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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I Want To Brew Kombucha Tea At Home. How Do I Get Started?

You’ve been digging the tart and funky taste of kombucha for a while but supporting a daily habit is becoming a burden on the wallet. It’s time to take that next step and brew your own. Though it’s really no more difficult than making a pot of tea, home brewing kombucha isn’t for everyone. The miracle of kombucha fermentation is a process without much flourish other than a few bubbles and it's important that you trust your senses. If you're the DIY type and you're ready to start saving some serious dough, read on.

You don't need any fancy equipment to get started brewing kombucha tea. In fact, you probably have just about everything you need already in your kitchen, except for the SCOBY.

The Players

SCOBY: The mother! A Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, or more technically, a zoogleal mat. It looks like a pale ham steak and feels like a wet marshmallow. You can't make kombucha without one. There are several ways of obtaining a SCOBY. The best way is to meet someone who has been making kombucha for a while. Not only will they be happy to get you started with one of their kombucha babies, they will also be a good source of information and will probably help you troubleshoot any problems. Search online or at your local health food store, if you live in an urban area there's almost certainly a health food or raw food community you can hook up with.

Click here for instructions on starting your own culture with store bought kombucha.

You can also buy a SCOBY through an internet retailer. Some of our ad links will direct you to reputable sources.

The fermentation vessel - wide-mouth glass or plastic container: The important thing about the fermentation vessel is that the mouth is wide enough that you can put your hand into it to retrieve the SCOBY. We prefer glass for ease of cleaning but food grade plastic can be used. Though unlikely, any scratches on the inside of plastic containers can harbor unwanted bacteria that could make your kombucha taste like rubber or cardboard. Spend an extra 30 seconds cleaning plastic to make sure it is thoroughly sanitized.

Kombucha: To prevent your kombucha from growing mold and unwanted bacteria the sweet tea mixture needs to be acidic. At least ten percent of your pre-fermented liquid should be kombucha. Alternatively, use four tablespoons of cider vinegar (without an active culture) per gallon.

Sugar: Plain, white sugar works very well in kombucha because it ferments almost completely and leaves behind nothing but alcohol. Most of the alcohol is then converted into acetic acid. Other sugars like fruit juice, unrefined cane sugar and corn sugar will all work. But they will all behave a bit different. Both fruit juice, and to some extent less-refined cane sugar, will leave some flavor behind. It's best to get a few batches under your belt before you start experimenting with other types of sugar.

Tea: We like a quality, whole leaf green or oolong tea for a couple of reasons. A good whole leaf tea will sometimes last up to four steepings. This helps when you're making larger batches. It also allows you to extract much more flavor with less steeping time. Many kombucha recipes tell you to steep the tea for ten or even fifteen minutes. This is preposterous! You wouldn't normally drink an over-extracted tea. It's bitter and nasty. Why would you use it for kombucha? Brew the tea with proper water temperature and steeping time and use 1½ to 2 times the amount of dry tea that you would to make a normal cup.

Of course tea bags will work. Just be wary of teas that might be flavored with oils or artificial ingredients. These added components may or may not affect how the kombucha ferments. We use green and oolong tea only because they have milder flavors that marry well with the fruit juices we add later at bottling time. The type of tea to use is entirely up to you.

Water: For years we've been using plain old Detroit tap water to make our kombucha. If you have issues with your water supply you can use filtered, distilled or you can even boil the water first.

The Recipe
Basic recipe for one gallon of kombucha (adjust proportionally for larger batches)

2-4 cups of plain kombucha (commercial or from a previous batch) or 4 Tbsp. cider vinegar (without active culture)
1 cup white sugar
3 cups of brewed tea
enough cold water to make a gallon (about 10 cups)

Combine hot tea and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Add sweet tea to cold water and kombucha in the fermenting container. Add SCOBY to the cool mixture and cover the fermenting container.

Your kombucha will take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to ferment. The higher the temperature, the quicker you're kombucha will ferment. We actually like to let ours go a bit longer at cooler temperatures in the cellar to develop a bit more flavor. As a general guideline you can expect your kombucha to be ready to drink in about nine days but you can start tasting it for doneness after five. Always keep the container covered. Fruit flies love fermenting kombucha.

Our next article at Total Kombucha will be on bottling, flavoring and refermentation to add flavor and fizz to your kombucha. Check back with us in a few weeks. In the meantime, let us help you decide whether you should bottle in glass or plastic.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Can I Really Ferment at Home? What if I Make Something That Kills Me?

