Kombucha 101

Given the War on Bacteria so culturally prominent in our time, the well-being of our microbial ecology requires regular replenishment and diversification now more than ever.
— Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World

Ancient China dubbed it, "The Immortal Health Elixir". It's one of the oldest beverages, and like any [cyclical] trend, is back in fashion, arguably stronger than ever. 

Enter, Kombucha. 

This golden, fermented tea is said to have some of the strongest healing properties, preventing and fighting the good fight against inflammation, arthritis, degenerative diseases, and my fave: repairing poor gut health, since circa 1900. 

Not to nerd out too hard, but gut health is an amiable contributor to overall health and well-being, active energy levels, vitality and strength. Gut health ain't nothin' to mess with. 

And knowing all of this, I believe the real glory and greatness of the self-made 'booch' is found in it's economical stature. I was checking out of my local natural foods store the other afternoon, standing behind a lady who was in the process of buying seven 16oz. bottles of store-bought, original flavored Kombucha. I couldn't help but want to share with her how silly it is to spend so much money (about $5/bottle) on Kombucha, when she could easily be drinking a homemade brew for approximately 45 cents/16 oz. So thanks to her, I want to share with you all what apparently is still somewhat of a secret: the magical recipe and instruction on how to brew your own eternal tap (continuous batch method) .. 

Here are the basics, above. But before we get started, I also want to mention the importance of sanitation during this process. Believe me, one of the most discouraging parts to this process, is taking all of the right steps, and then waiting 10 days to find a stinky, moldy scoby, and a bad batch of kombucha. Wash your hands! make sure all of your containers are rinsed properly, and maybe even lightly bleached. Once you have a few batches under your belt and a healthy mother, this will become less of an issue (if you're doing the continuous batch method) because you'll have much less interaction with the culture itself.

What you'll need:

scoby (also known as "culture", "mother", "pancake", "big booger", etc.) and atleast two cups of the last batch whether it was yours or your friends. How do you acquire one of these things? From a friend who already has a healthy batch going is definitely the best first choice- it's free, healthy and ready to go! However, if you don't know anyone that does this crazy fermenting thing, then you can check the refrigerated section of your local natural foods store, or purchase one online. Sometimes these mothers will be dehydrated, in which case just carefully follow the instructions that come with it in the package to rehydrate the culture before starting your first batch.

tea (either about 1/4-1/2 cup of loose leaf; I'm using Lake Missoula Tea Co.'s Sakura Green Cherry, or about 6-8 sachets) I also like to buy the 100 piece box of whatever generic brand is in stock, of your basic black tea, because it's cheap. Don't feel like you need to go out and buy the highest quality teas to brew, because, you don't! Another note on tea: I've found that it's best to use a strong black tea for your first few batches, and then move onto experimenting with lighter teas, such as green, white, etc.

white refined sugar (1 cup:gallon of water). This is what your scoby feeds off of in the first fermentation process. It is able to digest white refined sugars the easiest, and depending on how long your first fermentation process is, you can make your brew so that you're only consuming trace amounts of sugar (this will be a stronger, more vinegary brew, but better for you; an acquired taste for most) the longer you wait.

filtered water (I make about a gallon at a time). It is very important that your water is filtered. If you're using treated "city" water, then the chemicals used to treat the water will interfere with the fermentation process and kill or damage your scoby.

clean glass bottles (it's important here that your bottles have a tight seal for the second fermentation process, so the brew can properly carbonate, if you're into that kind of thing). I like to use larger flip-top or swing-top bottles, instead of the smaller individual sized bottles, but it's all about preference here. If you're a busy business woman, or man, then the individual sized bottles might be better for you so you can take them on the go! If this is the case, you can reuse any old store bought kombucha jars, or mason jars, if you have them laying around, or even ask another kombucha sister to start saving hers for you in exchange for some free homemade brew!

juice, fresh or frozen fruit (once you've made it to the second fermentation stage, you'll want to use either or both of these to help flavor and carbonate your final product) I've been really into the Simply Nutritious juices lately, especially the Lemon Ginger Echinacea and the Mega Antioxidant blend.

time (the beauty of fermenting is that as long as you're there to initiate the process in a safe, clean environment, the fermenting takes care of the rest, and really does the job with very little help! I'll talk about this in further detail as we go on...

Okay, whew! Now, let's get started!

