The Art and Science of Kombucha with Dr Matt Ball

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The Art and Science of Kombucha with Dr Matt Ball

In today's podcast Andrew is joined by Dr Matthew Ball who is both an opthalmologist and fermentation entrepreneur.

Dr Ball and his wife Lara have built a successful business in Sydney brewing delicious kombucha and selling it "on tap" at events and local cafes and eateries.

Today Dr Ball talks to Andrew about the art and the science that goes into crafting kombucha beverages and the journey they've had creating their brand Wild Kombucha.

Covered in this episode

[00:46] Introducing Dr Matt Ball

Andrew: This is FX Medicine, I'm Andrew Whitfield-Cook. Joining me on the line today is a very interesting mix of a surgeon who's diversified. This is Dr. Matthew Ball. He's an ophthalmic surgeon with additional sub-specialist qualifications in cornea and anterior segment surgery. Dr. Ball completed undergraduate medical training at the University of Adelaide, followed by a Master's in International Public Health at the University of Sydney, before commencing ophthalmology training at Sydney Eye Hospital.

During his time at Sydney Eye Hospital, Dr. Ball was heavily involved in training new ophthalmology registrars, and was recognised for excellence by being awarded both the Churchill Fellowship and the Norman Rose Traveling Scholarship. He also participated in developing world programs such as the Myanmar Eye Care Program, and was a Senior Medical Officer for Médecins Sans Frontières in Ethiopia.

After completing ophthalmology qualifications, Matt completed two further fellowship qualifications in the UK, first in corneal surgery at Bristol Eye Hospital, and then in anterior segment surgery at the prestigious Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

Since returning to Australia in late 2011, Dr. Ball has commenced contracted positions at Sydney Eye and St. George Hospitals, and works in private practice in Gladesville, Brookvale, and North Sydney. Now, here's the twist. Dr. Matthew Ball, Matt Ball, also makes kombucha, and this is what we're going to be talking about today on FX Medicine. And I'd like to welcome you, Matt, to FX Medicine. How are you?

Matt: I'm well. Thanks, Andrew. Great to join you.

Andrew: Now, I've gotta say, you've...let's go back. Let's go first to this mix, because you're an ophthalmologist, and this is hippie stuff. Tell us how this all started.

Matt: Well, it seems like a bit out of left field, but I've had a long standing interest in what optimises performance, and because you need quite a lot of concentration and fine motor control for eye surgery. And years ago, got into yoga and meditation and other ways of sort of optimising physical and mental performance.

So out of that... I've also been interested in the long term in windsurfing and other water sports. So that all combined to frustration when I was living in London, in the sense that it was cold and wet and grey, and my wife and I just wanted to get out of there. And there's no surf.

And I was reading a book by a big wave Hawaiian surfer, and that book is all about performance, mind and body performance. And in that book, he mentioned - Laird Hamilton wrote the book. He mentioned various organic foods, and meditation, yoga, exercise for fitness, but he also mentioned kombucha as a super food. And I had pretty much heard of everything else in the book, except that. So at the time, I did some research in London, and I couldn't really find anything. This is about six, seven years ago. I couldn't really find anything in London.

And then when we got back to Sydney, did some research in Sydney, and I think I found a couple of brands on the shelf in the supermarket. And that sort of sparked my interest. And my wife and I, for the life of us couldn't afford a home in Sydney. So we thought, “Oh Well, if we can't afford a home, why don't we go on a holiday?" And we always wanted to go to Maui, especially because it's the best windsurfing in the world.

And so we signed up to do a month of yoga teacher training, and windsurfing and things in Maui. I go over there and saw a sort of huge community of people drinking kombucha. And the guys who were training would say, "Hey, you've gotta go and see this kombucha bar." It's a little kombucha bar up in Haiku, in Maui. And we ended up going up there every day and getting our refills off the tap. And all the fit people, big wave surfers, windsurfers, people were going in there and getting their refills. So it was quite a sort of cool vibe.

