After considering taping a “dirty hippie” sign to my forehead and being done with it, I thought instead we’d talk a little about making your own kombucha, because it accomplishes the same effect. Maybe you’re a little more open-minded to me, but I had always written off kombucha as a vinegary punishment beverage to be served alongside tasteless vegan lentil loaves or plain brown rice. Worst of all, any mention of kombucha always seems to be accompanied by (at best) half-baked and possibly dangerous claims of health benefits. Here is a direct quote, for instance, that I obtained by Googling “kombucha health benefits”: “In the first half of the 20th century…Russian scientists discovered that entire regions of their vast country were seemingly immune to cancer and hypothesized that the kombucha, called ‘tea kvass’ there, was the cause.” That’s some science for you, folks. You heard it here: kombucha does not immunize you from cancer. Okay, glad we got that out of the way.
Kombucha does, however, taste a lot better than I thought it would. A friend gave me a kombucha culture, so I’ve been making it at home. At its most basic, kombucha is a fermented, sweetened tea drink. Unlike other fermented beverages, though, where yeast eats sugar and turns it into alcohol, the culture that ferments kombucha (called a SCOBY—a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) takes fermentation one step further. After yeast turns sugar into alcohol, the alcohol is then transformed by bacteria into acetic acid. This acetic acid lends the distinctive tanginess to the final product (dilute acetic acid, as you probably know, is common household vinegar).
I find home-brewed kombucha to be more complex and less bitter than store-bought versions. As kombucha continues to ferment, its sweetness lessens and its tanginess increases (the result of yeast processing sugar), so by making it at home, you have control over how sweet (or how tangy) the final product is. And, since kombucha is mildly effervescent, I’ve heard that it’s a good substitute for the occasional soda craving, because it pushes the right sweet and sparkling buttons.
Kombucha can be made with any kind of tea, but my favorite is green. In the same vein, you can use a variety of sweeteners, from white table sugar to brown rice syrup, but I like honey. I’m including a quick primer below, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has kombucha-making experience or favorite teas/sweeteners to use.
A quick couple questions people ask me about kombucha:
Is kombucha alcoholic? Kombucha can sometimes have a very low residual alcohol content (alcohol that the bacteria in the culture has not yet turned into acetic acid). But so can orange juice. Awhile back, you may remember that the FDA pulled kombucha off the market temporarily because some commercial kombuchas were refermenting in the bottle. Even then, the alcohol content only got up to about 1%. You don’t have much to worry about in terms of alcohol, especially with homemade kombucha.
Is it safe to make kombucha at home? Making kombucha at home is about as dangerous as making your own beer, yogurt, vinegar, or other fermented, active culture, and/or unpasteurized product at home, which is to say: please use common sense. Work cleanly—use hot water and soap to clean the container before using it– and if there is visible mold or off-putting odors, throw out your kombucha, as you would with anything you make at home.
A kombucha primer
Kombucha cultures (also known as a “starter” or a “mother”) can be purchased online or in stores that carry homebrewing supplies. The culture reproduces itself over time, so if you have a friend that makes kombucha, they can give you one easily. If you purchase a liquid culture online and add it to your tea, don’t freak out when after a few days, it forms a strange, gelatinous mass on the surface of the liquid—this is what it’s supposed to do. (If you’re interested in the science of this, check out the Wikipedia article on zoogleal mats. This “mat” is what you can see in the photo above, in my container of kombucha. It is weird and mildly alien. I love it.)
- A kombucha culture
- 3 quarts of water
- 4 tablespoons green tea or 4 green teabags
- 3/4 cup honey (raw is supposedly best, but I’ve used grocery store, “honey bear” type honey with fine results)
- Gather a large jar or other glass container, a clean tea towel, and a rubber band.
- Heat water in a large pot. Bring it to a boil, then remove from heat. Add the tea. Allow to steep for 10-15 minutes. Remove tea bags or strain out loose tea.
- Add the honey to the still-warm tea and stir until dissolved. Allow the tea to cool. The tea mixture should taste too sweet—this is good, as your kombucha culture will consume a lot of that sugar.
- Transfer tea to the glass container. Add the kombucha culture, and then cover with the clean tea towel and fasten it on with the rubber band (fruit flies love kombucha, so be sure to close it such that they stay out).
- Place the container in a not-too-warm, not-too-cool, relatively dark place. (Between 55 and 70 degrees should be fine).
- Start tasting your kombucha after 4 days or so. It will probably still be too sweet at this point, but it’s good to get a feel for how the kombucha is coming along. I like my kombucha best after about 10 days, when it’s decently effervescent, still sweet, but with a good tangy kick. Some like their kombucha much more vinegary, allowing it to ferment for two weeks or more.
- Before serving, strain the kombucha through a fine-mesh sieve or through cheesecloth. Keep the kombucha in the refrigerator. Enjoy chilled or over ice.