It all started with booze. Picture the Neolithic hunter-gatherer coming home from a couple of weeks in the bush to find the honey he had collected before he left a simmering mess. Ravenous from his adventure, he would take a small taste, realize that this strange, not exactly rotten brew wasn't going to kill him — and the next thing you know the edges of his world have softened and after seeing God he carves mad poetic figures into the walls of his cave. Thus begins our love affair with fermentation.

The wonders of fermentation are mystical. It’s a complex chemical process that occurs, often of its own accord, with little display over a sometimes lengthy period of time. This can be intimidating for the person interested in fermenting at home but with no experience.

Is it working? What is that white stuff? If I eat this am I going to need a stomach pump?


Whether in a cave, tent, cabin, yurt or ch√Ęteau in Southern France, humans have been fermenting at home for millennia. And they generally had a lot more to worry about than bad food. There are just a few things that you have to pay close attention to.

Cleanliness: Make sure your fermentation vessel and anything else that might touch your pre-fermented food is clean. It’s that simple. Bad bugs and mold can’t take hold if they’re not there.

Inhibit the growth of mold and undesirable bacteria with natural preservatives: This is mainly done by using salt or acid.

Acid is the key mold inhibitor in kombucha. That’s why you always want to keep about 15% of your last batch. The acid in the already fermented kombucha is plenty to save your new batch from getting fuzzy on top. That’s how grape and apple juice can be naturally fermented into cider and wine through yeasts that reside on the fruit and in the fermentation area.

Vegetable ferments require a certain percentage of salt. I like around 5-6% brine (3/4 cup salt per gallon of water). This is easy when making pickles, but cabbage, or other vegetables that release a lot of water when salted, are a bit more difficult. I usually use a tablespoon of salt for about 3-4 cups of cabbage and then top with the measured brine.

Trust your taste: If it tastes or smells bad, don’t eat or drink it. Kombucha and lactic fermented vegetables may be an acquired taste but you should be able to tell right off whether your ferment is too funky to eat.

This is very basic information provided simply to help reduce any fears that you might have about home fermentation. Though they are all related, every type of food ferment has it own rules. The best thing to do is find a trusted source for recipes and more detailed information. If you’re nervous, start with something simple, like sourdough or kimchi.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

How to Grow a Kombucha SCOBY from Commercial Brand Kombucha

Whether leading busy lives or just not wanting to deal with the process of fermenting their own, most kombucha drinkers are satisfied with buying commercially available bottled kombucha. That's perfectly fine. Most of them taste great, come in a variety of flavors, and aren't too difficult to find in urban stores that cater to food enthusiasts and the health conscious. For those that live in the country, or simply enjoy the cost savings and satisfaction of creation, making your own kombucha from a SCOBY is the way to go. But where do you start?

If you’re lucky enough to know someone who makes their own kombucha, getting a baby SCOBY and a bit of starter from a person you trust is ideal. There are a few internet resources available for purchasing a SCOBY or finding someone in your area that will give you one for free as long as you can pick it up. Of course, hardcore do-it-yourselfers will want to start from scratch and grow a culture from a bottle of raw kombucha.

Growing a mother SCOBY from commercial kombucha is simple.

Purchase two 16 ounce bottles of plain kombucha and a fermenting vessel: Make sure you are buying raw, unpasteurized, plain kombucha. You should be able to see small strands of the culture in the bottle. Dry kombucha tea, kombucha essence and products like Carpe Diem kombucha drink do not have the live yeasts and bacteria that will form a SCOBY.

Though raw kombucha flavored with fruit juices or other ingredients will probably form a SCOBY, you should still start with a plain, unflavored kombucha just so you need not worry that any added ingredient might inhibit you’re culture from growing.

Why two bottles? First, you’ll be assured that there is enough acid to discourage mold growth in your starter. Second, if for some reason the cultures in the bottles that you bought are weak or unhealthy, you have a better chance of getting a SCOBY started. If you don’t see the beginnings of a SCOBY within one week you may even want to add another bottle to the starter.

Your fermenting vessel should be glass, about a gallon in size with a wide mouth. If you drink a lot of kombucha you might want to buy a larger container but use the measurements in the following instructions to grow your SCOBY

Make a starter tea: Brew three cups of quality loose-leaf tea. I like oolong best for flavor. A lot of people will tell you to allow the tea to steep for 15 minutes to extract all the nutrients. If you don’t normally drink tea that’s steeped for that long why would you put it in your kombucha?