And at the time, we were like, "Why isn't anything like this in Australia?" And the guy behind the bar said, "Yeah, every Aussie that comes in here says that and never does anything about it" So, we got back to Sydney, and we were still intrigued by this, and we thought, "Oh, we should start making it." So then the biggest issue was where do you get the starter culture from?

So at that stage, Lara's younger brother, Tom, was studying fermentation at uni, and she said, "Oh, I bet he would know where to get one." So we rang him up, and he said, "Yeah, I bought one last week. Do you want it?"

Andrew: You're kidding.

Matt: So, yeah. It was just unbelievable timing. So he hadn't started doing anything with it either, so he said, "Yeah, you guys can have it." So we exchanged him dinner for our first SCOBY, which is the culture, and brought it back to Sydney. We drove down to Canberra to get it off him. Quite excited. And...

Andrew: What, to go to Canberra?

Matt: Exactly.

Andrew: Don't think so.

Matt: No, not at all.

Andrew: But you came back with a SCOBY. Can I just digress for a tick? Because I should include your lovely wife Lara, with whom you started this business, Wild Kombucha. Tell me a little bit about yours and Lara's background. How did you meet? What raised the interest, and was it a unity in going, "Hey, this is cool stuff" or was it like one was going, "What the hell are you talking about"? Like, were you both on the same level?

Matt: Well, interesting, Lara's background is in art and she was quite a successful artist in her own right. In fact, she studied architecture and fine art at university. But despite being awarded one of the top scholarships in London for architecture, decided not to take it up because architecture wasn't creative enough for her. So she focused on art.

And so, has always been very good at making things happen. Her specialty was in installation art. A lot of people have never heard of installation art, but it's essentially putting on a bench or one-off sort of installations that come together. So she was the first artist to exhibit on Cockatoo Island, before it became trendy. And she was selected from that artwork to take a similar work overseas by DEFAT.

So she made a big event happen in Turkey out of that, and then also in Russia. So she took herself off to Russia on her own, St Petersburg, and found an abandoned space, worked within the Russian...I think it was an abandoned prison she worked in, and brought together some amazing art work over there. So she is...if you want something to happen and get done, you get Lara involved.

Andrew: I've got to ask then, like if Lara was over in Russia and that sort of middle European area, isn't this where kombucha is traditionally from?

Matt: Well, I think it's probably one of the origins of it. Certainly they're big on fermenting things.

Andrew: Right.

Matt: There's drinks like Kvass, which is fermented beet juice and things like that. So there's a bit of crossover, definitely, with Eastern Europe. I mean, most likely kombucha came out of China or Korea, because if you look it up, it's not entirely clear where it originated from. It may well have been that someone left their sweetened tea a little bit too long on the shelf.

Andrew: Yeah. I'll get to that, yeah.

Matt: So in terms of us meeting and crossover and things, she's already very opened-minded, sort of creative person, and used to me being a little bit esoteric. In terms of how this came to be, she wasn't particularly interested in the drink until we got into it, and then it allowed a creative sort of side of us to come out.

Andrew: Yeah. Now, I have to ask though, as an ophthalmologist, wouldn't you have been laughed at by your colleagues, like, "What is this stuff"?

Matt: Yeah. Well, I think I've never taken quite the traditional path. So my colleagues were used to me being a little bit out of left field in the sense of being open-minded to other things. And I think it was...when I decided to go and work for Médecins Sans Frontières, that was after four years of ophthalmology training.

So the traditional path then is to go straight to fellowship and then into private practice, but I don't think I would have been satisfied that I'd done everything that I wanted to do before I settled into private practice if I'd done that. So, I took a year out and went and worked in Africa in nutrition and other things, which is definitely not the mainstream sort of way of doing things. And, it's quite fun in the sense to challenge the traditional path.

