reported it had cured their stomach pains.

For fun, after the fermentation process she puts some fresh fruit in the top of the bottle and leaves it for a second ferment.

This will increase the fizzy element as well as the alcohol content (about two or three per cent).

The “brown stuff” at the bottom of the fermenting jar is “pure yeast”, which can be used for making a sourdough bread starter.


“Look after you scoby,” Ms Coenen said.

“It’s alive, so treat it as something that’s alive”

Always cover your scoby/kombucha with a cloth to keep flies off.

Avoid metal, and plastic if possible — glass is the best.

Keep it at room temperature.

Kombucha contains a low percentage of alcohol and is therefore not suitable for everyone.







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