Disclaimer: This post is not meant to provide any medical advice with regard to the safety or health benefits of consuming kombucha tea. If you have any kombucha-related questions or concerns, consult your physician.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union and later independent Azerbaijan, kombucha (or “tea mushroom,” as it was known there) was strictly homemade and relatively common. But the Old Country kombucha didn’t taste like what you find in US. While the American store-bought kombucha tends to be sour, often fruity, and always highly carbonated, the kombucha of my childhood, at least in my memory, was a lot less fizzy and decidedly sweet. It was also made exclusively with black tea and never spiked with fruit or anything else.
Personally, I had never brewed my own kombucha until this summer, when I attended a workshop given by the folks from Nesalla Kombucha – a Madison, Wisconsin-based business. It was there that I got my original starter, and that is where most of my knowledge of kombucha-brewing comes from.
What’s in Kombucha, Anyway?
Kombucha tea is made by fermenting a batch of sweetened, caffeinated tea with the help of the so-called kombucha SCOBY (above) and a small amount of finished kombucha tea.
The term “SCOBY” itself is an acronym, standing for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” The SCOBY is sometimes referred to as “the mushroom,” but is not in fact a single mushroom but rather a colony of micro-fungi (for all yeast is fungus), living in a happy union with acid-producing bacteria. Together, the yeast and bacteria form a mat like the one in the photo.
In the course of the next few days, the yeast will feed on the caffeine and sugar in the tea and produce alcohol, which the bacteria will convert into acid, keeping the alcohol content of the finished kombucha below the legal limit. As a result, the original tea will lose some of its sweetness and caffeine content, and take on a tangy, fermented flavor. Another by-product of yeast activity is carbon dioxide, which gives kombucha its characteristic carbonation.
The longer your allow this process to go on, the less caffeinated and the more acidic the tea will become. The folks in the workshop told me that, in general, a six to seven-day fermentation period leads to the most optimal balance of kombucha’s beneficial properties. Because I like my kombucha very sweet and mild, I limit this to four days.
At the end of this period, the kombucha can either be transferred into bottles, sealed with a lid, and set back in a warm place for another couple of days to develop additional carbonation, or bottled and put in the fridge right away, while still only slightly fizzy (which is what I do).
Regardless of how you like your kombucha, its real beauty is in its flexibility, which allows you to play with times and proportions until you arrive at the exact flavor you want. Just don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t expect perfect results the first time around. You should also expect the flavor to vary slightly from one batch to the next, as weather conditions (and, most notably, temperature fluctuations), as well as the age of your SCOBY will affect the speed and the efficacy of fermentation.
Kombucha Mother and Baby
A curious phenomenon takes place during the fermentation of each batch – the yeast and bacteria mat grows another on top of itself. The original one on the bottom came to be referred to as “the mother,” while the new one on top is known as “the baby.” You do not need to separate the mother from the baby after each batch. However, each “mother” has a lifespan of 5 to 6 batches before becoming dark and yeasty and beginning to impart an off-taste to your brew. At this point, you need to remove the baby (it will peel off easily with some gentle pulling) and make it your next “mother.” Meanwhile, the original one can be composted or fed to chickens, who love it. You can also start using your baby after the first batch and compost the mother at that point, but I found this to be absolutely unnecessary. Whatever you do, do not become emotionally attached to your SCOBYs, and do not feel like you need to keep all your mothers and babies alive and going and fed.
How to Grow Your Own Kombucha SCOBY
If you have a friend who brews kombucha regularly, they will be more than happy to unload some of their extra SCOBYs on you, especially if they are the SCOBY-hoarding type. If you don’t, I’ve got a revelation for you:
Did you know that you can grow a SCOBY yourself using a bottle of store-bought kombucha?
All you need to do is buy a bottle of kombucha of any variety, pour it into a wide-mouth mason jar, cover the jar with a cloth secured with a rubber band (do not seal), set it on a counter at room temperature (assuming your room temperature is 70 or higher – otherwise you will need to find a warm place to put it), and let it be for about a week. In a few days, you will begin to notice pieces of film-like substance starting to form on the surface. In about a week, they will turn into a thin, slippery, jelly fish-like SCOBY floating on the surface of your store-bought kombucha. Let it sit and thicken for a few more days, and then use the SCOBY and some of the kombucha to start a new batch (see recipe below).
Tips for Success
- The tea you start with must be caffeinated and sweetened. Sugar and caffeine are kombucha’s food, with black tea specifically being its absolute favorite. This is why you can’t use artificial sweeteners or uncaffeinated tea you might ordinarily enjoy.
- Loose tea has more flavor than bag tea – I don’t use anything else myself.
- When it comes to buying your tea, read the label and make sure that “tea” is the only ingredient listed. If you were to go with Earl Gray, for instance, the aromatic oils added to it for flavor would interfere with the fermentation, resulting in your starter not making it past a batch or two.
- Like other yeast, kombucha is most active when it’s warm – that is between roughly 75 and 85 degrees. If, like mine, your residence is heated exclusively with a wood stove, which can result in a very, very cold house by morning, find a way to place your kombucha close to the stove during the cold months.
- Kombucha apparently doesn’t thrive in environments that are excessively sterile, because if you have things in the air that are designed to kill micro-organisms, they will hurt the SCOBY as well.
