Brew your own: Kombucha

Kombucha.

The name rings of a particular blend of ancient alchemy mingled with medieval mystery. Some folks who are in the know will just simply call it ‘booch’, giving the image of a secretive bathtub brewed beverage that you don’t tell others where you found. Others overwhelm me with bewilderment, preferring to call it ‘kAhm-boocha’, leaving me scratching my head as to where they found the elusive extra A at the outset of its name. Even fewer, it seems, just simply say the word as it appears: Kombucha.

Now that we have you saying Kombucha without adding extra vowels all over its name, can I ask you what it is? Oh.. you don’t know? I’m sure that’s why you are here reading this! I’m supposed explain this mystery stuff to you, got it! Essentially, Kombucha is fermented tea. “Say Whaaaat?” That’s probably what you just said to yourself as you choked on your morning coffee. How do I know? Because there was a time when I had a similar response.

It is a ‘controlled’ fermentation of tea; typically the brewing begins with black tea, but I have been successful using green tea (white tea soon to come!) – just not artificially flavored or any tea varieties with added oils, that would destroy all of our hard work and make our SCOBY very sick!

Wait.. all these terms that I have never heard of! What the dickens is a SCOBY??!

Okay, well I don’t want to jump in too fast and overwhelm you already, but SCOBY is quite simply just an acronym. It stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s a good thing, a friendly colony of allies all working together to create a delicious, super healthy, bubbly liquid for our taste buds! The SCOBY is something that I will break down a bit further and simplify real good for you in a bit – so hang on there..and put that tea on the back burner!

Like I said, this beverage is made with tea. Always, always, always tea, never coffee beans (unless you want to make coffee), never anything but tea – this is the base for kombucha (did I say always?). But how do they (as well as me and soon to be you..)get so many incredible flavors and varieties of this bubbly tea beverage? That all takes place in the second round of fermentation, once all of the creating as taken place. We get the base for the beverage, then we can get wild and wacky with fruits and other flavors. I say fruits because our friends in the yeast and bacteria department need sugar, they need a type of sugar to eat and they love real sugar (during the second fermentation, in the bottle!) that comes from fruits.

Have you ever homebrewed beer? If not then here is a quick background to show you I’m not crazy and not just getting my yeast all buzzed on added sugar for the fun of watching it: In beer making we boil water and grain, what is grain? Starch, carbs, sugars! The fermenting of the sugar extracted from the grain is consumed by the brewers yeast; the result? carbonation and alcohol. Similar here, Kombucha contains trace amounts of alcohol – honestly not even noticeable, but if you wanted to get crazy with your kombucha down the line.. there are ways to amp up the alcohol production, (look to GTs Black Edition of kombucha.. must be 21 or older to even buy!) but I’m not going to get into that here – I like my Kombucha tea plain or with fruit!

Alright, so now you know more than I did the first time that I made my first batch of Kombucha! Great! So let’s recap: Kombucha is a bubbly beverage made with tea, boiled water, and sugar added in. The sugary tea slurry is left for a given amount of time (or forgotten about as has been the case with some of my batches) for the SCOBY, which is a big ol’ disc of GOOD and HEALTHY bacteria and yeast that eats the sugar we provide after the boil and in return produces byproducts of carbon-dioxide and probiotic filled yummy beverage.

Then once you think the first round has had enough, we transfer (minus the SCOBY, save that for future batches in your “SCOBY Hotel”!) the young Kombucha into some type of bottle, we prefer swing top bottles, but it is totally eco-friendly to reuse any glass with a good sealing lid! (we have even used pasta jars on occasion!) 

As soon as your early Kombucha enters the bottle, this is called F2 – or Fermentation #2. What does that mean? Basically by process of elimination the entire stage from boil to bottle was known as F1, or the ‘initial fermentation’. F1 was more-or-less an open top fermentation where the off-gasses are free to escape into the atmosphere, however.. in F2 since the liquid is contained in a sealed bottle, it is either going to explode or the gas will get trapped in the liquid.. creating that bubbly, tongue tingling carbonation we all love and associate with Kombucha!

So when do I enjoy Kombucha tea? Anytime is always my response!

