The first time someone asked me about Kombucha (a sort-of-sweet fermented beverage), I thought they were talking about Kimchi (a spicy fermented vegetable mix). It took me a few beats to realize that we were having a conversation about completely different things. I stopped, mid-sentence, and said something like “Wait, what?”.
I’d never heard of it before, and the more my friend told me about it, the more intrigued I was. You put WHAT on top of the tea? SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, and it’s a slimy blob that contains, well, bacteria and yeast. The good kind. The bacteria and yeast eat the sugar in the sweetened tea and convert it to lactic acid, carbon dioxide, vinegar, and a teeny bit of alcohol. The resulting beverage is tangy, sweet and sometimes fizzy. It’s really quite delicious, and I’ve been drinking it off and on for several years now.
One of the reasons people drink this beverage, besides the fact that it tastes good, is because it contains probiotics, those beneficial bacteria like the kind in yogurt. Probiotics line the gut and are essential for our immune system. I’ve been a little suspicious about the amount of sugar in my homebrew, but a little bit of math made me feel better. I start out with 1 cup of sugar in a gallon of tea. Okay, that’s a lot, that’s 4-ish teaspoons of sugar in one cup. But….a good bit of the sugar gets eaten and converted to other, more healthy stuff. In looking at labels on store brands of kombucha, they vary from 4 to 10 grams of sugar per serving (4 grams is one teaspoon). I like mine a bit on the tangy side, so I’m guessing my homebrew is on the low end of that scale. Even so, I don’t drink it every day, and I don’t use it as a “health food”. It’s a treat for once in awhile, and a fun experiment to keep on my kitchen counter.
So, how is this very tasty, sort of healthy-ish trendy beverage made? I’m not going to go into tons of detail here, because so many others have done that pretty darn well. I’ll include some links at the end of this post. I WILL go through the basics, though, and tell you my tweaks.
It’s a pretty simple process: make tea, add sugar (1 cup per gallon), put in a glass container, put SCOBY in the container along with the liquid it came with, cover loosely, start tasting in a few days and drink it when the tangy/sweet flavor tastes good to you. It will keep getting tangier, the longer you let it sit, turning completely into vinegar eventually. You can use the vinegar, too!
If you want to keep the Kombucha going perpetually, there are a few things to keep in mind. The tea needs to be Real Tea, from the plant Camellia sinensis, and the sugar needs to be plain ol’ white sugar from cane or beets. These items give the Kombucha what it needs to keep on going. Or so I’m told. I like to use organic black tea and cane sugar, because that’s kind of the point of making my own stuff, right?
To keep it going, you’ll bottle up your Kombucha when it tastes good to you, leaving at least one cup for the ‘starter’ of the next batch. Make more sweetened tea, add your starter and SCOBY and there you go. I have used one of those beverage containers with the spigot for ease in getting the Kombucha into my cup, but after awhile the plastic spigot started to erode and it grossed me out. I wouldn’t want to use metal, either, thinking the acid in the Kombucha would leach something nasty from that, too. So I just go Old School and use a glass pickle jar. When it comes time to taste or to bottle up, I use a ladle and a funnel. It works just fine.
I usually drink my Kombucha plain, but sometimes I’ll flavor it in a second ferment. Right now I’m getting some elderberry and prickly ash berry simple syrup going, and will add them to a couple bottles to add some punch. I’ll put about a quarter cup of the simple syrup in a flip-top sealing jar, let it sit on the counter for a day or two or three, then I’ll open it up to see if it’s fizzy and check the taste. If all is good, it either goes into the fridge or into my belly. If the fizz and flavor isn’t there yet, it’ll sit on the counter another few days. Along with the crazy assortment of fermenting things already there.
Here are some really informative articles if you want to continue reading about Kombucha. I mean, who wouldn’t?
This one is on a website where you can buy stuff for fermenting. But don’t buy a SCOBY. You can get one for free just by asking around – they multiply, and if someone you know is making Kombucha they WILL have a SCOBY for you.
A great article about Kombucha by the king of fermentation himself, Sandor Katz. I love how he takes the fear out of fermenting.
And lastly, a bit on making flavored Kombucha from the Weston A. Price foundation.