Happy Chinese New Year! The house has been cleaned, dumplings eaten, luck symbol hung upside down on the front door (translates to “luck arrives”), parents called, and red envelopes delivered to young friends. A low-key lunar new year celebration was just right for me, mostly because my February has been dedicated to fermentation. In addition to making delicious breads from my sourdough starter, I am also brewing kombucha!
Kombucha is fermented sweet tea. My motivation for brewing my own kombucha (booch) was more curiosity than anything else. I like the stuff, but drank it infrequently because it can become a spendy habit. Yet, kombucha is ridiculously easy and inexpensive to make. The only “exotic” component is the scoby, which stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. Think of it as the equivalent to the mother for making vinegar. You can purchase scobys (try a local homebrew supply store or go online), get one from a friend, or make your own. Once you have a scoby, you’re set (unless you kill it – don’t kill it).
I got my scoby from my buddy, Erin (Canyon Erin), who grew hers from its infancy and split one off for me with some starter tea. I named it Scooby. Scobys are weird, ugly, and a little gross looking – at first. After brewing a few batches, you will come to love your scoby(s) like a pet. It feels rubbery and slippery, and all manner of random things float untidily off of it in the tea. But the scoby is what transforms plain old sweet tea into magical, fizzy, slightly alcoholic (less than 1%), tangy kombucha.
meet scooby, my scoby
Making kombucha is easy. I’m on my fourth batch now. The long instructions look daunting, but that’s only because the instructions are for newbies so they don’t kill their scoby. It basically comes down to: make sweet tea, stir in starter tea, slide the scoby into the tea, cover, ferment, bottle, carbonate, refrigerate. But there are tons of additional notes that go with that list.
I use purified water because our municipal water is chlorinated (I checked the town water quality report online) and chlorine can kill your happy bacteria. I read from a bread baker discussion that you can leave the water out on the counter for a day and the chlorine will evaporate because it’s rather volatile. So there’s that. For my first batches of kombucha, I stuck with organic black tea. Plain black tea works well. You can use other teas like green teas or white teas or a combination of teas, but avoid flavored teas – especially ones with added oils. And I make the sweet tea with organic granulated sugar. Please, people, don’t use artificial sweeteners. You will starve your scoby because it requires real sugar. The sugar is not for you, it is for the fermentation process. The starter tea comes from the previous batch of kombucha. If you bought or were given a scoby, it should have come in some starter tea.
sugar, black tea, scoby, purified water, and starter tea
The first step to making kombucha is to brew sweet tea. Boil your water, stir in the sugar until dissolved, and then drop your tea bags or loose tea in. Let the tea steep until the liquid has come to room temperature because hot tea is going to kill your yeasts and bacteria. If you are in a hurry, you can set your pot of tea in an ice bath to cool it down faster, but I prefer to leave mine in a cool part of the house for a few hours. My climate is quite arid, so while the tea is cooling I cover the scoby with a bowl or slip it into the starter tea to prevent it from drying out.
adding sugar to the boiled water
steep the tea until the water cools to room temperature
remove the tea bags (or strain the loose tea)
While the scoby is the only special equipment needed for kombucha, it helps tremendously to have large capacity, wide-mouth glass jars for brewing. Avoid metal or plastic because the acidity of the kombucha can react with metal or leach from plastic over extended periods of contact. Plus, glass allows you to monitor what is happening during fermentation. I use a one-gallon Ball jar for the first fermentation, and have two half-gallon Ball jars for infusing the kombucha with other flavors. Anchor Hocking also makes wide-mouth glass jars that are idea for kombucha brewing. You can find these items online, in hardware stores, craft stores, big-box stores, or at homebrew supply shops. I don’t sterilize my jars or bottles, I just wash them with hot water and soap and make sure there is no soap residue that could potentially harm the scoby (i.e. kill the good bacteria).
When the sweet tea is cooled and the tea bags or tea leaves have been removed, stir in the starter tea and pour it into your jar or jars. It’s okay to split the batch into two half-gallon jars (or four 1-quart jars) as long as you have a scoby for each jar. The scoby will do what it pleases, either floating on top, floating sideways, or even sinking to the bottom. It’s all okay.
add starter tea to the cooled sweet tea
slide the scoby in
Don’t close your kombucha jar with the lid. Instead, use a coffee filter, paper towel, or kitchen towel with a tight weave to cover the mouth of the jar. Secure the cover with a rubber band or string. This allows the passage of air, but keeps bugs and other particles out of the brew. Cheesecloth isn’t recommended because bugs can still get through. Now place your jar(s) in a location that is out of direct sunlight, out of the way, and preferably in a temperature range of 70-80°F. My house ranges from 55-65°F with occasional spikes to 70°F, but my kombucha was fine. If your house is cooler, it simply slows the fermentation process. As I mentioned above, the humidity in my house is quite low, so I will check my scoby each day and swirl some of the liquid over the top to keep it from drying out.
i use two coffee filters to cover my kombucha
the scoby is floating sideways
happy scoby floaty things – all good
On day 7, I start tasting my kombucha. I dip a clean spoon in, but you can pour some out into a cup. I don’t double dip to avoid introducing any occupants from my mouth into the kombucha. In my early batches, the kombucha was still quite sweet on day 7. I would let them go longer (10 days) to get more tart and less sweet. The last two batches have reached the balance I like on day 7, so perhaps my scoby has adjusted itself to life in my house and is digesting the sugar more efficiently.
When the kombucha is to your liking you can bottle the plain kombucha for the second fermentation, also called the carbonation step. Or if you want to flavor your kombucha, you can infuse it and then bottle it for the second fermentation. Whatever you decide, remove the scoby from the jar and set it aside for the next batch of kombucha. Your scoby will grow with each batch of kombucha. The younger scoby grows on top. When the scoby gets thicker than a inch, you may want to split it in two. Give the second one away to a friend, keep it to increase your kombucha production, or compost it.