Since homebrewing our own batches and saving literally thousands of dollars this year alone, I find that I actually enjoy starting my morning routine with a bottle. Sometimes chilled, sometimes not – depending on the time of the year and what I’m in the mood for! But for the record – once the batch has been put into F2 and bottled, if you start noticing too many bubbles or you become suspicious of your batch, putting the bottles into the refrigerator will halt the fermentation process. So, as you will notice: opening a room temperature bottle of Kombucha may get messy on you and bubble over, rarely will a bottle straight out of the fridge, although it hopefully will still contain all of the carbonation that we do want!

Want to brew your own Kombucha tea and watch your creation come to life?

First of all – you will need a SCOBY to begin with. Where do you get a chunk of bacteria and yeast to add to your tea? A friend, of course! If you know someone who is already homebrewing Kombucha, ask them for a sliver of their SCOBY and in return help them bottle or brew – or later on, give them a few bottles of your brew when its ready! It really does not take much for a teeny-tiny SCOBY to grow, and it will grow to be as large around as the fermentation vessel you provide it.

Don’t have friends who are into this crazy alchemy game? No Problem!

You can also shop online, many websites are packing and shipping their ‘starter’ SCOBYs by now. OR..in the case of what I did, I wanted to start my homebrew and at the same time (of course!) drink the Kombucha! But how? Pick up a bottle of raw kombucha (completely unflavored and NO added fruits) – GTs is actually the route that I went, I find they are always reliable!

I drank all of the GTs Kombucha aside from the flemmy looking chunker, brewed a small batch of starter (F1 style) tea (listed below!) and added it in after the brew cooled. Starting with a small batch, two 32oz Ball jars with cloth (not paper towel or anything that frays apart!). I started with two jars in case anything catastrophic happened to the first jar, then I’d have my back up! Luckily they both propagated just perfectly and now I have TWO batches always going in rotation!

So let’s make this tea!

Let’s assume that you have your SCOBY, either from a friend, just received it in the mail, or you did what I outlined above and let it rest for 3-4 weeks until it covered the surface of the liquid in your starter jar.

Collect what you need before you start!

  • 1-5 gallon pot to boil water
  • 6-8 Tbsp loose leaf black tea
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 re-usable tea bags
  • 4 1/2 gallons filtered water

First things first, that water needs to boil, but make sure it’s just water to start. And if you need to boil your tea in multiple batches – that is A-okay! Just split the sugar and water.. might take a bit of math, but I’m sure you can do it!

While you wait add your loose leaf black tea (we love the way darjeeling tea turns out!) to your reusable tea bags and cap them off, set aside.

Got bubbles in that boil already? Turn it off and add your tea bags and sugar. Give it a stir every minute or so until the sugar is incorporated – you don’t want sugar to crystallize on the bottom of your pan (I’m telling you.. you just don’t!), and be sure to use wooden utensils on any metal pans. It sounds much more pleasant, plus you wouldn’t want to scratch your pans, that just provides bad bacteria a place to call home until it gets you sick! Yuck!

Really all there is now is to let it cool, you cannot add your SCOBY to the sweet tea until the tea is room temperature, after all – the SCOBY is living and breathing.. please don’t scorch the poor fella!

Let’s pretend that this isn’t your first go around with Kombucha – this is a perfect time to rinse your bottles, get your caps ready (unless they are swing tops, in which case just dust them off!), grab your cutting board, a knife, and your older batch of F1 tea. Depending on your level of patience, you may want to use a funnel and measuring cup with a spout for the bottling phase!

This step is where all of the fruit and experimentation comes into play. You can get creative, wacky and wild with your brews – just be warned though, if you do, be sure to keep an eye on your bottles for bubbles and activity! You can quickly “burp” the bottles if you want to see how they are coming along.. just break the seal, listen, and close it back up quickly! If your carbonation is off the charts.. toss it gently in the fridge until you are ready to consume!

We have found that always adding ginger to our kombucha while in F2 gives our tea just enough of the necessary sugars and gives the brew just a bit of zing that we enjoy!

Some fruits that we use regularly in addition to our ginger slices:

  • apple
  • mango
  • pineapple
  • beet
  • sliced grape
  • spirulina
  • peach
  • lavender

You’ll learn over a few batches what your SCOBY wants to eat, but we add in 3-4 thin slivers (thin to make it easy to get in and out of the bottles..what goes in, must come out!) of whatever fruit, and small pieces of ginger without the outer ‘skin’. I’d start by adding the fruit/ginger to your bottles (or nothing if you want to go the simple route!), set them aside and bottle all at once.

Got your fruit in the bottles? Great!

