Tuesday, 30 April 2013 | 32 comments

Kombucha

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.)

You’ll need

  1. A kombucha culture
  2. 3 quarts of water
  3. 4 tablespoons green tea or 4 green teabags
  4. 3/4 cup honey (raw is supposedly best, but I’ve used grocery store, “honey bear” type honey with fine results)

Directions

  1. Gather a large jar or other glass container, a clean tea towel, and a rubber band.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. Place the container in a not-too-warm, not-too-cool, relatively dark place. (Between 55 and 70 degrees should be fine).
  6. 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.
  7. Before serving, strain the kombucha through a fine-mesh sieve or through cheesecloth. Keep the kombucha in the refrigerator. Enjoy chilled or over ice.

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§ 32 responses to Kombucha

  • Wow, that “mat” does have quite an alien and supernatural appearance! Is its smell as funky as its looks?

    I’ve heard plenty of talk about making homemade kombucha, but this is the first that I’ve read about it step by step. Seeing that stores love to overprice kombucha, it seems like something definitely worth making at home. Thanks for sharing this! I’m fascinated and am ready to get fermenting.

  • Great post! I, too, have gotten into making kombucha lately (my inner hippy is most definitely breaking free!) and I’m loving the results. I just happened to write about my experience in this post:

    http://nourishyourroots.blogspot.com/2013/03/easy-homemade-kombucha.html

    I’m so intrigued that you used honey. I wanted to use honey or another sweetener besides just organic cane sugar, but everywhere I read, it said that it brews better with regular cane sugar. Thanks for showing me that it does indeed work with honey!

  • I’ve made kombucha for quite a while. I especially like to add in flavors like pomegranate, lemon, and ginger. It’s great in the summer!

  • Linda

    If you want more info about Kombucha – check out the Weston A Price Foundation at westonaprice.org. They are a non-profit nutritional organization that recommends drinking Kombucha for your health.

  • Have you had fun with flavors yet? Once your kombucha has brewed, simply pour it into small airtight jars and add a little flavoring to each: a small chunk of ginger, a couple of strawberries, some lemon juice, a few lavender flowers. Whatever you want, in whatever combination you like. Put the cover on, leave jars on the counter for 2 days, strain out the flavoring and enjoy. For some reason, every flavor tastes good with kombucha. I even added a cinnamon stick and a few cardamom pods to one batch, and it tasted like Christmas. My favorite flavors are straight ginger and lemon lavender.

    • Elle

      Oh gosh, there is a very popular kombucha cafe here where the flavors are amazing – like blueberry jasmine, (my favorite) or frankencense rose, or orange mango…they are delicious! I’ve had Jun a couple times in the past and do prefer it for some reason. Would love to get a true Jun scoby.

      Also, I highly recommend this hilarious video from one of my fav youtube channels:

      Bored Shorts TV: Kid History: “Healthy Food” Episode 6 (True Stories)

      …so funny…

  • KimH

    I’ve been making kombucha for about a year too and I love it.. I dont really care for commercial bucha.. its not the same at all..
    I went to a fermentation class a couple weeks ago & experienced a brew & scoby of a kombucha like drink called Jun. Its made with honey instead of sugar. We were told that the bacteria & yeasts that are in a kombucha brew respond much better to sugar than honey and the Jun scoby responds at a chemical level better to honey.
    A few days after being in the workshop, I read online somewhere where someone took a kombucha scoby and side by side made brews with honey and one with sugar and they said it was good & it worked out ok but when they finally got a true Jun scoby, the taste and the colors were vastly different from Jun…
    Its interesting though.. and tasty as can be.

    Signed: an old hippie..

    • Hi Kim,
      I haven’t heard of jun. I have read a lot of mixed things about kombucha cultures working best with white sugar. Some accounts say the culture just needs to get used to a different kind of sugar if it’s been metabolizing other types (sucrose in table sugar versus fructose and glucose separately in honey). Honey works for me, and I enjoy the sweetness from it better. Thanks for the interesting discussion. –S

  • my last boss called me a “dirty hippy.” in a way that was a lot more hurtful than when my friends–and myself–joked about it. Cheers to planting/growing your dinner, giving a damn about seasonality, sprouting things in jars, drinking things out of jars, juicing, fermenting, brewing, living, as stereotyped as one might live–and loving it!
    mf
    ps–kamut has a similar effect to kombucha….

  • Well done. I love the research and the explanations. Dirty Hippie. This is a good thing…..

  • The phrase “punishment beverage” cracked me up! I for one am a kombucha lover, and thus congratulate you on your at-home brewing efforts. Do you use the continuous brew method?

    • Hi Erin, I do continuous brew. Sometimes I forget about a batch and it gets unpalatable, so I just throw it out and start again. And really, I think the storebought kombucha kind of is punishment :) –S

  • The timing of this post is perfect! I just got a scoby the other day and have been getting ready to try my hand at making my own kombucha. Hooray for letting your inner hippie out!