So when I first started, when we first came out with this, yeah, I think a lot of people thought I was probably mad, and I thought it was a little bit of a side project and nothing too serious. But then we gained some traction, and then when we took out our lease on our space in Leichhardt, which is a 370 square meter warehouse, then people started to get interested.

And when they saw that kombucha could be presented more as a product that sits along the lines of beer or wine rather than just soft drink in a bottle, then people get even more interested. And when we had our opening, we had quite a few ophthalmologists here actually.

Andrew: Did you?

Matt: Or who were quite excited, because I think there's crossover with doctors who go into beer making and wine making and all that kind of stuff. And I think the reason is because you all need a creative outlet. Because medicine can get quite intense at times and you need a sort of offset valve for that, and doing creative things allows that, I think.

Andrew: So, kombucha, what exactly is it? You mentioned the SCOBY before. Can you go into a little bit of the history behind it, at least that which we know?

Matt: So, yeah, I mean, I think... As I said, we don't know exactly where its origins are. And there's various types of different fermented drinks. I mean, they’ve been around for centuries. They're all different types of fermentation. It depends on what the base is, and then what the microorganisms are.

And so, kombucha is the base green or black tea and it needs to be sweetened usually with sugar, and then you use that as your substrate for fermentation. And the SCOBY stands for a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. So the difference from beer or wine which are pure yeast ferments is that kombucha has a bacterial component to it as well.

So the SCOBY is actually a colony. It's actually a biofilm. It's a thickened mat that contains both the bacteria and the yeast in it, and it allows that colony to exist together.

And so, kombucha per se, it doesn't have a specific definition apart from the fact that you've got a multi-culture, in it. And in general terms, from what we understand, the yeast take the sugar and convert it to CO2 and alcohol. And the bacterial component of the culture which is an acetic acid-producing bacteria type, converts that alcohol to organic acid.

So that's why as opposed to beer or wine where you get a certain amount of alcohol formed. You get a much lower level of alcohol in kombucha because you're constantly metabolising the alcohol to acid. So the longer the brew goes on, the more acetic acid is produced, and a slightly higher level of alcohol, and gradually a drop off in the sugar.

A true kombucha should be slightly tart. So it should have a tart end-point, which is the acetic acid, and should have a little bit of residual sugar in it, because you can't brew the sugar out completely. And it should be naturally lightly carbonated. And if you get it right, it can be very much like a cider.

Andrew: Oh, yeah. I remember you had a table at the Bioceuticals Symposium, and you had a bit of a fan club going on there, I gotta say. I remember coming back for more than a ‘taste cup’.

Matt: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's the great, fun part about it. To be honest, Lara and I are interested in kombucha and love brewing it, but a huge part of this whole company has been about creating the experience around it. And I think a lot of that comes from Lara's installation art background. She loves making events happen. She loves putting on things for people to experience it, and kombucha has sort of allowed that to happen.

Andrew: Yeah. I gotta say though, going back to the comment you made before about that these doctors, you know, very often brew wine or beer, to me, this is something along that sort of flavour because...I mean, I've tasted other kombuchas, after yours. I've gotta say, I went out and I bought a couple that were readily available in retail outlets, and they were rubbish. There was nothing to them. It was horrible. Whereas yours was really a refined product. It was really beautiful. And the different flavours that you had, it showed some work that you'd really put into that product. So, I gotta say, it was quite awesome to taste.

Matt: Thank you.

Andrew: Can I ask you though? Like, purported benefits of kombucha, are we just talking as a nice drink, like a cup of tea? Or are we really looking further now?

Matt: Oh, we’re definitely looking further. I mean, there's so many claims that get made about kombucha. And I'm very wary as a health professional, making any healthcare claims about it. So we don't...we have really concentrated on making a sophisticated, complex product. And then, whatever health benefit it'll have that people feel when they drink our product, it's just an added bonus.

