Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea. Commercially, it is found in the refrigerated section with other prepared teas. It is loaded with live probiotics, so it has many health benefits. It tastes like fizzy vinegar, which takes a little getting used to. The fermentation process converts most of the sugar and caffeine. However, the caffeine sensitive may have to drink it only early in the day.
Caveat: Kombucha has a minor amount of alcohol; less than 0.5% if it is sold commercially, and 0.2% to 0.8% (other estimates say 1-3%) if made at home. I mention this so that those avoiding alcohol for religious, pregnancy, or recovery reasons — so they can make an informed choice.
I found Kombucha to be beneficial for my whole family, as we all need probiotics. It has been good for our overall digestive health, and helped mitigate diverticulosis, constipation, irritable bowel, and reflux. It even helped make the last bout of stomach flu to hit our house shorter and less violent. At least for the “booch” drinkers. Now we are all booch drinkers. It is especially beneficial for feminine health. My overall health was improved as I began consuming it regularly, and I found my body craving it.
My Doctor recommended consuming live probiotics, such as kefir or kombucha, for my diverticulosis. When I first looked for them at the grocery store, I was lucky to find some kombucha discounted for quick sale at $1 a bottle (a 16 oz bottle has two 8 oz servings). The normal price range was $3.5 to $4 a bottle. Most stores throw outdated kombucha away (they won’t even give it away for fear of litigation), and refuse to discount it before expiration. Finding it at a discount can be challenging. Even then, a dollar a bottle is awfully pricey for pennies worth of sugar and tea, and dimes worth of flavorings. Besides, I would rather not be dependent on a store for something as vital as probiotics. There had to be a better way, so I began looking for one.
After some research, I found that kombucha can be brewed at home with minimal equipment. The two ways of doing it are batch brew and continuous brew. I chose batch brew which is working quite well. For continuous brew (CB), a container that is at least 2.5 gallons (preferably bigger) with a drain spout is needed. I won’t expand on describing CB as I have not yet attempted this.
Equipment needed to make single batches is as follows: a large glass or plastic (not metal) wide mouth brewing vessel, an old t-shirt, a large rubber band (or other way to fasten top), pH testing strips (in the range of about 2.8 to 4.4), a wine thief (or large straw), a place with good airflow to keep the jars, a way to keep the brew warm in the winter (or cool in the summer if you live somewhere hot), and a thermometer (I like the kind that stick to the outside of the bottle best). I use a one-gallon glass pickle jar and a 2.5-gallon wide opening glass jar, and keep both of them going at the same time.
Materials needed are a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), a cup or two of plain kombucha (not commercially produced), tea, sugar, and time. By tea I mean products of the camellia sinensis plant, i.e. black, green, oolong, white, etc. Do not use decaffeinated tea, as the process that removes the caffeine ruins the tea for kombucha. Do not use Herbal “teas.” They are wonderful, but they are herbal infusions (not real tea) and won’t work for kombucha.
A SCOBY often looks almost like the bell of a jelly fish. It can be found in brew supply stores, health food stores, and various online suppliers; and usually comes with a little bit of starter kombucha. The best way to get a SCOBY is to find someone in your area that brews their own kombucha and get one from them, along with a couple of cups of plain kombucha as a starter. A “mother” SCOBY, creates a “daughter” SCOBY; so homebrewers eventually wind up with a lot of them, and would be happy to share.
The SCOBY Hotel
SCOBYs are stored in what’s called a SCOBY hotel. This was term coined by Hannah Crum, author of The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea. A SCOBY hotel is a glass jar with SCOBYs in it, covered with kombucha to preserve them. Cover the jar with a cloth fastened with a rubber band or with a lid if you won’t use it in a while (to prevent evaporation). Check on the SCOBY hotel every month or so, and feed with sweet tea if needed. If too much evaporation has happened then feed it before use so there will be enough starter kombucha.