  • meliSsa

    how long will the kombucha last once strained and in the fridge? days? weeks? thanks for such a straighforward introductory post. you’ve inspired me to give it a try. also, loving the more frequent posts here :)

  • I grew up drinking this as a kid. My mother swore it helped my stomach ailments and sure enough, i did seem to feel better afterwards. We had a huge 5L jar of it in our kitchen and I loved drinking it. In Russia, in my family at least, we called it “grib” which means mushroom in Russian, but I am thinking it was more referring to the fact that it looked like a mushroom cap (or a fungus family??) – but I’m not sure. I long forgot about ‘grib’ until 4 years ago, or so, I picked up a bottle of kombucha in a store, and wham! i was transported somewhere, but I couldn’t place where. It tasted like my childhood, but I couldn’t place it… it took me at least a couple of years to figure out what my tastebuds were recalling… Now I keep trying to motivate to make it. I think you’ve given me the nudge I needed. Fermentation is so, so neat, I think!! And I don’t think it makes you a hippie :) unless you want to be one.

    • Hi Olga! Yes, I have heard it called “mushroom tea” before. Mostly because the culture starts looking a little fungal, I think. Funny that the word is used in Russian, too! —S

  • I absolutely love Kombucha and while I cannot get it where I currently live it’s usually the first thing I pick up when I head to the grocery store back home at my parents. I have not yet been brave enough to make my own but your post shows I really should not hesitate! I also love the idea of being able to influence how sweet you want the final product and what tea to use – I have tried a huge variety of different types of Kombucha and some very definitely too tart and others as sweet as lemonade so maybe homemade is the way to go (although admittedly the ‘mother’ looks pretty funky, although no worse than the vinegar mother my mum has been taking care of over the years).

  • Ah Kombucha! I spent an embarrassing sum of money on Kombucha from the store, before I finally started making my own – nothing like dealing with a floppy, rubbery pancake to make you think twice before drinking it though… I’ve never made mine with honey or green tea (I always read it’s best to stick with regular old sugar) but I will definitely be trying out this combo soon (although I’ll admit I’m pretty partial to my ginger brew)..
    And I’ve pretty much embraced the hippie label by now – even the dirty part is half true as I’m usually walking around with dirty knees and muddy boots from the garden :)

  • What are you doing with your SCOBY after you strain the kombucha out?

  • Many years ago I drank kombucha regularly because it really agrees with my body. Thanks for the reminder and the recipe. You have inspired me to start up again and add a little flavor to the drink. Nice post/site.

  • sarah

    I experimented with kombucha making last fall (I even grew my own scoby which took a couple months in my cold winter house), but must confess that I left it to brew far too long then started over, saving the results to use as vinegar in dressings etc. Now my second batch has been just sitting there on the counter for months again lol. You’ve prompted me to start again!
    My question is about the scoby. It still looks healthy, just keeps growing bigger and bigger, despite me not feeding it. I know I’ve read before to store it in the fridge, in liquid, between ferments. Do you think it will still work? I guess I’ll just try it and see :)

    Also want to say I LOVE your blog and am very happy to see new and more frequent postings :) Thank you.

    • Thanks, Sarah. Yeah, scobys get big. It will definitely still work (and indeed, the fact that it’s growing is an indicator that it’s alive and well). If it’s too big, you can simply cut off the part you don’t want. I do this all the time to share the scoby with other people. And yes, you can keep it in the fridge in liquid when not in use. Thanks again for your kind comment.
      –s

  • Mary Beth

    Wow. Talk about perfect timing. I just started drinking kombucha 3 weeks ago and had decided to try and make my own. Thanks for this post.

  • Sara

    Your recipe for kombucha does not mention using starter tea? It is a vital component in that it drops the pH of the sweet tea to the acidic side and you are less likely to develop mold. Typically one would add 10-25% the total volume in starter tea. If none is available you use simple white distilled or pasteurized vinegar, never a raw mother-type vinegar otherwise the acetobacter in the ‘raw’ can dominate your kombucha scoby and convert the whole thing into a mother of vinegar.

    I applaud the fact that you use honey with your kombucha. So many people think you CAN only use this or that but frrmentable sugar is fermentable sugar. Black, green, white and oolong teas all come from C. Sinesis plant & kombucha is successfully fermented with each of them. But for all the Jun people, please, do not call a kombucha scoby using green tea plus honey –jun — it is still kombucha. Jun is not the same scoby, just like a mother of vinegar is a different scoby. Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast.

    • Shosanah

      Do you know a way to get a genuine jun culture – not a kombucha scoby that has been adapted to green tea and honey?

  • Question–I can’t have caffeine, so I’ve been holding off on trying kombucha, since almost all recipes call for black tea or green tea. Can I make it with herbal tea, possible Rooibos? Or a decaffeinated green tea? Any advice is greatly appreciated, thanks.

    • You can, as specified, make with any kind of tea, including rooibos, although I’ve never tried it personally. —s

    • Do not worry about the caffeine. During fermentation the SCOBY eats up the sugar and the caffeine. In fact it needs caffeine as much as the sugar, so it is not correct that you can make Kombucha with any type of tea. Stick with Black, Green, or White tea.
      I have brewed lots of Kombucha, and I use cheap Irish Breakfast Black tea from Trader Joe’s. (Less than three dollars for 80 tea bags) To make a gallon of Kombucha, use 6 tea bags and one cup of sugar. And definitely do a second flavoring ferment… my personal favorites are Pineapple, Elderberry, Mango, or Masala (cinnamon, clove, cardamon & black pepper). I am currently flavoring a batch with fresh Rambutan.

  • A Collier

    Hello! I am also a brewer and especially curious about your use of alternative sugars. Though I’ve never used anything but cane sugar, I’ve heard that honey and juice isn’t sustainable in the long term because it harms the mother. Do you know anything about this?

    Thanks!

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