1945 Kombucha makes news in Australia

Carton illustrating the 1945 article about kombucha, the new 'miracle drug'

In recent years, Kombucha, in the form of a tea-based drink, has made the transition from fringe to mainstream as part of the growing popularity of fermented foods. It is actually a combination of yeasts and bacteria that forms a flat, fungus-like cake or, as one report described it, ‘a bloated, gelatinous pancake’ called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).

However, the earliest mentions of Kombucha in Australia date back further than you might think. In 1945, there was something of a buzz about a mysterious ‘drug’ from Eastern Siberia and Manchuria.  The Sunday Times in Perth reproduced an article by Dr Siegwart Hermann, a former professor of bacteriology at the University of Prague who subsequently headed a research laboratory in New York City. The good doctor had conducted a series of experiments on cats and rabbits, which seemed to show that the new medicine, known as kombucha, prevented hardening of the arteries and arterial lesions.

At that time, there was no mention of Kombucha as a drink or of how it was prepared or administered. Dr Hermann had obtained a sample of the ‘drug’ from visiting Soviet scientists – he didn’t say in what form.  He made a remarkably unscientific comment about its origins:

I do not know exactly how it is made. One legend has it that it is made from goats’ milk in a secret cave. Another, that it is scraped from the hump of a camel.

At least one radio station, 3UZ in Melbourne, devoted a program to the discussion of Dr Hermann’s experiments and his proposition that kombucha “may some day be used by modern man in prolonging his lifespan”. Advertising their program, Drama of Medicine, the station said:

Tonight’s episode will deal with the wonder drug Kombucha, to the use of which Mongolian and Siberian peasants attribute their longevity. Many of them live to the age of 150 years. American and Russian chemists have analysed this drug and are carrying out tests

The drama was short-lived.  Kombucha seems to have disappeared from view, or at least from the media, for the following 50 years.

A Sydney Morning Herald article in 2018 suggested it had been around since the 1960s. It quoted the maker of Remedy Kombucha, Emmett Condon, who claimed the culture he used was 45 years old and had been  ‘brought to Australia by a couple of German backpackers who flew it in to Australia probably in the days before all the controls that were in immigration’.  It was reportedly home-brewed by a small number of Aussies throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Home-brewed kombucha with SCOBY. Photo Tim Oliver-Metz on Unsplash

Interest in the health-giving properties of kombucha began to attract comment in the mid-1990s. It was still confined to alternative health practitioners or was fermented with sugary black tea in home kitchens. Some outrageous claims that the tea would cure AIDS and cancer were debunked by doctors, who conceded that if people wanted to take it as a ‘feel-good tonic’ it probably wouldn’t do any harm. However, by 1997, it was reported that overuse could cause severe liver damage and metabolic acidosis.

Kombucha is now sold in supermarkets under a wide range of brands. While the more extreme health claims have been dismissed, it is among the foods touted as being good for gut health. And gut health, they say, is essential for a healthy immune system, brain health, good sleep,  general mood and a whole lot more.  However, the Mayo Clinic says that valid medical studies of kombucha tea’s role in human health are very limited — and there are risks to consider. It recommends avoiding the tea until better studies are done.

The first in Australia to produce kombucha commercially was a company called Mojo in South Australia. The founder, Anthony Crabb, began selling his drinks at the Willunga Farmers’ Market in 2009 and his operation grew from there. Mojo’s parent company, Organic and Raw Trading Co., is now owned by The Coca-Cola Co. You can’t get more mainstream than that.

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