Choosing The Right Tea for Brewing
Not all tea varieties will make a tasty brew, so as long as your tea is caffeinated, feel free to play with different kinds and amounts. I, for instance, like my kombucha mild, and found that the English Breakfast from the local food cooperative turned out to be too strong, making my kombucha taste of stale tea. I then switched to something called “Irish Breakfast,” which smelled quite a bit milder when I bought it, and it worked beautifully. Most importantly, feel free to tweak the amount of loose tea from batch to batch until you arrive at the taste you like the best, especially if you are using a new variety.
Once the fermentation is complete, your kombucha should develop a resistance to the invasion of unwanted micro-organisms, making it a fairly reliable and easy culture to work with.
Homemade Kombucha Recipe
Makes approximately 1 gallon
You will need a 1-gallon glass jar for primary fermentation (a ceramic crock will also work), and enough bottles with caps to accommodate this amount of liquid for secondary fermentation and/or storage (see below). You can use regular juice bottles with caps, but my favorite vessel is a 1/2-gallon maple syrup glass jug. If you want to go through second fermentation, having your brew in a bottle with a narrow throat will lead to better carbonation.
- 3 1/2 quarts water
- 5 T loose caffeinated tea (feel free to adjust this amount up or down by up to 1 T if you don’t like the taste of your first batch: if you detect a bitter, stale off-taste, use less next time; if your brew seems too weak, use more)
- 1 C granulated sugar
- SCOBY and 1/2 C finished kombucha, to serve as starter
Bring water to a boil, add sugar, and simmer until the sugar has dissolved (approximately 3-5 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in the tea. Cover and let cool overnight to room temperature (like other yeast, kombucha SCOBY will be destroyed by the temperature that’s even slightly too high, so it is important that you really cool your tea before adding the starter).
Strain your tea into the primary fermenter, discarding the leaves. Add the SCOBY and the finished kombucha. Your SCOBY might float to the top or sink, both of which are fine. Cover the jar/crock with a clean cloth and secure it with a rubber band. Do not seal with a lid, as it is necessary to allow the carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation to escape. I don’t recommend using standard store-bought cheesecloth, as it is not dense enough to keep out fruit flies, which happen to adore kombucha. A piece of cloth or a small cloth napkin, on the other hand, work beautifully for this purpose.
Set your kombucha in a warm place (ideally b/w 75 and 85 degrees, but I can tell you that 70 will work as well) and leave it, undisturbed, for about four days, and then being tasting your brew. Whenever you decide that your kombucha has reached your preferred balance of sweetness and acidity, do one of the following, depending on your desired result:
1) If you like a lot of carbonation, pour the brew into bottles, reserving approximately a cup of kombucha and the SCOBY in the original container to serve as starter for your next batch (more about this below). Screw the caps onto the bottles, put them back in the warm place, and leave them there for two more days to trap the carbon dioxide for greater carbonation.
2) If strong carbonation is not your thing (and it certainly isn’t mine), place your kombucha bottles into the fridge instead of leaving them out. Your kombucha is now finished and can be enjoyed immediately.
Finished kombucha must be refrigerated and will keep for a while, but, with time, you will notice it developing some additional carbonation and gradually increasing in acidity.
Note that, upon emerging from the fridge, your black tea-based kombucha may appear slightly cloudy. This is not a sign of spoilage - this is something that happens to black tea at cooler temperatures.
Be sure to reserve a cup or so of the finished brew to house (i.e, nourish and hydrate) your SCOBY until the next batch (where it will serve as starter). Cover this with a cloth and a rubber band and keep at room temperature until ready to use (assuming you will be making another batch within a couple of days).
Adding Fruit (Optional)
If you wish to flavor your kombucha with fruit (something I, personally, don’t enjoy), add it to your brew at the time of bottling so the infusion process coincides with the second fermentation. Keep in mind, however, that whenever you add fruit, you will be adding extra sugar as well, boosting the SCOBY’s activity and increasing the production of gas. The leader of the workshop I attended told us how she once infused a bottle of kombucha with fresh elderberries. All was well until she attempted to open the bottle, which proceeded to explode with a gunshot-like sound and sent the contents all over the room. Her recommendation for avoiding this was to twist the lid open a little several times during the second fermentation in order to release some of the gas.
Storing Your SCOBY When You Can’t Brew Regularly
To enjoy your kombucha consistently, you basically need to be brewing one batch after another, starting a new one as soon as you bottle the previous one. If, for some reason, you are unable to brew your kombucha on a regular basis, you can do one of the following to preserve your SCOBY until you are ready to brew again:
1) Place your SCOBY and a couple of cups of finished kombucha tea in a sealed container, such as a mason jar with a lid, and put it in refrigerator or freezer. Doing so will slow down your culture’s metabolism and put it in hibernation. If you choose this approach, you will need to rejuvenate it at room temperature for a few days before you can brew again. To do so, set it in a warm place, add some sweetened black tea to the jar, cover it with a cloth secured with a rubber band, and leave it alone for a few days prior to using.
2) Place your SCOBY and approximately a quart of finished kombucha into a jar and cover it with a cloth as above. Leave it out on the counter where you can see it so you can monitor the level of liquid. If left at room temperature, the SCOBY will eventually suck up all the liquid (be sure to add more sweetened tea before this happens). Note that, with this treatment, the color of the tea will lighten dramatically over time, and the SCOBY itself will get thicker and thicker as the acidity level continues to rise. When ready to brew, use as usual.