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Kombucha at home

(article, Jennifer Ward)

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I first tasted kombucha on a wet summer evening three years ago, during a road trip from the Canadian Prairies to New York. Standing in the kitchen of a friend’s home in Indiana, listening to the rain that had followed me across the Midwest, I was startled when she burst in, exclaiming, “Have you heard of kombucha?” 

Actually, I had; I’d noticed it a few months before at my local food co-op. But the $4 price per bottle had deterred me from trying it.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Kombucha is a simple education in fermentation."]My friend, however, brewed her own kombucha. She poured me a glass and I tipped it back, letting the earthy tea-beer-champagne hybrid bubble down my throat. Funky and fizzy, the drink was also strangely compelling. This, I decided, was something to pursue.

Plenty of other folks are lapping up kombucha, too. A fermented tea with origins in East Asia, kombucha became popular in Russia during the 19th century. Now the drink is being poured regularly in North America, where it's available in gourmet grocery chains and fancy coffee shops as well as natural-food co-ops. Earlier this year, the New York Times caught up with the growing kombucha movement, calling the drink a "functional juice" that could become a "gold mine" for the beverage industry.

Aficionados tout kombucha, which is rich in probiotics, as a wonder drink, claiming that it aids in digestion, improves immune function, and prevents hair loss, among other medicinal boosts. Little scientific research into these claims, however, has been done, and kombucha's healthy halo was tarnished recently with the revelation that bottled kombucha could become nearly as alcoholic as beer if left too long on store shelves.

But that glass of kombucha was soothing on that rainy night. So once I'd finished my road trip, I started investigating brewing my own. I could've bought everything I needed online, but like sourdough starter or Amish friendship bread, the idea of face-to-face commerce seemed integral to the experience. Eventually I acquired a two-gallon glass jar, a few cups of finished kombucha to use as a starter, a healthy, rubbery-looking SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, aka the kombucha "mother"), and brewing instructions.

Kombucha, like beer, wine, and bread, is a fascinating and simple education in fermentation. You simply brew a strong, sweet tea, then add the starter and the SCOBY. The bacteria and yeasts in the SCOBY start munching away on the sugars, producing carbon dioxide in the process. This gas carbonates the finished product to a degree that depends on the sugar content, fermentation time, and bottling procedure. Details of flavor, acidity, and even color are open to the individual brewer’s creativity. 

As the Times noted, "small-batch kombucha brewing has become something of a cottage industry." I've joined that industry, and on hot summer nights, my home-brewed kombucha is intensely refreshing.

Here's my step-by-step guide to brewing your own kombucha. 

1. Get your gear. Acquire a two-gallon glass jar (available at stores such as Target) as well as a healthy SCOBY (try Craigslist and community bulletin boards, or online vendors such as Get Kombucha). Your SCOBY should come in a bath of starter (i.e., already fermented) tea. 

2. Prep your water. Fill a large stock pot with 6 quarts of water and place it on the counter to de-chlorinate for 24 hours. The chlorine will evaporate off. Alternatively, use your favorite brand of mineral water.

3. Make your tea. Using about a third of your de-chlorinated water — exact measurements are never required when it comes to kombucha — make a strong, sweet tea. Boil the water, then turn off the burner. Add 1/3 cup flavored or unflavored black tea and green tea, in any proportion you like. 

Tips on tea selection: Black tea makes the final product much more flavorful, and I have found fruit flavors to work better than flavors like hazelnut or Earl Grey. 

I usually throw in some dried hibiscus flowers as well, which give the tea a nice rosy tint. You can also steep dried berries or sliced ginger in the tea mixture. 

Add 2 1/2 to 3 cups of white sugar (sorry, agave and honey will not work) and stir until the sugar has dissolved. 

Let the tea steep for at least 30 minutes. Strain it, then allow it to come to room temperature. Add the strained tea to the rest of the de-chlorinated water.

4. Add the SCOBY and the starter. Gently, and always with clean hands, place the SCOBY into the jar of sweet tea. Pour the starter (the already-fermented kombucha) into the jar as well. (The starter must account for about 10 percent of the final amount in order to get the correct pH level.) Sometimes the SCOBY mother sinks, and sometimes it floats; either is OK.

5. Ferment your brew. Cover the jar with a double layer of fine cheesecloth to protect against dust and fruit flies. Set the jar in a location with good air flow and medium light. (Direct sunlight can damage the tea, and closets won’t allow the tea enough air.) Wait two to three weeks.

The tea's fermentation rate depends on the ambient temperature in your home. Buy some short-range pH strips to test the pH level in your brew; most people like their tea between 2.8 and 3. You can also just scoop out some tea with a clean cup and taste it. If you want your kombucha more acidic, let it sit longer. (As time goes by, the pH of the kombucha will fall, making the brew more acidic and less sweet.) If you prefer it on the sweeter side, you'll need to bottle your next batch at an earlier point in the process. 

6. Build up the fizz. When the tea has fermented to your liking, decant it into bottles that have rubber stoppers or very strong seals. This will allow the fizziness caused by the fermentation to build up even more. Let the bottles sit for about 10 days at room temperature to acquire even more fizz, then refrigerate them. 

7. Serve your drink. Kombucha is delicious simply poured over ice, but you can also mix it with wine for an interesting take on sangria, or add fruit syrups if the tea is too acidic. 

8. Salvage a batch gone vinegary. If you end up with a batch that's too acidic to drink, dilute it with water and repurpose it as a mild all-purpose cleaning product. You can also use it in the shower for extra-shiny hair.

9. Start over. If your first batch went just fine and you want to do it again, simply repeat the process, saving some fermented tea from each batch to use as a starter in the next batch. 

10. Share the wealth. Each new batch will grow a “baby” SCOBY on top. Pass it along to a friend, and spread the kombucha love.

p(bio). Jennifer Ward blogs at Fresh Cracked Pepper, where she chronicles her life through discoveries in food and health. A Canadian by birth, she recently relocated to San Diego to work for LAVA magazine, a new publication devoted to all things triathlon.

reference-image, l