Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Now, if you're hip, young, and hot on the natural foods scene, I'm sure you've had kombucha before. For those of you who aren't, kombucha is a fermented tea, an ancient Eastern remedy. If you've never tasted it before, pick up a bottle next time you're in a natural foods store. It has a complex sweet and sour flavor, punctuated with a light effervescence, and, like all live ferments, boasts extensive health benefits.
Unfortunately, at around $4 a bottle, kombucha can become an expensive addiction. Fortunately, it is incredibly simple and inexpensive to make yourself.

The first step is finding a mother. Kombucha is fermented with a specific culture, often called a mother, SCOBY, or mushroom. It looks like a thick, rubbery, white pancake. Kind of like this:

Traditionally, cultures are passed along between friends and family. Every time you brew a batch of kombucha, you grow a new culture, a baby. So anyone who brews will likely be more than happy to turn over one of their many babies to you. But if you don't know anyone who brews, you can also purchase them from G.E.M Cultures for entirely too much money, or search Craigslist or Kombu for individual brewers who sell them inexpensively. No matter where you get it from, your mother should arrive soaking in her own mature kombucha juice.

You will also need:
- A large glass or ceramic container (lid not necessary) (and, no, you cannot use plastic or metal, they are generally not considered safe for any fermentation processes).
- Some variety of covering that will allow for airflow, but keep insects out. I use a piece of muslin fastened with a rubber band.
- Tea, bagged or loose
- Sugar of your choosing (can include honey, agave, maple syrup, etc., but no chemical sweeteners)
- Bottles or a jug for refrigerating your finished kombucha. I recommend using swing top bottles which can be attained either by drinking a lot of Grolsch, or by buying them from a homebrew supplier. I got mine from Brooklyn Homebrew, if you're from the neighborhood. I've seen people bottle their kombucha in jugs, but if you care about the preservation of your bubbles, as I do, I recommend single serving bottles. 
This is my basic recipe:

You may need to alter the amounts, depending on how large your container is. But the basic ratio is:

1 quart water : 1 tbsp loose tea or 1 tea bag : 1/4 cup sugar : ~1/2 cup mature kombucha

Don't forget that this recipe assumes the use of granulated sugar, if you are using anything else, consult The Joy of Cooking or another source for conversion; you cannot always replace sugars at a 1:1 ratio.

Now, for the fun part!

Heat up your water on the stove, dissolve your sugar in the water, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and add your loose or bagged tea.

Some people preach kombucha brewing as an exact science in which you can only use green tea. This is total hogwash. Any variety of sugary liquid can be fermented with a kombucha culture. I can't say I've ever brewed the same combination twice.

This time I brewed a blend of rooibos, hibiscus, and sencha green tea.

Brew any single tea or combination that strikes your fancy.

You don't have to, but I like to throw some extra goodies in there, as well. This time I added fresh, sliced ginger, lemon wedges and a cinnamon stick.

Have fun with it! Get creative!

Keep in mind you can also add juices to your kombucha when bottling or just before drinking. Juices can help to cut the edge if you aren't a sourhead, if you want to convince children to drink it, or if you forget about your kombucha and overbrew it (overbrewed kombucha can also be left to overbrew further, until it becomes vinegar).

Mature kombucha and culture awaiting freshly brewed tea

Allow your tea to cool to lukewarm; extreme heat can kill your culture. 

Add the lukewarm tea, mature kombucha, and mother to your jar. 

If you've thrown in chunks of good stuff like I have, take care to keep them at the bottom, separated from the surface of the tea by your mother. A new culture will grow on the surface and if there are bits floating there, they will become forever lodged in your baby.

Cover your brew and set aside in a safe place for fermentation.

How long you wait depends on the temperature and how strongly you prefer your kombucha. Taste your brew once a stable baby culture has established itself (usually about a week, in my experience). Taste you kombucha on a regular basis until you are satisfied with the degree to which it has fermented.

Now it's time for bottling! Remember, even after you've removed the culture, your kombucha will continue fermenting unless you refrigerate it. If you want to bottle your brew for ultimate effervescence, it would be wise to bottle shortly before your kombucha has reached satisfactory levels of fermentation, as your bottles will need to remain unrefrigerated while the yeast works its carbonating magic.

If you don't care so much about effervescence, you can bottle your brew in any old bottle. Strain it through a few layers of cheesecloth to weed out most of the goopy culture strains (I say most because I'm pretty sure it's impossible to keep them all out. Get over it, they're good for you.) Throw it in the fridge, it's ready for drinking!

But if you want the bubbly stuff, get out your airtight single serving bottles and your funnel, fashioned with a few layers of cheesecloth for straining.

Fill your bottles to capacity. The kombucha culture contains both yeasts and bacterias. The yeasts are anaerobic; they do not require oxygen to survive. The bacterias are aerobic; they do require oxygen to survive. The yeasts, and not the bacterias, are the carbonating agents. If you fill your bottle to capacity so that there is no oxygen available, the yeast will prevail and carbonate your kombucha more fully and more quickly. If you leave some airspace, it isn't the end of the world, but your kombucha won't carbonate as well, and you may end up with little bottleneck sized baby cultures.

Especially if you've brewed your kombucha sour, it is a good idea to throw 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in the bottle to feed that yeast. Another way of adding sugar for the yeast, as well as flavor, is to mix in some fruit juice when you bottle, as I mentioned earlier.

Seal your bottles and set them aside. Again, the brew time depends on the temperature. For your first time, I would check your first bottle after two days and judge how much more time, if any, is needed from how effervescent the bottle you've opened is.

Remember, don't go opening the bottles all willy nilly. Reintroducing oxygen and letting the carbon dioxide out will set back the carbonation process. 

Warning: I've heard tell of exploding bottles. Now, I've done it enough times and seeing my own results, it seems highly unlikely. However, if your kombucha seems to be producing a powerful carbonation, be forewarned and take care.

Once you're satisfied with your kombucha, pop it in the fridge and you're ready to start a new batch!

If you catch the fermentation bug and need more juice, check out my fermentation bible: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. 


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