If you buy a SCOBY, follow the directions that come with it. If you are lucky enough to get a SCOBY from a friend, do not refrigerate it. Getting it cold will make it go dormant. If it is already cold, leave it at room temperature for a few days; it will usually revive, but not always. Put it in a (half gallon or gallon so there is room for more) glass jar and feed it by adding 2-4 C of sweet tea (1-2 teabags and 1-2 tbsp sugar per cup) that is between 72 to 82 degrees F, then leave it alone for at least a week. During this time a daughter SCOBY will form. It is a good idea to wait to begin brewing until you have enough SCOBY to both leave one in reserve and use one. If something goes wrong with a batch, it is best to have a SCOBY in reserve. When ready to brew it doesn’t matter whether an old or a new SCOBY is used.
If serious about brewing, make a brew log. Bound pre-made log books are available for purchase, but I just use a spiral bound notebook. I include the brew date, type of tea, recipe notes, observation and flavor notes, and do so for first and second ferment. Be very specific in this log for later reference to improve your brews.
The Brewing Process
Begin by washing jars and implements and rinse thoroughly (soap will kill or damage your culture) with hot water. Whatever size jar is used for the brewing, use a little less brewed tea so there is room for the SCOBY and kombucha starter. For a 1-gallon jar use ¾ of a gallon of brewed sweet tea; for a 2.5-gallon jar use 2 gallons of tea. Use 4-6 teabags (1 to 4 tbsp loose tea) per gallon of tea (I brew mine strong) and 1 C sugar for each gallon of tea brewed. This has to be plain white sugar. Honey can ruin the brew due to having its own bacteria and enzymes. Artificial sweeteners will not feed the bacteria or yeast. If your water is chlorinated, let water stand open in a jar for 48 hours or use a charcoal filter (chlorine can kill your brew).
Bring water to almost boiling and add it to the jar in the amount of half the water that is needed for the amount of tea being brewed. Add sugar, stir to dissolve, then add tea and leave to steep. When satisfied with strength, add the rest of the water (room temperature). When the brew is below 82 degrees f, add your SCOBY (about 4-6 oz per gallon) and then the already made kombucha (about 1-2 C per gallon of tea). Cover with a cloth that allows air flow and fasten in place with a rubber band. This keeps out dust and other contaminants that can ruin the batch. An old t-shirt works very well for this. Don’t use cheese cloth, as the weave is too loose to keep fruit flies out. Fruit flies love kombucha, and will ruin a whole batch.
Set the brew vessel aside for at least a week without disturbing it. Messing with it messes with the brewing process. It needs to have good airflow, be out of direct sun (sunlight is antibacterial), be in a good place to leave it alone, and stay at a temperature of 72 to 82 degrees F (too hot can kill your brew, too cold can make it go dormant).
My most recent batches were as follows. For the 1-gallon jar: 6 C hot water, 6 tea bags, and ¾ C sugar. 6 C room temperature water, a SCOBY (about 10 oz) and 1 ½ C kombucha from the previous batch. For the 2 ½ gallon jar: 1-gallon hot water, 15 tea bags, 2 C sugar, 1-gallon room temperature water, a very large SCOBY (I forgot to weigh it, but it doesn’t have to be precise) and 2 ½ C starter.
Note: If there are any fruit flies in your house, they will flock to your brew area, making it difficult to handle the brew without them getting in. Here is a trick that I learned at the kombuchakamp.com web site: A fruit fly trap can be made by pouring some Kombucha (about an inch deep) in a small container with straight sides. Put in one drop of soap. The flies can’t resist the booch, and the soap [breaks the water tension and thus] prevents them getting out. Place it nearby and replace every few days until the flies are gone.
In the winter I had to find a way to keep the brewing kombucha warm. The heat is best applied around the middle of the jar. Heating from the bottom stimulates too much yeast growth. There are commercial warming methods available, but check before purchase to be sure they are suitable for the brew vessel you are using. I found that using a heating pad alongside the jars and then wrapping everything in an insulating wrap works well. I found an old heating pad that doesn’t turn off automatically, and inspected it carefully to make sure it was still safe to use. Old sheets, sweat pants, jackets etc. (folded or cut to size and shape desired) work really well for insulating.