But I think increasingly the medical profession is looking at gut health as drivers of our immune system, of drivers of systemic inflammation. And so, we pretty much looking at whatever it takes to improve gut health, and therefore, kombucha comes onto the radar of that.

And I suppose that's the big question, is how is it working? Because certainly, anecdotally, a lot of people feel better taking it. There's been animal studies that show that it improves detoxification of the liver and other things. There hasn't been any human studies that have shown big benefits, but then again it's very hard to prove things nutritionally.

So, my feeling is, having learned a bit more about gut health, being on this path, is that it may well be to a large degree the acetic acid component, that it's beneficial. Because apple cider vinegar is thought to be very good for gut health, and that may be because it's a low pH drink and acidifying your small intestine and large intestine, and then potentially allowing beneficial bacteria to grow.

I mean, it’s out of my area, but this is my sort of feeling. And therefore, if you brew a kombucha down until it does have a tart end point to it, and that's probably where some of the benefit lies. The other thing is, what is a probiotic? Probiotics have a specific definition through WHO, but I think our understanding is growing and growing about what is a true biotic, and what true probiotic and what does the gastrointestinal system actually need or need to consist of?

And obviously, there's genetic, environmental, and other components to that. The main organisms in kombucha are actually Zygosaccharomyces, which is the main yeast. Now, that hasn't necessarily been shown to be a probiotic, but who knows? And you've got acetic acid forming bacteria, Gluconacetobacter, with a small amount of Lactobacillus, which we know is probiotic. So, it's hard to... I think it's impossible to know. I think if you don't...

Andrew: The whole thing of probiotic has had a few changes in its definition over the time. I think with the amount that we're learning about the microbiota of the gut, we're having to really take a step back and saying, "Well, how arrogant were we in saying that this..." And I've gotta say, most of the... If you look at most of the supplemental probiotics on the Australian market certainly, a lot of them, not all of them, but a lot of them, certainly the older ones, were all based on dairy.

Now we're finding out, "Hang on, there's Lactobacillus plantarum," and you just mentioned one, like Gluconacetobacter xylinus. There's all of these different bugs that are growing in our gut, giving us benefit. There's other bugs that I love, you know, the Akkermansia muciniphila and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, two bugs that we can’t get in a capsule, but they found incredible benefits. So I think we've gotta look more about what can we give these bugs to feed them rather than giving the bug themselves.

Matt: I couldn't agree more. I think that's...I mean, it doesn't make... Because I don't think the studies are there as to this probiotic changes your microflora by this degree. And then even if it does, is that maintained?

Andrew: Yes, that's right.

Matt: And so therefore, what makes far more sense to me is if you...that you're feeding a garden, and you're promoting the growth of the right organisms. And so how do you achieve that? Because I think ultimately, what you're truly trying to achieve is a good balance of the short chain fatty acid production so that things like butyrate and acetate, being anti-inflammatory, are what you want, rather than propionate, which seems to be associated with pro-inflammatory states.

So it would be fascinating, from my perspective, if you could do a study on kombucha and short chain fatty acid production, which would be interesting. I've got a gas chromatography here, but at the moment, we're just looking at alchohol, and I've got some ideas and other things to look at. But, yeah, I think it's exciting times for kombucha.

Andrew: Absolutely. I have to mention though, a few years ago now, in fact, it would have probably been around 10 years ago, the media got sensationalised about an issue of contamination. What interested me not so much at the time but certainly now, it was like, "Well, hang on, what's the difference with my mom, for instance, making ginger beer and having the tops fly off and hit the roof? What's the difference from the man who inadvertently, hopefully, poisoned his..." Was it a son and friend or something? There were devastating consequences up in the...where was that? In the North...

Matt: Yes.

Andrew: Yeah, Northern Territory or North Queensland or something? What's the difference with that? But they seemed to harp on about this kombucha. And I guess my guess is that maybe people were making wild claims about its benefits, and then didn't have a knowledge of general hygiene measures nor fermentation. So I guess, I need to ask you, for the average Joe-blow out there that wants to try and make kombucha, what sort of relevant education do you have to go through to really sort of be safe?

