How I discovered kombucha
I was at the grocery store and they had a tasting. Delicious.
Until then, I made fun of my California friends and their kombucha but I ever I tasted it. I had to apologize. But now that I, too, loved kombucha, there was a bigger problem–the price. There was no way I could afford to keep myself stocked at $4-6 per bottle.
Also, I hate one-use bottles. They’re wasteful. I decided I’d learn to make it myself. Turns out it’s easy and costs pennies.
What is kombucha?
Skip this part if you already know.
Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea that has tons of probiotic value. It has its roots in ancient China, where it was called the “elixir of life.” I found it in Slavic cultures, too, where people gift each other “SCOBY” cultures–it’s traditionally considered bad form to sell them.
Why should I make kombucha?
You could pay $4/bottle, making it slightly less expensive than Starbucks daily. Or, you can make it exactly to your liking for free. With a little trial and error, you can make it as sweet or tart as you like. You can carbonate it. You can flavor it with honey, ginger, fruits–the sky’s the limit. Having unlimited kombucha on hand is a sign of luxury.
Kombucha is a nice entry-level project which is technically fermentation but sits at the gateway to brewing. Once you start making kombucha, don’t be surprised if you start fermenting–then brewing other things too.
How do I do this?
Kombucha is a “counter ferment.” You’ll brew some tea, add some sugar, and add the kombucha culture, called a “SCOBY.” (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The SCOBY lives on the sugar–it converts it into (a very small bit of) alcohol and lactic acid.
Here’s how I make my kombucha. One of my two original SCOBYs came from Brooklyn Kombucha. It’s now closed to the public since kombucha has the possibility to release a small amount of alcohol. It’s very, very low, but impossible to quantify without being a food scientist, so kombucha got regulated. That’s another reason to make your own.
- Steep 12 grams (~2T) black tea in 4 cups of boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain out the leaves.
- Add 1 cup of sugar. Dissolve. (Most of the sugar will ferment away)
- Pour the sweet tea concentrate into a 1 gallon glass jar and fill the rest with water.
- Add the SCOBY, but only when the water is less than 84 degrees. If warmer, let it sit.
- Cover with a cloth napkin or cotton cloth and an elastic. It needs to breathe. Don’t use cheesecloth or fruit flies will get through.
- Check it after a week. Taste it by using a “wine thief” (used to sample wine) or take a soup ladle and take some from the middle. This is important–yeast settles, vinegar rises. These are two byproducts of fermentation. If you want a good sample it has to come from the middle.
- When it tastes like kombucha–as sweet as you want it (the longer you leave it, the less sweet it’ll be), it’s ready for drinking, or to bottle and carbonate with a “secondary ferment.”
“Secondary ferment” is where you get the extra fizz and bubbles so it’ll be more like soda. It’s optional, but makes the kombucha taste amazing.
- Remove the SCOBY and put it in your SCOBY hotel (see below). Give the kombucha a little stir to mix the layers.
- Bottle the kombucha. I use flip-top German bottles or 32 ounce growlers. The bottles must be clean–I sterilize with boiling water or StarSan sanitizer.
- Add a bit of fruit, sugar or honey. My favorites: ginger, raspberry, peach, or honey. You don’t need much–a few chunks of fruit, a spoon of jam or honey will work.
- Leave it on the counter for a day or two.
- Refrigerate when it’s as bubbly as you want, but no more than a couple of days, otherwise your kombucha will explode when you open it–it’ll be over carbonated and under too much pressure.
- Refrigerate and drink.
Troubleshooting: If it’s too sweet, try a few extra days in the first ferment, or cut back your sugar. If it explodes on the secondary ferment, refrigerate sooner. If it does nothing, make sure you’re fermenting at a good temperature–below mid 60’s will slowly damage your SCOBY and above 85 is too hot.
Where can I get a SCOBY?
I got my first two from Amazon and Brooklyn Kombucha. Brooklyn Kombucha is closed, but you can get them on Amazon or from Bucha Brothers out of Denver, which seems to have better laws for kombucha brewers than New York. There are a wide range of prices for these–first off, you should visit your local “buy nothing” group and ask for one for free. But if you must order one, some companies let you choose sizes. Pick the smaller, cheaper one.
Each batch of kombucha you make produces a “baby SCOBY.” You’ll have more than you know what to do with soon. No need to invest in a big one.
Keep extras in your “SCOBY hotel” and pay them forward.
How to make a SCOBY hotel
A SCOBY hotel is a storage place for your SCOBYs between batches. It’s just a big jar, covered, with all your SCOBYs in it, submerged in sweet tea–the same strength as you made for the batch you brewed. Keep two separate SCOBY hotels. If one dries out or has a problem, you’ll have another.
Store the SCOBY hotel in a dark cabinet. Once in a while, add some sweet tea so it doesn’t dry out. Toss some SCOBYs if they start to take over the room.
Tip: Keep a few scrap SCOBYs for experimentation, as you can try different teas. If you do try other things, keep those SCOBY in another hotel–they will morph and change.
- Keep your equipment sanitized.
- Never cut oxygen from your kombucha. Cover with a cloth (not cheesecloth–fruit flies can get through), not a lid.
- Do not store your SCOBY hotel in the fridge–cold temps will kill it. And while you’re at it, keep two. That way if you neglect one, the other may survive.
- Find a corner of your house that’s warm for your kombucha. Kombucha takes longer to ferment when it’s cool. I add two days in spring and fall and subtract fermenting time in wood stove season.
- This is a living thing–no two batches will be exactly the same. You can get a predictable outcome once you get the flow.
- Experiment with different teas, but keep a SCOBY assigned to each. The tea changes the SCOBY and you may want the original.
- For your jar: get a one gallon glass jar–the kind filled with pickles. Here’s why: the pickles in the gallon jars cost about $4. The “kombucha jars” online are $20. It’s the same jar but empty. Eat the pickles, brew the kombucha. It’s a win-win.