The last time I flew back from visiting my sister in Boise, Idaho, I had the building block for kombucha in my carry-on bag.
The half-inch-thick slimy disk was wrapped in a plastic bag that was wrapped in a paper towel and stuffed in a paper bag. No liquid — just the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY, needed to make the fermented tea.
I didn’t have to fly with a SCOBY. Thanks to the incredible boom in popularity of kombucha, starter kits are available at homebrew stores, natural food stores like Wheatsville Food Co-op and online. But there was something appealing about using my sister’s SCOBY to start my own kombucha factory.
She and her family drink about half a gallon of kombucha a week. Her kids — like mine — have been drinking kombucha long enough to love it like other kids might love soda. It’s a sugary treat that is best enjoyed in small, if frequent, quantities and just so happens to be really good for them.
It had been nearly seven years since I last brewed kombucha, and though I enjoyed the process, I fell out of the habit because I wasn’t able to get my kombucha fizzy and flavorful enough to compare to what I could buy in the store.
But the last few times I’ve visited my sister, she always has had some sparkling blueberry or strawberry kombucha in her fridge that is even better than the many brands you can now buy in grocery stores. So the last time I visited, I asked her to teach me her method so I might try to replicate it at home.
Instead of using white sugar and fruit juice, which was how I was first taught to make it, Chelsea’s method — a compilation of a number of techniques she found in a handful of YouTube videos — calls for turbinado sugar and a few tablespoons of fruit puree.
Using a coulis to flavor the kombucha allows for infinite flexibility. If you can puree it, you can use it as flavoring. Blueberry, cherry, honeydew, loquat, peach, pineapple, mango and even cucumber mint are some of the flavors I’ve made in the past few months since my starter SCOBY and I got home from Boise.
Now that I’m making a batch of kombucha every week, we are drinking a little of it every day — and I’ve been telling everyone I can about how not-so-scary the process can be.
My experience of homebrewing kombucha will be different than yours because every kitchen and batch is a little different. Some spaces are darker and cooler, while others are warm and sunny. Teas and sugar content of fruits vary, as do seemingly straightforward things, like how you pour the kombucha from its big brewing jar into smaller bottles.
But after two months of brewing once a week, I have a good feel for what kind of kombucha I can make in my kitchen during this time of year.
I only need to brew about 10 cups of tea instead of a whole gallon, and the kombucha takes six or seven days to ferment to my liking, with lots of fizzy bubbles but still enough sugar to be sweet.
After I pour the fruit and kombucha into the bottles, I know it will be ready to start drinking after two days, and I’d better not leave it on the shelf for more than five or else it will explode when I open it. The more fruit in the bottle, I’ve learned, the quicker it finishes the second fermentation, and you can move the bottle from the shelf to the refrigerator to slow the process. However, if you leave the bottle in the fridge for too long, it loses some of its fizz.
I’ve watched that single SCOBY from my sister replicate into many, all of which live in a SCOBY “hotel,” a second jar I’ve started just to house all the babies, which each start as a thin, nearly invisible skin on top of the tea and grow into a pancake-like zoogleal mat, just like its mother floating eerily in the kombucha below. I haven’t run into the problem of SCOBYs wearing out, but apparently that can happen, which is why it’s nice to have a backup. If you make kombucha regularly, you will end up with more SCOBYs than you know what to do with.
What have I gained besides a steady stream of sweet, fizzy hippie soda? A new rhythm in my kitchen and a steady excuse to call or text my sister to let her know what I’m making and ask her random questions about the process.
Every Thursday, a little reminder pops up on my internal desktop calendar that says it’s time to brew. At first, it seemed like such a daunting task to have to do business with bacteria and yeast that I cannot see and a slimy weird orb that I can.
I was afraid of bottles exploding in my pantry, or that mold would grow on my SCOBY and ruin the whole batch. I thought it would take up too much time or make my pantry smell like vinegar. But I’ll never forget having my kids, ages 5 and 9, help me make one of those first batches. I asked them what kind of fruit they wanted to use. They picked loquats, which we’d been foraging from our neighborhood.
One held the bottle and the other secured the funnel as I poured the pureed fruit and kombucha. We sealed the bottles and put them in the pantry. Every day, they asked if it was time to try the loquat kombucha, something we’d never be able to buy in stores.