Matt: Well, there's a few aspects. It's interesting you ask all that because very early on in our journey, I met with a professor of food microbiology at the University of New South Wales. He's unfortunately now passed away, but Professor Graham Fleet. And he was fantastic because I sat with him for a couple of hours, and the first thing he said to me is, "You know, Matt, if anyone dies from your product, you're in jail." And that kind of really struck me right off because if it becomes pretty serious. But you need to know what's going on.

Standard kombucha brands is not difficult in the sense that you can take some sweetened tea and add a SCOBY to it, and more than likely you will ferment something. The main thing to know if you're doing it at home is that you need an adequate starter brew, at a low pH. Because essentially the way kombucha works is because it becomes progressively more acidic, that selectively inhibits certain organisms. So you don't tend to get pathogenic bacteria if you're brewing your pH down well. So you want a reasonably low start pH, and then you should have a pretty happy brew.

Obviously, you need to be clean. You don't need to be sterile, because it's not a sterile culture. The other thing to do, you need to keep an eye on the SCOBY, that it's forming appropriately. And it's kind of only over time that you work out that every single culture is going to look different, and it's going to taste different because the micro colony is different, and the concentration of different organisms are different in all the cultures.

But what you need to look out for is things like mould, unusual looking organisms forming on the top. So there's theories about those cases where people had bad reactions or had toxic effects, that maybe that was home brewing and then unusual organisms like Aspergillus or other fungi forming on the SCOBY, and that can easily happen if you've got an unhappy SCOBY.

But with experience over time, you know what to look for. The other big issue which kombucha brewing is, and it's not so much if you're doing it at home, but it certainly is, as the commercial brewers’, alcohol content. And that is the most challenging aspect of it. Because in 2010, Lindsay Lohan got pulled over for drink driving, and she said, "All I drank was kombucha." And people were like, "Yeah, right." But then they went and tested a lot of the bottles on the shelves in the Whole Food Market, and some of them where 3% and 4% alcohol.

So because you've still got a living product, if you bottle it and it still has this...a seemingly amount of residual sugar, essentially the fact that you've put a cap on it, preferentially shuts down the bacteria and allows yeast fermentation to continue. So you can drive your alcohol levels up quite high and quite quickly. And so, things like bottles exploding indicate high alcohol and probably high carbonation.

And so, a very fizzy kombucha can mean alcohol levels as well. So, the trickiest part about kombucha brewing is knowing what each of your brews is doing from an alcohol perspective. Because say in beer or wine making, if you know what your starting sugar is and you know exactly what yeast you're using, the tables have been done to workout what your alcohol content is once you've hit a certain residual sugar profile.

So you can say, well, I'm down at this sugar, therefore there's this amount of alcohol in it. But in kombucha brewing, because you've got constant interplay between bacteria and yeast, you don't actually know what your true alcohol level is doing. And...

Andrew: How do you then stabilise it for an end product on the shelf? Do you have to kill off the yeast?

Matt: Well, this is the issue. Do you pasteurise it? and kill everything off and therefore lose some of the potential benefit, if the benefits are in the living organisms? And so, some companies do that. A lot of companies don't want to do that, and we don't do that. So therefore, essentially what you're relying on is, what I didn't say before is if you refrigerate the product, that significantly slows down the fermentation. So you should have a relatively stable product once it's refrigerated.

So we rely on that, you know, kegs. But also, we measure almost every batch in terms of what its alcohol content is, because the laws in Australia mean that you have to...and in the U.S., mean you have to be ending up with 0.5% alcohol, which is very difficult and very hard to measure as well.

