Kombucha: What is it?

Search for Kombucha on the internet and you’ll find almost universal reference to “mushroom tea” or mysterious “kombucha mushrooms.”   You might find information about a “Manchurian Mushroom” or even strange characters in Chinese or Russian that you can’t read!

What is Manchurian Mushroom Tea?

A thick white SCOBY rests on a plate with two thinner ones.
In fact, people have said to me many times, “Oh, I’d drink Kombucha but I don’t like mushrooms.”  I smile and try not to sound like a know-it-all as I inform them that Kombucha isn’t a mushroom at all, but rather a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, hence SCOBY.
That’s usually followed by a blank stare or a dirty look.  Sorry.  I’m a nerd.  So, how in the heck did Kombucha come to be known as mushroom tea?  First, let’s consider, “What is a mushroom, exactly?”

Mushrooms Are People Too?
Well, mushrooms belong to the kingdom of organisms called Fungus.  It is a kingdom because it is completely different from plants, animals and bacteria.  Fungi are actually more closely related to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom (kombucha mushroom people!!).
A cartoon of a Mushroom "person" holding a baseball bat and ball with a banner behind that reads "Kombucha Mushroom People"
However, while all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms (and not all fungi are Fun Guys! – sorry again, I’ll stop).  Yeast are fungi, so in that regard the Kombucha cultures, in part, belong to the same family as mushrooms.  That doesn’t make them a mushroom.
Yeast and mushrooms are distant cousins, not brothers.  Who knows, they might not even like each other.


Does Everybody Call Kombucha a Mushroom?

According to Wikipedia:
  • In Russian, the kombucha culture is called čajnyj grib чайный гриб (lit. “tea mushroom”), and the drink itself is called grib гриб (“mushroom”).
  • In Chinese, kombucha is called hongchajun 红茶菌 (lit. “red tea fungus/mushroom” [Hannah’s note – I majored in Mandarin Chinese in college and the literal translation for jun is bacteria]), hongchagu 红茶菇 (“red tea mushroom”), or chameijun 茶霉菌 (“tea mold”).
  • In Japanese, the kombucha drink is known as “kōcha kinoko” 紅茶キノコ (lit. “black tea mushroom” [Hannah’s note – according to Google translator, this translates to “black tea fungus”]).
The Chinese & Japanese words for mold, fungus and mushroom all contain the same character, so it is most likely the source from whence the initial misnomer arose.
A more accurate translation is likely “red bacteria tea” or even “red mold tea.”  Those names would be a pretty tough sell – so I can see why “Mushroom Tea” might be a preferable English translation!
A man examines a jar.
Ed Kasper, the Happy Herbalist, speculates that the term “mushroom” was applied because of the legendary health benefits of all kinds of mushrooms.  They have long been used in traditional medicine to cure a myriad of ailments and improve longevity.
I think there is something very powerful in this association.  As mushrooms are closer to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom, there is an element of spirituality involved in consuming the “body” of another living thing, or having that living thing create nourishment for you.  It initiates another level of connection to the world around us.
The Kombucha starter culture is very different from mushrooms in so many aspects (for instance, it doesn’t produce spores) that I believe the only real connection is that the mushroom misnomer has become a legend that has been passed down through the generations – in French it is called “le champignon de longue vie” (the mushroom of long life), in Spanish “hongo” (mushroom), in German “teepilz” (tea fungus) and so it goes.
Te del Hongo Kombucha is the Spanish name.
Regardless of what you call it, Kombucha for me is all about the symbiosis.  It is about the harmony that is created when balance is achieved across all the kingdoms: animal (human), plant (tea), fungus (yeast) and bacteria.  To quote Dr. Bronner “All One!”
Thanks for reading.
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Responses to Kombucha Is Not A Mushroom, People

  1. Thanks bitt!

    I have definitely noticed the resemblence between SCOBYs and mushrooms. Without a stem or gills like most mushrooms, I find a new creamy white SCOBY reminds me more of the full moon than anything else.

  2. hannah i need help my first batch turned to vinegar and had no carbonation i understand the vinegar thing but why no fizz? what do i do with the old scoby when the new one appears? can i use canning jars with sealed lids to bottle? can i use honey at the flavoring stage? does scoby remain dormant if refrigerated and for how long and how to make it wake?

  3. Kombucha is awesome! According to Gunter Frank, our former prez Ronald Reagan drank kombucha to cure his cancer, and it worked! Too bad the ACS and govt doesn't want us to know about it.

  4. Nice article! I am sensitive to both fungi and candida…so I have not been too keen on trying Kumbucha. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • I have the same concern. I have a sensitivity to mushrooms, and wonder, even though it isn’t mushroom, will I have a reaction.

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