If you don’t do loose-leaf tea use a quality bagged tea instead. Do not use flavored teas or tea with added ingredients. Check the labels. Four bags for three cups of water brewed at the recommended time should be sufficient.

Add sugar to the tea: Dissolve one cup of plain, white sugar in the hot tea. Even if you have to make a special purchase, start with plain, white sugar. Its composition makes it easier for the little kombucha bugs to feed on. You can experiment with less refined sugars once your SCOBY is healthy and making babies with each batch you brew.

Add everything to the fermenting vessel: Add the hot tea to the fermenting container and then 6 cups of cold water. We use delicious Detroit tap water without any problems. If you think you might have problems with your tap water, use distilled water or boil your tap water for five minutes.

Whatever water you use, make sure it is cool enough to get the water and brewed tea mixture below 100 degrees F. Never put a kombucha culture into hot water as the heat can kill the yeasts and bacteria.

Add the two bottles of kombucha. Mix gently and cover the fermenting container with a clean cloth.

Wait: In about a week you should see a thin, white film growing on the surface of the tea. Congratulations! You have a kombucha SCOBY. The film will probably be spotty and weird and you’ll be wondering if everything went bad. This is normal. The sign of kombucha going off is fuzzy mold. If there is no mold you should be okay.

The warmer your fermentation area is, the quicker your SCOBY will grow. It may take four to six weeks to grow a SCOBY thick enough to make a proper batch of kombucha. Be patient. If it does take this long for your SCOBY to develop the tea you used probably has too much acetic acid to be enjoyable for drinking. It’s quite alright to sacrifice this batch of kombucha to grow your SCOBY.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Kombucha Product Review: GT’s Multi-green

The fact that GT’s Multi-green kombucha looks extraordinarily like a vernal pond doesn’t have a thing to do with its flavor, sort of.

It starts with a contrasting sweet and tart fruit flavor, something like unripe apple or green mango without the rawness. Eventually, a wave of freshly mown grass and cut herbs washes through. With the herb you’re expecting a bitter aftertaste but it’s quite the opposite, finishing slightly tart, maybe even a bit soft, even more drinkable than you would expect given the wholesome ingredients.

Ingredients like Klamath blue green algae. Klamath Blue Green Algae is a wild, fresh water algae growing in natural abundance in Upper Klamath Lake, east of the Cascade Mountains in Southern Oregon. The mineral-rich volcanic soil that’s deposited into the alkaline waters is the perfect growth medium to produce the nutrient dense algae containing glyco-proteins, vitamins, minerals, simple carbohydrates, lipids and biologically active enzymes.

Other algae found in Multi-green are Spirulina, a food source of the Aztecs and people of 9th Century Kanem Empire near Lake Chad, and the simple green Chlorella.

Studies suggest that all of these extra ingredients have the ability to reduce high blood pressure, lower serum cholesterol levels, accelerate wound healing, enhance immune functions and help aid dioxin detoxification. Add all this to the goodness already present in kombucha and you might as well be drinking from the fountain of youth.* Never mind the color. Hell, we know people that won’t eat guacamole because of the way it looks.

*No clinical studies have proven that drinking GT’s Multi-green will turn you immortal, though you are guaranteed to get strange looks in the cafeteria. Not recommended for zombies.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Refermentation in the Bottle: Plastic vs. Glass

Straight out of the fermenting jar kombucha is a tasty drink but it really becomes something exceptional when flavored with your favorite fruit juices and allowed to referment in the bottle to produce carbonation. Not only is it far healthier than fizzy soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, or even soda artificially sweetened with the latest calorie-free chemical concoction, you can control the amount and types of flavor you want to add. What is the safest, most reliable container to referment?

Being a consumer of all types of fermented and distilled liquids, a beer homebrewer, and just a generally crunchy earthchild that wants to do what's right for the environment, I'm not a big fan of plastic containers. It's heartbreaking to see the amount of waste produced by the bottled water industry alone. A psychological element exists as well. Let's face it; we could be convinced that even the finest wine is cheap swill if poured from plastic. Our brains are not to be completely trusted.

When it comes to bottling kombucha, as opposed to beer or fruit wine, I have a different set of priorities. The very first is safety.