Andrew: Oh, okay. Now, I've gotta say, I need to talk about the evolution of Wild Kombucha because I remember talking to you at the Symposium, and you said that it evolved from naming SCOBYs to their numbered tubs and things like that. So I was like, "There's Bob." And I've gotta say, it reminded me of my sister going, "There's Amber the cow." So tell me about that evolution. What happened with, like for instance, your knowledge of fermentation practices? Did that evolve along with it?

Matt: Oh, definitely. Yeah, because in the beginning, we were your home brewers that didn't know very much about it. But then it went from a small, one of those ball mason jars into a slightly larger ferment container, into a 200-litre tank quite quickly. 

But then it's interesting once you start doing it. Then you're like, "Oh, how does this actually work, and which organisms are in the SCOBY?" Actually, I wasn't even interested in beer fermentation or any other form of fermentation, until suddenly we got into this, and then suddenly all that world of microbiology started to open up.

And you only learn it very dryly at medical school, but it's actually really cool when you get into it from a food point of view or a beverage point of view. So, the evolution went from basically Lara saying to stick it into a 200-litre tank. I always joke that if it was me, it still would be a really good tasting, well researched precision brew still sitting at home on a shelf. But you give it to Lara and it becomes… 

Andrew: Kaboom.

Matt: It becomes a much bigger deal. Certainly, my knowledge of fermentation has increased a heap from reading. And then suddenly you become interested in not only the fermentation process but the ingredients. Yeah, for instance, the water is so important. Everything is so important to the happiness of the brew. Because you've gotta think of it... I just consider it like gardening. We have a heap of tanks now that all have their own individual personalities, brewing away at their own sort of rate, all tasting slightly differently.

And it's interesting because Professor Graham Fleet said to me, you know, "The way you're doing it is how the best wineries in France make their wine." They go along and taste test each individual one, and blend them up depending on taste. And I said, "Well, what about testing things? What about measuring things?" And he said, "Well, there's only about three things you need to measure, and if you've got those under control, then actually what it really comes back down to is taste." And so that's what we've concentrated on.

Andrew: You actually raise an interesting point there, and that is the, you know, like these exotic cheeses and even blue cheese, good old Blue Stilton, it's got stuff growing through it kids! And yet we go on our kombucha. You can't have kombucha. But jeepers give me some of those reishi mushrooms.

Matt: Exactly, right.

Andrew: It's an interesting thing. It's an interesting mindset.

Matt: Well, one of the biggest challenges we had when we started selling the product is how do you pitch it to people? Because when we started a few years ago, the majority of the people were like, "Well, what's kombucha?" And so, you found yourself having to make your pitch about kombucha when you're standing at the tap, and it's like, "It's a fermented tea." And people, as soon as they heard the word "Ferment," they'd go right off it. They'd go, "I don't want that." And you’d go, "What do you think beer is, or wine is, or even coffee, and chocolate and everything else that we had before refrigeration?" It's all fermented. So yeah, I think...absolutely.

Now we're at the point where a lot more people know what it is. We're not explaining quite as much to people over the tap what kombucha is. I mean I always joke, like, if you walk up to a barman and order a beer, you don't sort of... I bet you if you asked the majority of people what beer actually is and how it's made, they wouldn't know.

Andrew: No, that's right.

Matt: It's not as though that the bartender has to say, "Well, you take malt and barley, and then you do this, and you add this culture in here." So, I think it's really interesting from that point of view. Community acceptance will come. 

Andrew: I'll bet you any money if you took most people to a winery and showed them the huge vats that they have stuff in, smelling like absolute death.

Matt: That's right.

Andrew: I remember a high school visit. Gosh, out to Griffith. And it was the wine, guys. It was the wine. So, I've got to ask, with regards to kombucha, it's a fermented product. It's got live bugs, at least once living in it, probably now. It's certainly got the short chain fatty acids. So these are a sort of...kind of like taking a vinegar. I guess different because you've got different types of bugs. But are there any relevant things to taking kombucha? Do you have to start off with a teaspoon or can you just lay into it and go, "There we go. We're on it"?

