Taste test: Our wine writer tries Irish kombuchas

John Wilson: Proponents believe the drink offers all sorts of health benefits

My first sight of a kombucha scoby was not very appealing. It was a giant one measuring 50cm across, in the fermentation room of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. How could this slimy gelatinous saucer of mould possibly be good for you, and how could it produce a delicious refreshing drink?

Scoby is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. With a little nurturing, these bacteria and yeast will coexist and ferment a liquid, usually green tea, to produce a lightly fizzy drink high in acid.

Proponents believe it offers all sorts of health benefits, boosting the immune system and providing the body with probiotic bacteria and vitamins. Extreme enthusiasts go further. The science, however, is sketchy on the benefits of this as well as kimchi, kefir and other fermented non-alcoholic drinks. There are other issues too.

In September, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) released new guidelines following a report analysing 30 sample kefirs, ginger beers and kombuchas. They found that 13 per cent had undeclared alcohol at concentrations above the legal labelling threshold of 1.2 per cent ABV; 91 per cent made unauthorised nutrition and/or health claims, such as “full of goodness”; “contains live cultures”; and 75 per cent were missing mandatory labelling information such as address of producer, list of ingredients and best-before or use-by date. The FSAI also pointed out that unpasteurised, unfiltered fermented drinks can recommence fermentation, further increasing alcohol levels.

Leaving the health claims and counterclaims aside, most kombucha and kefir contain far less sugar and other additives than mainstream colas and other soft drinks. They can also taste great and offer a refreshing alternative to the standard commercial drinks.

“A lot of people hate it and a lot of people love it,” Keith Loftus of Allaboutkombucha, an organic producer based in the Galway Gaelteacht says. “It can take a while for your tastebuds to come around to the spiciness and acidity. As you get used to it, you begin to seek it out. It helps if you see it as an option to quench your thirst, as well as consuming something that helps your gut bacteria.”

There is no shortage of Irish producers, most of them organic. SynerChi, based in Gweedore, Co Donegal, was the first commercial kombucha producer, starting off in 2012. Its range of kombuchas are widely available.

Two producers started life off as craft beer brewers. Cork-based Holo, stocked by Lidl, was founded by twin brothers Padraig and Adrian Hyde, who also run Munster Brewery. Prokulture is made by the team behind Lock 13 gastropub and brewery.

If you are interested in making your own kombucha, Allaboutkombucha offers family starter kits, which they say were very popular during lockdown.

SynerChi Apple and Elderflower Pressé Kombucha
€2.50, 250ml can The sweetest tasting of the samples, with textured apple fruits and nice elderflower aromas. 
From: Widely available nationwide

Holo Sparkling Organic Kombucha
€2.59 for a 330ml bottle
Attractive flavours of green tea with a gentle effervescence. Very moreish.
From: Lidl, lidl.ie and others

Prokulture Organic Wild Berry Kombucha
€2.89 for a 300ml bottle 
Tangy and tasty with crisp redcurrant and raspberry fruits. Very refreshing. 
From Aldi, aldi.ie

Allaboutkombucha Organic Ginger & Lemon Kombucha
€2.99 for a 330ml bottle
The ginger brings a lively spiciness to the crisp citrus notes. Just one of several great kombuchas from this company.
From: Available online from allaboutkombucha.ie and more than 200 outlets nationwide