Not all bacteria are bad, promise!
It's not often that a raw, unpasteurized beverage is more popular than its pasteurized companion, but kombucha isn't any old drink. Kombucha is a so-called "elixir of youth," beloved by health-conscious celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Halle Berry, according to the Daily Mail. And when you go to the supermarket to buy a bottle of kombucha, you'll see that most brands are labeled "raw." But what is raw kombucha, and why don't people run screaming from raw kombucha the same way they avoid other unpasteurized beverages for fear of foodborne illnesses? (I'm looking at you, raw milk.)
To understand the benefits of raw kombucha over the pasteurized stuff, and the difference between the two types of kombucha, you have to understand how kombucha is made and what makes kombucha, well, kombucha.
According to The Kitchn, you can make kombucha by adding a scoby, or "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," to sweet tea. The two products are left to sit together and ferment, until the drink becomes fizzy and a little tart. That fermented tea is the kombucha, and according to Trevor Ross, founder and CEO of LIVE Soda, a company that manufactures raw and organic kombucha, it's chockfull of "living cultures, enzymes, yeasts and probiotics."
Those living cultures and probiotics are basically live bacteria, mixed with some yeast, and it's these bacteria that confer the purported health benefits of kombucha. "This is my personal opinion, not a company statement," notes Ross in an email, "but I believe that probiotics play an important role in supporting healthy digestion and 'gut health,' with the good bacteria contributing to a healthy microbiome."
The live bacteria is also part of what "raw" refers to, continues Ross. "It is also about not being pasteurized, which kills off all bacteria." And that's exactly why most kombucha that you find in stores is raw, not pasteurized; you kind of need the bacteria and yeast to give the kombucha tea its signature fizz and purported health benefits. Pasteurization heats up a liquid so that all the bacteria are killed off, even the good ones, and if you did that to kombucha, you'd basically just have some sour-tasting tea without any of the benefits to the gut.
The risk of drinking raw kombucha, of course, is potential food poisoning from any nasty bacteria that might've worked its way into the batch—but that risk of sickness is much higher when you're making kombucha at home or drinking a friend's homebrew than if you're drinking commercially manufactured kombucha, where there are usually food safety measures in place. At LIVE Soda, for example, "We have in-house and third party audits, perform regular environmental testing and inspect and test every single batch," Ross explains.
So don't be afraid of bacteria. Not all of them are bad, though you may want to avoid drinking your neighbor's homemade booch, just in case.