When I finally popped one open and poured them each a glass, they squealed and smacked their lips with joy on the first sip. The newness has started to wear off for them, but having just made a salted cucumber mint kombucha, I feel like I’m just getting started.
This quantity of tea will make enough kombucha to fill about four 500 ml bottles, with enough liquid left over to act as a starter for the next batch. If you find yourself running low on leftover liquid, make a little extra tea next time. You’ll want to have at least a few cups of liquid remaining in the jar each time. The more starter liquid, the faster the tea will brew. The less, the longer.
There are two different brewing methods: continuous brewing and batch. I use the batch method. I also make a slightly smaller quantity of tea than the full gallon that Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory, the authors of “The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea,” call for in the master recipe in their book, because four of those 500 ml bottles of kombucha is plenty for us to drink in one week.
Every once in a while, I’ll have to brew a larger batch to make sure there’s enough extra liquid to keep my SCOBY hotel full and to start my next batch. Either way, you can use 4 bags of tea (or about 1 1/2 Tbsp. loose-leaf tea) and 1 cup sugar.
10 cups filtered water
4 bags black tea
1 cup turbinado or white sugar
1 cup kombucha
1 SCOBY or piece of SCOBY, at least a few inches in width
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a pot large enough to hold all 10 cups. Add tea and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags and add sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add the remaining filtered water and let the mixture cool.
Add the tea to a large glass jar. Add the kombucha and then place your SCOBY on top. (It’s OK if it sinks.) Cover the jar with a cloth and secure with a rubber band. Place jar in a dark, cool place for seven days.
To flavor and finish processing the kombucha: Using a funnel, place 2 Tbsp. fruit puree in a 500 ml (about 17 ounce) bottle with a flip-top closure. Place a strainer inside the funnel (optional) and then pour the fermented kombucha tea into the bottle, leaving between 1-2 inches of air at the top. Repeat with remaining bottles. Quickly seal each bottle after adding the kombucha, which should be fizzy from the fermentation. Leave at room temperature for at least two days or up to five. Refrigerate the bottles and, when ready to drink, strain and serve.
— Adapted from recipes by Chelsea Barrett and from Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory in “The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea”
Even though we consume fermented products every day, the process of how bacteria and yeast transform milk into cheese or yogurt, flour into bread and cocoa beans into chocolate is still a mystery to most of us.
Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory, the authors of “The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea,” have heard pretty much every question you could think to ask (“Can I use Mountain Dew as my fruit juice/sweetener?”) and include many of those answers in their comprehensive kombucha guide. (No, don’t use Mountain Dew to flavor your kombucha.)
Here is what they have to say about some of the most common inquiries:
Why drink kombucha in the first place?
Because it’s delicious is my first response, but a close second are the countless health benefits, starting with the good-for-you bacteria found in the SCOBY. Those microorganisms feed the flora in your intestines, which doesn’t just help your digestive system but your immune system as well. According to Crum’s and LaGory’s book, kombucha is an adaptogen, “a plant-based derivative that normalizes and balances the body, benefiting the entire physiology rather than a specific organ or system,” they write. It’s a source of antioxidants, vitamin C, B vitamins and acids that detoxify the liver. I’ll share one anecdote from my sister: For the past few years, she had been dealing with a gluten sensitivity, but now that she is drinking kombucha nearly every day, she can eat a piece of regular bread or pizza without having the same stomach troubles.
Is kombucha alcoholic?
Kombucha has trace amounts of alcohol, usually less than 1 percent, and is not considered alcoholic in the same sense of beer or wine. It is not inebriating and OK for children to drink. If you overferment the tea, it turns into something more like vinegar, not booze. However, there is a fermented tang to the drink that might not be suitable for people who have struggled with alcoholism.
Can anyone drink kombucha?
People with compromised immune systems should be cautious about consuming any kind of fermented foods, but at the same time, those people could have the most to benefit from increasing the amount of good bacteria in their system. As you might assume in our hypercautious parenting culture, many American doctors do not encourage pregnant and breastfeeding women to drink kombucha. Most kombucha-drinking parents introduce a diluted kombucha to their kids around 1 year of age, sometimes earlier. “Scientific studies have been conducted for (well over 100 years), and millions of homebrewers have made batch after batch, yet there is not a single case of fatality from kombucha on record,” the authors write. Compare that to peanuts, which cause dozens of deaths a year.