How to Make Kombucha (a.k.a. Tea Kvass)

November 4, 2011

in Appetizers & Misc., DIY & Crafts, Drinks, Fermentation, Recipes, Russian & Azerbaijani

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.

kombucha recipe

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?

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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.

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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.

Safety

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

Equipment:

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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

The Method:

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.

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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.

Enjoy!

{ 22 comments }

1 autumn November 5, 2011 at 5:28 am

This is a great post! I recently made kombucha for the first time and it had a couple failures before my most recent successful batch. All of your advice is right on! I prefer it plain too, not flavored.

2 K @Venisonfordinner November 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Wow! Okay, now I want to make this…

How much would you drink a day? I’ve honestly never heard of it. Do people use it as a “take it everyday for my health” drink or a “Enjoy before dinner cause it’s tasty drink” ?

While I am not a fan of anything alcoholic, this is right up my husbands alley. Thank you for another great tutorial!

3 Sofya November 5, 2011 at 4:42 pm

K, did you catch the part where this is NOT really an alcoholic drink? This is more in the pop (soda) and iced-tea category. As to the frequency, it depends on the person – there are some people who will drink some daily for its health benefits (it’s a probiotic drink, among other things), and then there are people who will just drink it throughout the day as they please. It is also supposed to have a relatively powerful detox effect. In my mind, it’s just a type of iced tea. I grew up with this and one other fermented drink (Russian bread kvass), and it was always thought of as a refresher, or as something to serve with dinner instead of juice. Keep in mind that my particular version is not fermented for very long, so both the alcohol content (which is already negligible) and the detox effects would be lower/milder.

4 K @Venisonfordinner November 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Thank-you for the clarification. I was a little confused with that.

5 Gini November 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm

The absolute BEST tutorial on brewing kombucha I’ve seen. After reading three others, I still wasn’t comfortable with the finer points and thus haven’t begun. After reading this, now I can’t wait to get the mother I’ve been promised so I can set to work! Thanks so much!

6 Sofya November 6, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Let me know how it turns out, Gini.

7 clarissa November 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for this article and recipe. Not sure if I will try it but I know how $$$ this is at the stores, out of my budget. I was wondering what the benefits of drinking it are? I can, dehydrate, garden, compost and make yogurt so I am up for the challenge if it can help out my health. Thanks for sharing. Really neat info.

8 Sofya November 6, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Clarissa – I brew it for flavor only – it’s something I grew up with, and find it absolutely delicious. However, it is supposed to detox your body because the toxins supposedly bind with a certain type of acid in it and are flushed out through the waste channels, and it’s supposed to also be probiotic. However, these are not medical claims and I am not able to back them up in any way. You might need to research a little on your own.

9 Liz November 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I am just trying to start a scoby with some storebought kombucha & was wondering whether the process is at all sensitive to light – is it advisable to expose it to light or keep it in a dark place or does it not really matter much either way?

10 Sofya November 19, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Hey Liz – it doesn’t care about the light (it’s a fungus and fungus grows comfortably in the dark as well). What is more important is to control your temp to make sure you can put it where it’s over 70, and put it somewhere it won’t be disturbed. However, I have established that even if you don’t have your apartment that warm, the mat will form either way. Takes a week to about 8 days, in my experience.

11 Tunzala January 22, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Hi Sofya,
I was reading your posting about kombucha. You said it was relatively common in Azerbaijan.
I am not exactly sure what this drink is called in Russian language. Is it “kvas” or something else?
Thank you

12 Sofya January 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Chayniy grib. I too was confused about that for a while.

13 Kate Schat March 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Hey Sofya,
A friend of mine was talking about wanting to make Kombucha, so I just looked this up for her at her house. About sweeteners, can you use maple syrup or honey? I know it’s no artificial sweeteners, wondering where those two fall.

14 Sofya March 31, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Can’t say for sure – you’ll need some more googling!

15 Barb Bangert April 15, 2012 at 8:35 am

Hi Sofya,
I started my first batch of kombucha about two weeks ago and all is going well. Who would have thought one could get so excited over fungal growth!!!???? Happy dance in the kitchen when I peeked under the cloth to see the mother.

I read Kate’s question about using maple syrup or honey for sweeteners. The article in Mary Jane’s Farm magazine that got me started on this (found your website a few days later) the author said Not to use honey since it has “antibacterial properties that can kill the gut-enhancing bacteria we want from kombucha. Because of this, sugar is require. Dark sugars give a heavier flavor.” (The author of the article is Cindy Hailey of Virginia.) I don’t know about maple syrup.

I hope that helps Kate.