A Daughter is Born
A daughter SCOBY will form on top of the brew. This is a normal process. Before harvesting, inspect the top for mold. To the uninitiated, the SCOBY may look like mold, but mold is fuzzy. If it isn’t fuzzy it’s probably fine. If not sure, look up pictures online. Note: If mold grows on the SCOBY, the SCOBY and the batch must both be thrown out (it can go in the compost) and the vessel cleaned before a new batch is started. After 7 to 10 days test the pH. A sample for testing or tasting can be pulled out with a wine thief or straw and put in a cup. When the pH is below at least 3.5 (preferably 3.2), begin tasting. It should be tart. If it is still sweet it isn’t ready, but don’t wait until it is vinegar instead of kombucha. A novice brewer will have to guess when it’s right, but eventually will know. When it is ready, drink some or pour it in bottles for the second fermenting process.
For the bottling (second ferment) step, remove the SCOBY from the brew vessel with clean well rinsed hands and set aside. Set aside some kombucha (1-2 c per gallon you plan to brew), dipped from the top, as a starter. Pour the remaining brew into bottles with good closing top, leaving about an inch at the top. If the vessel is large it is much easier to pour it into a pitcher with a spout and fill the bottles with that. A funnel also helps. As mentioned at youbrewkombucha.com, the bottles must be ones designed to withstand carbonation, or they can break making a huge sticky shrapnel-laden mess. I reuse 16 oz commercial booch bottles. Grolsch bottles for beermaking also work well. Label the bottles with date and batch number, and leave these at room temperature for 3-7 days for the 2nd fermentation.
If flavoring is desired for the final product, add it to the bottles first. Flavoring agents can be fresh or previously frozen fruit, vegetables, hot peppers, real juice, some roots, some herbs and some spices. Don’t use anything with natural oil content. Look for recipes or make up your own. Make specific notes in the log book on the flavorings tried and the amounts used so as to repeat what was good and to not repeat what was bad. A simple, cheap, easy recipe uses frozen apple juice concentrate. Place 1 ½ teaspoons (half a tbsp) concentrate in each 16 oz bottle and allow to come to room temperature. Fill the bottle from the brew vessel. Cap and leave at room temperature for six days. Do not burp. Refrigerate and enjoy. Even better than that is to add 1 tbsp roasted hot green chile drip juice (it’s a New Mexico thing) to each bottle along with the apple juice. Fantastic!
The brew jar does not have to be washed between batches. although if there is a lot of yeast clinging to it then you may rinse with filtered water. Yeast appear as brown tendrils hanging from the SCOBY or resting on the bottom of the jar. This is natural and is a part of the brew process. If there is too much (judge by sight) then you can pull some of them off of the SCOBY when you remove it. Begin your next batch.
When to Burp
Also as mentioned at youbrewkombucha.com, some makers recommend burping (opening and releasing carbonation pressure) the bottles daily so they don’t fountain when opening or burst the bottle. Some recommend not, as then your drink is less carbonated. It is better to over burp than under burp if you are new to brewing. I found that which way to go depends on the fizziness of the flavorings. Ginger makes very fizzy booch that has to be burped; apple juice not so much. Burp the first day, and evaluate. Make notes in the log book for the next time. If new to brewing it would be a good idea to place bottles in a plastic box that can catch mess if something goes wrong. If concerned about a geyser when opening, place the bottle in a bowl and cover the top of the bottle with a quart size zippie before opening. Decorating the ceiling is not the name of this hobby, but it can happen.
When the bottles are ready, refrigerate. Refrigerating halts the carbonating process. Enjoy within a month. With homemade booch, a new mini SCOBY may form on top. This can be easily scooped out and consumed or discarded. Because of the added flavorings, do not put it back in with the rest of your SCOBYs. There can also be yeast tendrils and sediment from the flavorings. These can be consumed, but if not wanted they can be strained out.
It was really gratifying to drink my first bottle of my own homemade fizzy drink. Better than a soda, and healthy too. Have fun!