Matt: I think I'd tell people to start slowly. I mean, because it doesn't depend a little bit on the brew itself, but certainly with our product, it's brewed four to six weeks, so it's got a significant amount of acetate or acetic acid in it. And so, you wanna start slowly on that. Because there are stories of people who were having detoxifying reactions after starting to take kombucha, or every now and then, an allergic reaction.

So the other thing is, because it's quite a low pH, if you're someone that has reflux issues or other problems, then that can stir those up initially. So and the other thing is, it's still got some residual caffeine, sugar and alcohol in it. So if you're not used to those things, it can give you a little bit of a buzz. So it's probably saying to start...I'd tell people to take it in the morning to start with. We're talking only a tenth of a cup of coffee worth of caffeine in it. But all those things combined can certainly have an effect on you.

So, ultimately, I'd love to say, you know, drink three litres a day, from a commercial perspective. But I think probably one 250 ml glass a day is a good thing, or a good start. I got up to a litre a day at one point and then found that that was probably enough.

Andrew: Matt, you chose to have Wild Kombucha on tap at various outlets throughout Sydney. What was your intention? Was it bring it to the masses? Where was the business direction there?

Matt: Good question. We didn't really have a business plan when we started. I was very keen to put it in kegs, just from a boy point of view, have it in kegs and also having seen it on tap overseas. And the very first event that we did was a yoga festival. And we put on two taps that day and we sold 220 litres on the first day that we sold it to the public.

So out of that, we met a person named James, who owned Orchard Street brand which is cold-pressed juice and raw food. And they were doing the store next to us on the day, and they asked us if we'd put kombucha on tap in their new café they were opening in North Bondi.

So, the business evolved from there. The biggest decision we made was to invest in a full profit beer dispensing system, because we really wanted to create the experience of something coming off a very cold refreshing-looking tap. And then we came up with the idea that you could use the tap as a refill station, which would then support the concept of recycled bottles.

So, our business plan kind of evolved with our first set of taps, which I've got some mates that are in business, and they said, "Well, you know, that'll be a great test case to see what happens there." And very quickly, Orchard Street started selling quite a lot of product. People were blown away by...having a beer tap dispensing system somewhere other than in a pub.

And we also found that... Some days we'd go down and there would be people's refill bottles sitting down there with mobile numbers on them, waiting to be called when the next kombucha brew got dropped off. And so, that was pretty cool. We thought “Gee we might actually have something here”.

And so, out of that, then Ed from Ruby's Diner in Waverley contacted us, and then his Barista Marcus contacted us. And so, very quickly we had three sets of taps around town. People were loving the concept. And on the basis of three customers, then we took out a lease in Leichhardt and fitted out the space over here. Because we needed somewhere to brew it, test it. And we also then set up a cellar door style tasting bar off the side. So we invested in that. And then from there, the scene has really grown and grown.

I think people are supportive of, firstly, very fresh kombucha off the tap. Secondly, the recycled concept, and thirdly is the whole concept of having another option other than alcohol on a tap. That's the bit that excites us, is creating experiences for people. And so, done quite a few events and things where we've had kombucha on tap, and it's just been great fun.

Andrew: I think the thing that I like is that it offers... Australia is the biggest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world. And we have a whole plethora of health issues because of that. And the thing that I was most impressed by was the taste of kombucha giving me that "dare I say it, fix." I know it's not alcoholic, but it gave me that sort of feel that I was having a social drink.

I'd love to see this sort of thing in pubs. But I've gotta say, it's like one of the best stories of diversifying your interests and your income stream. 

I've gotta ask, what advice can you give other health practitioners wishing to get out of the eight hours, work for eight hours' pay paradigm? Are you just luckily? Or is this something where you'd go, "Hell, go for it"? What sort of advice can you give other people? Indeed, what other hints and tips have you given to your orthodox colleagues?

