Reviving Malaysia’s kombucha tradition

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Most of the kombucha available in Malaysia now is imported, particularly from Australia and America. Pic: Getty/boyarkinamarina
Most of the kombucha available in Malaysia now is imported, particularly from Australia and America. Pic: Getty/boyarkinamarina

Related tags kombucha Malaysia Superfoods Functional drinks Tea

It’s not often that people think of a small country in Southeast Asia as a trendsetter, but when it comes to kombucha, Malaysia saw the now-fashionable fermented tea rise to wild levels of popularity—and then wither away—years before the first hipster ditched his razor blades. Now a movement is trying to bring it back into fashion.

For generations, kombucha was part of many Malaysians’ health regime. And in a country that has historically been riven with tensions between the three main races of Malays, Chinese and Indians, it was one of the few food and beverage categories enjoyed by all.

While the superdrink has been blazing a path through the hipster world in recent years, driven by the near-religious conversions of Instagram idols and YouTube starlets to it, in Malaysia the fashion died out two generations ago and for many it has been forgotten.

Spurring a renewed interest with young people

“When I was young I would watch my aunt drink it. She claimed the kombucha would help her with her joint pain, so I thought I’d give it a try. I instantly loved it and started to learn all about it online,”​ said Boon Loke, who is developing an organic kombucha business in the Klang Valley, outside Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s not widely consumed here any more. I have conducted a number of workshops on kombucha, finding that the older generation would still drink it in Malaysia but on the whole it has died off. Now we hope to see it slowly coming back.”

Most of the kombucha available in Malaysia is imported, particularly from Australia and America, and often comes in flavours that are foreign to the Malaysian palate. In the case of American shipments, it is pasteurised and loses the probiotic qualities that saw it first and foremost a health drink in Malaysia over the generations.

So local brands such as Boon’s Wonderbrew and others have been embarking on a process of re-educating Malaysians about their shared beverage heritage. Much of the scoby, kombucha’s eternal, living ingredient, has been thrown away over the years, prompting brands to start offering classes on how to resurrect the mixture of bacteria and fungus, and the traditional techniques used to make it.

By teaching a younger, 'woke' and Instagram-aware generation how to make the raw ingredients for the drink, they hope to spur renewed interest in it.

Halal-certified fermentation

Though workshopping is a modern take on developing a market, it is a lot closer than one might immediately think to past Malaysian kombucha traditions.

Until 30 or so years ago, mothers in particular would attend classes on how to refine their scoby and enhance their kombucha. Though kombucha began as an oriental drink, it was equally popular across the main Malaysian races, Boon says. Front-room classes would be attended by Chinese, Indians and Malays together in the form of regular social gatherings.

However, the burgeoning brew brands know they need to do more work to resurrect this multi-ethnic harmony that was once central to it.

Since kombucha’s popularity dipped under the horizon, Malaysia has gone through a period of growing Islamic religiosity, and now many of the Muslim Malays, who account for 60% of the population, equate 'fermented' with alcohol, which is forbidden for them both spiritually and legally in the country.

“Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, it’s very important for us to get halal certification to show that kombucha is not an alcoholic drink. But there are still some doubts in the minds of many Muslims. The halal logo will go a long way to change this mindset,”​ said Boon.

If and when certification from the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), the country’s heavyweight halal certifier, Scoby Farm will be the first to do so, the company claims.

Growing kombucha across Asian cultures

Another ethnic distinction is flavour. Some 40% of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Chinese, this community’s tastes have generally moved beyond those of the mother country from which they departed in most cases over 100 years ago.

Malaysian Chinese cuisine, for example, is now very different from mainland Chinese food, and the tendency is for Malaysians to shy away from traditional recipes in favour of those that combine local ingredients and techniques.

This is the same with kombucha, known traditionally as cendawan mekah in Bahasa Melayu. Much of the process to modernise kombucha involves taking the heritage flavours of cendawan mekah and giving them a modern spin.

Wonderbrew kombuchas, for example, now come in locally appreciated flavours including passion fruit, beets and most recently blue pea flower, and shy away from imported flavours. Its ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers, and do not include artificial additives and preservatives.

Boon’s business, which he runs with two partners, has picked up quickly since it went commercial late last year. Two major supermarkets now stock their lines, which they produce themselves at a current rate of 3,000-5,000 bottles a month.

There is plenty of scope to build on this, he thinks, as increasing numbers of 18-30-year-olds develop an interest in kombucha and, prompted by the seminars, workshops and pop-up events like the ones Boon presents, perhaps start brewing it themselves as a hobby.

“Most of them are completely new to kombucha. In Malaysia it’s not a popular drink so we will have to educate them about it. When they start trying it they are mostly all taken in by the taste so I think this is a segment we should target. We are talking the hipster market very much,”​ he said.

But though the focus is on the most recent adult generation of Malaysians, their grandparents will have seen it all before. As they hear more about kombucha’s revival, it must be puzzled for them to witness how something they viewed as an ugly health drink in their youth is now becoming the domain of all the cool kids.

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