Kombucha. Typically, when people talk about Kombucha, they fall into 1 of 3 categories: Love it! Hate it! Or, my favorite... what the heck is it?! Kombucha is a sweetened tea that's been fermented using a scoby ("Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast"). It takes between 7-14 days to make a batch of kombucha, and the result is an effervescent slightly tart, slightly sweet brew that apparently contains a whole slew of amino acids and vitamins...You can find bottled Kombucha from makers like GT Dave's at Whole Foods and the like, but they average anywhere from $3.50 to $5 for a single bottle. So I decided to try and brew my own at home...
But where to start? It wasn't like I could just pick up a starting scoby at my neighborhood grocery store. But friends, success lay in store. I brewed the booch, and I'll tell you how I did it. See lots more pics below the jump!
The thing that spurred my intimidated little self to give this a real try was a class I saw advertised at the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg: an "All About Kombucha" class taught by Brooklyn's own Kombuchaman, Eric Childs, who's starting his own kombucha company (called, not unexpectedly, Kombucha Brooklyn). The 1.5 hour class promised to teach me the history of the beverage, its health benefits, and — most importantly — give me everything I'd need to start brewing at home. Sounded perfect. And it was exactly what I'd hoped. Eric Childs was exuberant about drinking and making kombucha, and he freely shared his tips, tricks, and recipes. I left that evening with my little starter jar (containing my 3-inch-in-diameter scoby disc), my Kombucha 101 packet, and a large 5-liter jar. (Maybe a bit ambitious, but I was determined.)
A picture of one of Eric's healthy scobys
The First Batch
• 4 liters of filtered (not tap!) water
• 8 tea bags (black, oolong, green or white tea only)
• 1.5 cups white sugar (NOT brown. Whole Foods' 365 Organic Cane Sugar works well)
• 1.2 cups kombucha from a previous batch as an acid starter
• 1 kombucha culture, or scoby (size doesn't matter)
• A 5 liter glass jar
• A clean piece of cloth to cover the jar (a wife beater shirt piece is perfect!)
• A rubber band to secure the cloth
• Some bottles to store the finished tea
• A warm location for storing (70-86 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal)
• Non-metallic spoon and measuring cup
I ultimately decided that I should start with the quart bell jar rather than the 5-liter jar, as Eric instructed, in the event that my "booch," as he calls it, didn't turn out to my liking the first time around. (See below if you're making a 5-liter batch.) So, after thoroughly cleaning my hands and the counters, jars, and non-metallic utensils I was going to use, I gently took my scoby out of the bag and placed it to sit on a plate (primed with a teaspoon of kombucha, so as not to shock the culture) while I prepared the tea.
Since I was brewing a very small 1-quart batch, I used the supplies that came in my starter jar. (Eric Childs essentially made our first brew "dummy proof" by pre-measuring out the sugar, tea and kombucha starter for us... it was just a matter of putting it all together.) I poured boiling water into the jar (which I primed by running it under hot water for a few minutes so the glass wouldn't crack) about half way and let my black tea bags (Darjeeling and Oolong are the best) steep for 20 minutes.
Once the tea had sufficiently steeped, I removed the bags and stirred in the sugar till it was dissolved. Then I filled up the rest of the jar with cold water, added the starter liquid, and carefully dropped my scoby into the brew (brown side down) and secured the tea cloth covering it with a rubber band. Finally, it was off to the dark, warm cupboard above my fridge to sit and ferment. And I waited...
From top left to right: Day 1, Day 3, Day 7, Day 10 - time to drink!
...and it worked! After a few days, a new scoby started to form at the top of the brew — the "baby" scoby. As you can see from my time lapse picture above, my mother scoby moved to the top of my brew around Day 3, and then a new scoby started to form. The new scoby was white and the brew smelled very vinegary-ey — like kombucha — which is a good sign. You never want your booch to smell meaty or cheesy. That means it's contaminated.
I started sampling the brew around Day 5 to determine when I could bottle it. When to bottle is really determined by personal taste, by how sweet you want your booch. The longer you leave it, the more sugar will be "eaten up" by the culture, and the more tart your booch will be. I ended up bottling around Day 8 this time around.
When I determined the booch was ready, I carefully removed the scoby (again, making sure everything around me was extremely clean!) and filtered out the brew, leaving a little bit behind as my "starter liquid" for my next brew. Then I poured the brew into a canning jar and put it in the cupboard to carbonate for 2 days. After that I transferred it to chill in the fridge... and voila! My first glass of homemade kombucha.
The Follow-up 5-liter Batch
I felt confident enough to start a 5-liter batch, and I was now able to follow the measurements provided by Eric in his "Kombucha 101" packet (and shown above). Because it was such a bigger batch, I let it brew for a full 14 days. You can see it here on Day 12. Even though I started with my small 3-inch-in-diameter mother, my baby scoby grew to the width of my large jar. My bounty from this batch yielded 7 jars!
Day 12 of my 5-liter brew
If you're interested in brewing at home, you'll need to find a scoby to get started. (If you're in the New York area, I'd be happy to share one of my scobys with you!) You can find scobys online, although I must admit, that kind of freaks me out a little bit. And, as Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan said, there is something very unnerving about meeting someone on the street corner to "exchange a mushroom." (Which she ultimately ended up not doing.) I would recommend finding a friend to get a culture from, or else, find a restaurant in your area that makes and sells kombucha, and ask their chef if he/she would be willing to share a culture with you. I almost did this myself before I found the Kombucha class.
There are a whole host of flavors and teas you can add after you ferment, before you bottle. You can add another tea flavor, a juice puree, dried fruit... the options are endless! I haven't experimented with this at all yet, but I'm anxious to try it at some point.
Do you brew your own kombucha? What has your experience been?
UPDATE: No scobys left!
Originally published 2009-05-07 - CB