Matt: I teach a lot of medical students and registrars in eye surgery, and I tell everyone, firstly, to take a year off of medicine. I got started with a commerce degree and then switched to medicine, and then after five years sort of realised that I needed to have a break. And I remember the dean at my university at that point, pulling out to his office and saying, "No one goes a year off. It's gonna destroy your career. Blah, blah, blah." So I went to a dinner party and then convinced 10 or 11 of my mates to also take this year off.

Andrew: Good on ya!

Matt: Which then affected the following years. But I suppose, and then I traveled on that year a lot, and worked, and worked on summer camps in the south of France, teaching windsurfing, and went to Africa for my elective and went to Canada. I think travel really diversifies your mind.

You can get stuck and brainwashed in the traditional systems if you don't get out of them. So, and I see a lot of doctors and medical students go straight through and under the impression that the sooner you finish, the better. Where it's an actually fact, the sooner you finish is the sooner you start working, and the sooner you get potentially locked onto some sort of treadmill.

So, first of all, I tell a lot of medical students, "Take the time off when you can. Go and do other things. Go and have fun. There's no rush to finish medicine, because at the other end, all you're doing is working." But then again, you can have a great time with medicine too. I've done a lot of third world work and travel from that perspective. So I certainly encourage junior doctors to do that.

In terms of colleagues that are already finished, I suppose its just being an example that you can do it. For me, this isn't luck. It's come out of the last 15 years of just looking at things a little bit differently. I really opened my mind when I did my Masters International Public Health because then you start seeing how the world works and what drives what.

So, I think it's just following your heart and passion. This, it kind of feels like luck, but then again, it's kind of not because I think if you open your mind to it, coincidences and things start to happen. And once we started down this path, it's amazing how many opportunities and coincidences have happened. So you certainly couldn't have pushed this path. It's kind of evolved, but then you have to have to be open to it too.

Andrew: I love the correlation that there's you with the science, and yes, you had some art, but your wife had the art. And then if you look at the science of kombucha making, and the art of kombucha, the flavours and all of the things that go into making a really lovely tasting kombucha, it's an interesting correlation there with between you and Lara.

Matt: Oh, definitely. And she is amazing at flavouring it, or working with flavours, to the point where we've done a collaboration with Single Origin Coffee, and one of their main coffee tasters is recognised worldwide, and Lara developed the flavour profile to mix with their cascara, shell off the coffee bean, and it blew her away. So the sophistication that... I mean, Lara has just a natural talent with that. She doesn't even realise she's good at it.

Andrew: You could see that though.

Matt: Yeah.

Andrew: Yeah. It's great speaking to you about what you've done. And I've gotta say, it's very interesting work with what you've done as an ophthalmologist as well. I think that deserves a sort of round of applause with what you've done with Doctors Without Borders and working overseas, and people who have really devastating eye conditions. But talking today about kombucha, taking us through what it is, quality, quality kombucha making, and then bringing in some art to it, I think it's wonderful. So, thanks very much for joining us on FX Medicine today, mate.

Matt: Oh, well, thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure, and it was great fun to meet you at the Symposium.

Andrew: We'll be meeting again.

Matt: I look forward to it.

Andrew: This is FX Medicine, and I'm Andrew Whitfield-Cook.

Additional Resources

Dr Matthew Ball
Wild Kombucha
Médecins Sans Frontières: Doctors without Borders
Laird Hamilton: Force of Nature. Mind, Body, Soul and of course, Surfing
Prof Graham Fleet, University of NSW
Orchard Street
Ruby's Diner


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FX Medicine Podcast
FX Medicine is at the forefront of ensuring functional and integrative medicine gains the recognition it deserves and ultimately establishes itself as an integral part of standard medical practice. Hosted by Andrew Whitfield-Cook, our podcasts are designed to promote research and evidence-based therapeutic practises, acting as a progressive force for change and improvement in patient health and wellbeing.