So glad you are in Viroqua. Our daughter moved there in October and loves it. We are just two hours North outside of Eau Claire. I found out about your blog from a facebook friend who lives in Maine. I’ve taken classes through the Driftless Folk School: Building a Wood Fired Outdoor Oven two years ago at a place just to the northwest out of town and last year I took two days of Cheese Making and one day of Soap Making with Linda Conroy. That school is a treasure.

OK, back to my on-line class, Sacred Trees ~ Medicine Trees. Just wanted to let Kate know about honey and to say HI to you.
Have a great day!

16 Sue August 5, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Hi Sofya, I have been making “Bucha” as we now call it since January 2005. I am very pleased and excited to find someone else in Wisconsin who know what this is. When I first started the person that I got the started from told me that it was the tannin or the brown color of the tea that the bacteria consumed, perhaps it is both the tannin and the caffeine . I have 3 – 1 gallon jars going all the time, poring a new one every day. I can tell the newest jar from the oldest jar because the oldest one is lighter. As to the alcohol content… My husband has the opportunity to work with a Police officer from time to time. He asked if the officer would check him with a Breathalyzer test. It gave him a reading of .00 to .01, same as any non- alcoholic drink. So it is relativity free of alcohol. We do not drink alcohol at all and I have never felt any effect from it that would seem like an alcohol buzz. We quit drinking about 10 years ago so I do know what it feels like to drink alcohol.
I use 4 bags of black tea and 1 cup of sugar. I first brew the tea, when it cools I pore it through a screen in to the 1 gallon jar, add the sugar, and stir. I put the mushroom back in, and cover it with 2 paper coffee filters, and when the fruit flies are crazy, a cloth as well. I have used raw sugar with no problem, but not maple syrup. We make maple syrup and I have thought about it, but the person that I got the starter from told me the mushroom did best when simple sugars were used. She told me her mother was the person who got her stated so I would think they did some experimenting. From our own experience I know that maple syrup if full of minerals like well water is and it may play a role in how well the yeast and bactria consume the sugar. Over the last year I have started adding 2 bags green tea to the black tea and so far we like it. Some of the green teas have a fruit with them, some not, but they adding a bit of variety to the “Bucha”.
I store the Bucha in the refrigerator in Kombucha bottles I got from friends who bought it to sell at their store. The bottles are a better quality then say Snapple but I have used those too. I get 6 -16 oz bottles out of a gallon. Since the last bit would not fill another 16oz bottle I just poor that back into the next batch of Bucha. I do that everyday. Both my husband and I drink Kombucha and along with alcohol we also do not drink soda. So this is as close as we get to it, and we love it, but the kids don’t, at least not yet.
I too am a stay at home mom with 5 kids( 4 boys -1 girl). My oldest is 24 and expecting his first and my youngest , she is 11. I live on the east side of the state on a tree farm with grass based beef cattle. I love your website. I have been playing around with lacto-fermentation since 2005 as well and will be playing with some of your recipe’s as well. Thanks for the opportunity to share a bit my life with you.
Sue
BTY Do you have any sisters in the early twenties? I have 2 boys looking for a good friend to share what we do with. :-)

17 Deb August 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm

How kind of you to re-port this link on Facebook – I literally got my first SCOBY in many years yesterday and was trying to work out the particulars. I didn’t know about the caffeine being vital; that might explain why I had no success in the distant past trying to make it, as nobody ever mentioned that aspect of it and I always used decaf tea. Thanks!
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18 Mary-Anne March 4, 2013 at 4:09 am

I was wondering whether a scoby is the same thing as vinegar “mothers” that occur spontaneously in red wine vinegar or even balsamic vinegar. They can start new vinegar from wine apparently. I have two that have been sulking in bottles for literally years.Would they make Kombucha? something I have not heard of in Australia! Thanks and love your sense of humour!

19 Sofya March 4, 2013 at 7:16 am

No, I don’t believe so. The yeasts are different and eat different things – kombucha eats sugar and caffeinated tea. I can’t imagine you can’t find a bottle of kombucha in Australia? You can also buy the starter online.

20 jarrin August 9, 2013 at 8:22 am

Thanks for this write-up on making kombucha. I’ve been meaning to do this for some years; perhaps now I’ll finally get around to it.

You also mentioned “Russian bread kvass” which I know nothing about (aside from what I just read on Wikipedia). Would you be able and willing to do a write-up on that? It sounds fascinating.
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21 Sofya August 9, 2013 at 10:40 am

I’ve never made that, but you can find a complete recipe by googling Natasha’s Kitchen + Bread Kvass.

22 Scott August 10, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for this tea recipe, I had a friend from Russia who I worked with and his wife made this tea, it was the best tasting tea ever.

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