Though hundreds of different strains of beer yeast exist, they all have similar properties and when refermenting in the bottle for carbonation you can be reasonably assured that a certain measured amount of corn sugar or malt extract is going to produce normal levels of carbonation. Unless you can't follow a recipe or determine if you're beer has completed fermentation before bottling, there's little chance of exploding bottles due to overcarbonation.

Kombucha is a different animal. A SCOBY actually contains the same yeast that you find in beer, plus a few other types, as well as souring and funkifying bacteria. Whatever sugar you add for refermentation, whether plain table sugar or the natural sugar contained in fruit juice, it is going to react differently to this microbial stew (or zoogleal mat, to be precise). You might even want to bottle with a higher proportion of juice because that suits your taste. The point being there are some variables that are out of your control when refermenting kombucha. So if you're thinking of bottling in glass, just remember, not only are flying shards of sharp glass harmful, trying to drink from the floor is unsightly.

It is good to know how carbonated your kombucha is at any point during refermentation. The beauty of plastic is that all it takes is a squeeze. When the bottle doesn't have any more give, you're kombucha is carbonated. To stop the process, just refrigerate the bottle. If you're a slow drinker and the kombucha loses carbonation simply place the bottle out at room temperature until the kombucha has carbonated again.

This is not to say that you can't ever bottle in glass. If you know your system and can reliably re-create levels of carbonation from batch to batch with measured amounts of sugar, by all means. Even the commercial kombucha makers don't seem to be at this point. It's one of the reasons I fell in love with the drink in the first place – it's wild!

If you're concerned about the environmental aspect, there is no reason why your plastic bottles can't be reused three or four times. The liter bottles that sparkling water is packaged in work the best. Rinsing with a little warm, soapy water before bottling is all that you need. If you really want to be certain that the bottles are clean, there are several bacterial disinfectants that can be purchased from homebrewing shops made specifically for this purpose. Because of the acidity and small amount of alcohol, a properly fermented kombucha is unlikely to suffer any spoilage no matter how sloppy you are when bottling. Use your best judgment.

Even though I bottle in plastic, I still drink from a glass.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tips for Making Quality Kombucha Tea

1. Use a fine grade tea: Though I only have anecdotal evidence to support this, using a good, loose-leaf tea has worked amazingly well. Bagged tea always seems to take longer to ferment. Does this mean there are more nutrients in a quality loose-leaf? Perhaps. I like oolong best. The flavor is milder than black tea and it makes for a lighter, better looking product.

2. Be consistent: Though the type of tea might change, I use the same formula for every batch. Each three liter batch will yield about two liters of kombucha for drinking. At bottling time I will remove the mother and her baby and three cups of kombucha tea that will be used to acidify the new batch. What's left is the yeast residue and a bit of kombucha which is consumed while preparing the new batch. The fermenting container is cleaned and three cups of tea are brewed. While still hot, the tea is poured over one cup of sugar and swirled in the fermenting container until the sugar is dissolved. I then add eight cups of cold water, the reserved three cups of kombucha, and whichever SCOBY looks the best.

3. Be patient: Though the kombucha can be ready to drink after seven days, I like to let it develop over two to three weeks. Keep tasting until it reaches a level of acidity that you’re comfortable with. There should be a mild vinegar taste but not an overpowering one. The longer your SCOBY stays in the jar, the thicker and healthier it will be. Find the balance.

4. Don't be cheap with your flavoring: Experimenting with several fruit juices I have found the best combination to create flavor and carbonation is ½ cup of 100% tart cherry juice and ¼ cup of ginger juice per liter. The ginger juice I use is locally produced but the main sweetening component is pineapple juice. Substituting ¼ cup of straight pineapple juice for the ginger should create a good level of carbonation after only two to three days in the bottle at room temperature (though without the pleasant, spicy zing of ginger). Do not use artificially flavored drinks sweetened with corn syrup. Why go to all this effort making your own natural kombucha tea to spoil it with industrial sugar water?

5. Use plastic bottles: Never bottle your kombucha in glass. Not only do you risk exploding bottles there is no way of telling how much carbonation your kombucha has. When bottling in plastic you merely need to leave the bottles at room temperature until the plastic doesn't give when touched and then place it in the refrigerator. If your kombucha loses carbonation after a few days in the fridge, simply take it out until it carbonates again.

A kombucha baby SCOBY with personality?