Quick disclaimer: most mothers aren't this thick, but for demonstration purposes, it's perfect because you're able to clearly see what a healthy mother should look like, and how it will start to develop these pancake-looking discs that you're able to separate and give to your friends (hint hint! If you dig this post and want a healthy scoby, holler at your girl!)

Okay, so once you've gotten your scoby, and your two extra cups of brew, set these aside and in a large pot, pour your gallon of filtered water in with a cup of sugar and bring to a rolling boil. When the sugar has dissolved and the water has come to a boil, turn the stove off and add the tea to your sugar water. Give the mix a good stir (making sure to use a wooden spoon- no metal!) and let the sweet tea come back to room temp. Once completely cooled, pour the tea into either a large glass container with a spout, like mine, or if you doing the single batch method, pour the mix into large glass jars (I think half gallon wide-mouthed mason jars work pretty well, here), leaving enough room for the extra two cups of old brew and the scoby to float on top.

Place any extra sweet tea in the fridge (you can use this for your next batch). If you are making a continuous batch, then after your first batch you won't need to worry about this step of saving those extra cups of brew, because they'll be at the bottom of your fermentation container (just be sure not to completely run your tap dry when you're bottling). Cover whichever container you're using with either a paper or cloth towel, or cheesecloth works great here, too. This will just help keep the kombucha clean from any floaties in the air. Place your batch somewhere that won't be hit by direct sunlight, and somewhere that stays room temp.

Now we wait!

For your first batch, it's best to wait 10-14 days, but as you continue to brew (especially using the continuous batch method) you'll notice that it won't take as long for your kombucha to ferment (because you're more than likely using more than two cups of the old stuff to help the process along). I always encourage folks to try their tea after about 10 days because everyone prefers their brew a different strength. The longer you wait, the stronger (more vinegar-like) it will taste. Just make sure not to wait too long, or else your scoby will starve.

Just think of your culture as one of those digipets from the '90's. Remember how if you forgot to feed her, she'd get those really pixilated X's where her eyes were and her tongue would hang out? Well your scoby is much more alive than your digipet ever was, but the same concept applies.

6-14 days is the sweet spot for the first fermentation. 

Once your brew is to your satisfaction, grab your juice or fruit, your clean bottle and your funnel. The rule of thumb with second fermentations, here, is to fill your bottle about 1/5 full of your juice or fruit, and then fill the rest with your kombucha. Again, this is all preference, so if you like your booch a little more on the sweeter side, add more juice. You can also use a strainer here to strain out any smaller cultures if you'd like, but I find that this step isn't as necessary when you're using a spigot (continuous batch) because they're too big to sneak through. 

When you've got your juice or fruit added and have filled the rest of your bottle with your kombucha, you lock down or tighten the cap and wait another 2-14 days, again, all dependent on personal preference.

Now, this second fermentation process isn't 100% necessary. What you're doing here, is really developing a more complex flavor profile, and giving it time to self carbonate to reach that fizzy, bubbly texture. If this isn't for you, then your drank is good to go, just like it is. As far as the health benefits go, your kombucha is just as healthy and good for you whether you decide to go through the second fermentation, or not (depending on what you decide to add to it, of course). 

So there you have it! You have now made your very own batch of kombucha and can confidently say sayonara to those pricey brand name bubblies! 

A few other notes that I'd like to add...

You don't need to go out and buy all of these expensive containers for your kombucha. Most thrift stores have large glass jars that are much more affordable and work just as well (just make sure to give them a light bleaching). 

You can also add seasonal spices and extracts (vanilla, almond, orange, maple, etc.) and experiment with flavored teas for a more seasonal brew. Apple cinnamon would be yummy this time of year, or a chai. Experiment and let me know what you come up with! 

Lastly, I'd like to mention that this is a great alternative to soda and all of those other sugary sports drinks. It's cheap, it's yummy, it's bubbly, it's HEALTHY! Who knows, maybe this is finally the thing that will help you kick that cruddy diet soda habit. It's also a great additive to tasty adult beverages, adding that perfect fizzy tang that you might be looking for.

If you have any questions, or found any part of this confusing, please comment and I'll do my best to break it down a little further! I can't wait to hear how it goes!

Good luck and happy fermenting, my scoby bros and sisters!


All photos courtesy of Tom Attwater