Like mentioned above, I like to use a ladle, scoop, or measuring cup – something that will fit into your F1 brewing vessel and a funnel that will fit neatly into the mouth of your bottles, I just like to keep it clean, especially when dealing with sugary tea that sticks and stains!

With clean, clean, clean hands (clean but free of soap!), gently pick your SCOBY up out of the F1 vessel, don’t freak out, even though you probably will initially at the sensation of picking up a SCOBY: soft, squishy yet rigid enough to be handled.. it’s one heck of a thing you’ve created! Set the SCOBY aside, in a bowl with about a cup of the F1 batch that you just removed it from. Also, I’d recommend not keeping the SCOBY out in the open unless you want to risk fruit flies laying eggs all over it! (again.. from experience, don’t do this, it is very gross a week later..crawling with larvae.. super gross!)

Fill your bottles with F1 kombucha (some bottles are pre-marked with a fill-line) bottles to about an inch from the top, whatever you do – NOT to the absolute top of the bottle.. gotta let your tea breathe, man!

Think they’re filled and ready to go? Seal ’em up and set them in a closet, or on a shelf, anywhere out of direct sunlight and preferably somewhere in the 50-65 degree range, the hotter the batch is, the faster it will ferment and you really start running the risk of bottles exploding on you!

Fast forward and your F1 is all bottled, your tea on the stove is sweetened, mixed, tea bags have been taken out (check how long it says to steep your tea, I leave mine in 10 minutes, 15 or so if I walked away and forgot it.. oh well, it always works out one way or another!).

Gently pour your fresh batch of cooled down sweet tea back into the F1 brewing vessel, gently add your SCOBY and that cup of older F1 fermented tea back in – the bacteria helps kick start the fermentation and creation of more awesome bacteria to eat up the new sugars you just fed them!

Lastly you will want to cover your F1 batch with something breathable that fruit flies cannot permeate. I have tried tripled over cheesecloth, I thought I had those fruit flies out-smarted, yikes was I wrong! I have heard horror stories from paper towels being used, fraying into the brew and contaminating the tea from the bleaches used to process the towels.

What does that leave you with? How about a t-shirt material? I ordered cloth covers with elastic bands that fit snuggly over various side jar mouths from Kombucha Kamp, which have worked amazingly – as they should! I just give them a rinse as I think they need between batches and they are good to go!

Keep a good eye, (especially in the early life of your SCOBY!) on your batches, check it every couple of days for signs of bubbles. The top may form a new layer of white-ish haze which is great, new SCOBY layers – your SCOBY is always evolving and growing, but if you ever see blue or something out of the ordinary.. it could be mold, in which case you will need to toss your batch and start fresh, unfortunately! Of all my batches over 1 1/2 years of brewing, this has never happened to me, fruit fly larvae, but never any mold, your SCOBY is in a good environment, resilient to many maladies!

Much like the bottles, you will want to keep your F1 brew in a dark, cooler, well ventilated area.

Most importantly, keep an eye on your brew, and if you have a glass or metal straw at home, I would encourage weekly tastings of your F1 brew – your tea is much more palatable if you bottle it before it becomes vinegary and too tart. We have two 5 gallon batches constantly going, alternating bi-weekly with bottling and brewing, almost more than we can drink – in which case, once you get consistent (don’t worry if it’s not “perfect” and bubbly as store bought, it took us about 1 full year of brewing kombucha to feel that we really have an excellent product!) share your batch with friends and folks who may not know what this beverage is, really “wow” them with your carbonated craftiness!

Much like our kombucha batches, the process is always changing, our craft is evolving. New ingredients are being tried, so we can always provide updates, but I believe I covered the basics on how you can get started for mere dollars!

Got a question? Let me know!

Either on here below, on Instagram or my email!

Am I doing something inefficiently? Let me know!

We love what we do, and what we make – and it works, but I’m no expert!

Follow along for any updates as I come across them..

But for now, it’s time to pop a bottle of bubbly brew and relax.

Thanks for reading along and best of luck with your Kombucha endevours!

Warm regards,

– Erik

 


Factoids!

  • Batches brewed: 37
  • Roughly $$ saved per batch: $75.81
  • Roughly $$ saved in the past year by homebrewing: $2,274.30
  • Favorite flavor brewed: lavender

Today’s Featured Ingredient! (yes.. this is the tea we use!)

 

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