Microbial activity never ceases to fascinate us… maybe it’s something to do with the trillions of microbes we each have in our bodies that play a crucial role in immunity, digestion, metabolism and other vital functions. Maybe we just like the taste these little fellows impart.
Kombucha, made of a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (a SCOBY), is one of those tasty microbial treats. While it’s been around for a long time, it’s only in the last few years that it has come into the mainstream consciousness. Go to any health food store or Whole Foods, and increasingly, in conventional supermarkets, and you’ll see lots of varieties, with names that evoke spiritual and physical health. We’re not sure this is actually the case but we do know that $3.00 (and up) a bottle is a bit heavy on the budget. Plus, shouldn’t we all be a bit more skilled? So, here’s the technique for making your own, for a fraction of the cost. It’s way easier then you might think.
You will need to acquire a SCOBY, also called a “Mother.” It looks like a slippery mushroom (but it’s not actually a fungus) and once you have one, you’ll never need another. In fact, they reproduce (hence the name, Mother). If you don’t have a friend who has one, you can buy them online at places like GEM cultures, one of our favs, or many other places on the web. We also hear Craigslist is teeming with folks trying to offload their extras. The SCOBY stores well in the refrigerator, as long as it’s in a glass jar with some brewed kombucha liquid – we’ve stored ours for over 8 months and it came back to life without a problem.
Makes About 3 ½ Quarts
1 SCOBY (Kombucha Mother)
¾ – 1 cup Granulated Sugar (Many recipes recommend white – we use organic and it’s fine)
5-6 Tea Bags (Ordinary Black Tea is fine or a mixture of Black and Green is best)
12 cups Non-chlorinated Water (Filtered/purified is ok – no chlorine since we want those microbes alive)
1 ½ – 2 cups Brewed Kombucha (you can use store bought if you don’t have some already)
Gallon Size Glass Jar
First, bear in mind that there is a LOT of information on the Internet about kombucha, some of it more frightening than others. For example, this site has detailed, somewhat scientific directions that are certainly on point, and extremely specific (we’ve never used pH strips or obsessed this much). This site has a handy chart that will help you figure out where you stand with your brew, especially useful for your first batches when you aren’t yet so sure of yourself. You will discover it’s an art as much as a science as you get to know your SCOBY.
Step One – Brew the tea.
Bring the 12 cups of water to a low boil in a large pot, turn off the heat and add the tea bags. Brew for about 5-8 minutes and remove the tea bags. Dissolve the sugar while the tea is hot.
Step Two – Let the tea cool to room temperature.
This is important since adding the Mother to hot tea will almost certainly kill it. Best to make the tea early in the morning and finish it off that evening or the other way around. Just keep the lid on the pot to keep it clean while it’s cooling.
Step Three – Add the SCOBY.
When the tea is cooled completely, transfer to the glass jar. With clean hands (so you don’t contaminate the SCOBY), place the SCOBY in the jar along with the previously brewed kombucha. This will help get things going. Many recipes caution about using metal utensils, which could be right, but we have never found it necessary to stir with utensils. Cover the jar with cheesecloth, a paper coffee filter or something similar to keep the dust (and insects) out while it’s brewing. Place a rubber band or string around the top to hold it in place. Remember, the brew needs air so whatever you use for a cover should be porous.
Step Four – Find a Warm Brew Location.
Kombucha thrives in warm (not hot) temperatures – 70-80°F – but will brew more quickly or slowly in temperatures close to that. While brewing, it should not be kept in direct sunlight or in a direct breeze, but don’t stick it in a cupboard (where you’ll likely forget about it, we know). Lots of folks use the top of their refrigerators. We use an out of the way place on the counter-top. In the cooler months, we also place the jar on a seed-starting mat designed to give a little gentle heat on the bottom, at least for the first few days. The key is to have some warmth (but not too much heat) so that brewing proceeds apace. Since some surfaces such as stone or metal can be cold, putting the jar on a wooden or cloth surface can help too.
Step Five – Brewing
Let the brew sit and check daily. After 3 or so days, you should see little bubbles forming around the edges and possibly a white film forming over the top (that’s the baby, aka a new Mother). Once it starts to ferment, you might see strings and particles from the Mother. That’s normal. It should start to smell slightly acidic. At day five or six, you can begin carefully tasting. We do it by sticking a clean drinking straw in the mix or using a turkey baster and withdrawing a test taste. (Do not put in your mouth and then back in the kombucha or you could contaminate the brew). When it’s ready, it should taste pleasant — a bit tangy, a bit fizzy, with the tea taste dissipated. Depending upon the conditions, the kombucha will be fully brewed anywhere from six days to two weeks.
Once the kombucha is brewed, it’s time to bottle. Before bottling, remove the SCOBY with clean hands (remember, you don’t want contamination), place in a clean quart jar and cover with 2 cups brewed kombucha. You will likely have a small “baby” growing – you can keep this until it gets thick, give it away to a friend, or send to compost heaven. To bottle, you will want something glass, with a tight lid – old jars are fine as are screw-on or flip-top style (grolsch) bottles. We use bottles we’ve had for years (they held another drink previously) and replace the gaskets with rubber ones (the ones that come with many available bottles are mostly reddish plastic, not actual rubber, which makes a tighter seal). Using a funnel, carefully pour the brew into the bottles. It will likely fizz up, a good sign. Leave about 1 inch head room in each bottle to allow for expansion. At the bottom of the jar will be some sludge – that’s the good stuff. You can rinse the jar with a little brew and store along with the Mother.
Step Six – Second Fermentation (Optional)
We like fizzy booch. So, once we’ve bottled, we allow the brew to sit at room temperature 3 or so days. This will help create good fizz. You can also add flavorings at this point, like a chunk of ginger, fruit or even juice. We rarely do this (though we sometimes use flavored tea) but it’s a preference thing. After a few days, place the bottles in the refrigerator and enjoy! The kombucha will continue to ferment but very slowly.
NOTE: As with all living organisms, stuff happens that we don’t and can’t predict, so embark on this process with a go-with-the-flow attitude. Usually, all goes well and after a week or two, we’re enjoying homemade kombucha, even trying out new flavorings or using different teas. Sometimes the brew is slow to get going… or quickly turns to sour vinegar or is just not fizzy. It’s part of the booch road. Just a note of caution, however. Very rarely, the SCOBY can go bad. Black mold and bad odors are not normal, even if uncommon. If you’re ever not sure if the brew (or the Mother) is spoiled, dump it out and start again. Bear in mind, none of these are failures – they are life. Enjoy the process, relax and know that soon enough, you’ll be in a boochie groove.