To make plain kombucha, pour the liquid into your bottles. Straining is optional, but I do it. I use swing-top clear glass bottles as they are easier for pouring, maintain a nice airtight seal, and I can see what is going on. I bought pint and quart bottles from the local homebrew supply store. [Edit: A note from reader Marissa is to avoid square bottles or colored glass bottles as they don’t have the structural strength to contain carbonation.] A headspace of 1/2-inch is recommended (it means better carbonation), but sometimes I don’t have enough kombucha to fill a jar. It’s fine either way. Let the bottles sit at room temperature for 1-3 days out of direct sunlight, check the carbonation daily until it is to your liking, then refrigerate to halt the carbonation process. Easy peasy, right?
strain the kombucha into the bottle
let the carbonation begin
Now if you want a little more excitement in your life, you can flavor your kombucha. This requires an infusion period of 1 or 2 days between the first fermentation and the second fermentation (carbonation). You can use fruit, spices, or herbs. In this batch, I made a quart of ginger kombucha and a quart of huckleberry (you can substitute blueberries) ginger kombucha. SO GOOD! To make the ginger kombucha, you merely grate fresh ginger and stir it into the brew. For the huckleberry ginger kombucha, I made a little syrup that got stirred into the kombucha.
huckleberries, ginger, sugar, water
grate the ginger
combine ginger, huckleberries, sugar, and water
simmer until it is a thin syrup
Each flavored kombucha was poured into its own half-gallon jar and covered (not lidded, like I did in my photo below) with a coffee filter for a couple of days. After the infusion, I strained each kombucha into a bottle for the carbonation period just like the plain kombucha for 1-3 days at room temperature out of direct sunlight. Then they went into the refrigerator.
place the huckleberry ginger syrup in one jar, the ginger in the other
infuse (don’t cover with lids, use coffee filter or paper towel)
I loved all three of the flavors, but my hands down favorite is the huckleberry ginger kombucha. It’s so bright, fruity, zippy, and floral. I now have kombucha brewing round the clock at my house and once you have a system in place, it requires very little time investment.
It’s fine to leave it alone for 7-10 days at a time, and if you need more time, you can let it brew for up to 3 weeks. Your scoby will be alive and well, although you will probably want to discard the kombucha which will be quite acidic. And if you need to be away for more than 3 weeks, you can place the scoby and a fresh batch of tea in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.
from left to right: huckleberry ginger, ginger, plain
refreshing and healthy!
3 1/2 qts. non-chlorinated tap water or purified water
1 cup granulated sugar (don’t use artificial sweeteners)
8 bags of plain black tea or 2 tbsps loose tea (avoid flavored teas)
2 cups starter tea (from your last batch)
1 scoby per fermentation jar
2 tsps freshly grated ginger per quart of kombucha
huckleberry ginger kombucha (per quart of kombucha)
1/4 cup huckleberries (fresh or frozen)
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 1/2 tsps sugar
3 oz. water
Make the sweet tea base: Bring 3 1/2 quarts of water to a boil. Remove from heat. Stir in 1 cup of sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Steep the tea in the sweetened water until the water has come to room temperature (this will take a few hours). Remove the tea bags or strain the loose tea leaves.
Prepare the first fermentation: Stir the starter tea into the sweet tea. Pour the liquid into a gallon jar or two half gallon jars. Slide one scoby into each jar. Cover each jar with a coffee filter, paper towel, or kitchen towel (something with a tight weave but allows air to move freely) and secure it over the mouth of each jar with a rubberband.
First fermentation: Keep the jar(s) at room temperature in a location where they won’t be disturbed. Avoid direct sunlight. [I like to drape a kitchen towel over my jar because it gets direct sunlight for 30 minutes at the end of the day.] Allow the tea to ferment for 7-10 days. Check the scoby from time to time to make sure it is healthy. Bubbles are a sign of fermentation. The scoby can float at the top, sideways, or sink to the bottom. It’s fine. Stringy floaty brown bits, delicate translucent membranes, scummy looking films, and a milky residue at the bottom of the jar are all good indications of an active and healthy environment.
Check the kombucha: Start tasting the kombucha after 7 days of fermentation. I use a clean spoon and dip into the kombucha once. If the kombucha is too sweet, let it ferment longer. Check it daily. As time passes, more sugar (sweet) will convert to acid (tart).
Bottle the plain kombucha (second fermentation): With clean hands, remove the scoby from your kombucha jar and set it on a clean plate. If the scoby is getting thick (like more than an inch in thickness), you can split it in two and keep the second scoby, compost it, or give it to a friend. Reserve 2 cups of your kombucha as the starter tea for your next batch. Pour the rest of your kombucha into bottles, straining if you like, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Close the bottles.
Flavored kombucha (optional): If you want to flavor your kombucha, don’t bottle it, but pour it into another jar and stir in your flavorings. DO NOT ADD YOUR SCOBY! Cover each jar with a coffee filter, paper towel, or kitchen towel and secure it with a rubberband over the mouth of each jar. Let the kombucha infuse for 1-2 days. Then strain your kombucha into bottles, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and close the bottles.
Ginger kombucha: Stir in 2 teaspoons of freshly grated ginger for each quart of kombucha (use less or more to your liking).
Huckleberry ginger kombucha: Place the huckleberries (can substitute blueberries), ginger, sugar, and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let simmer 10-15 minutes, smashing the berries to release the juices, until the contents have the consistency of a thin syrup. Let cool to room temperature. Stir into your kombucha.
Carbonation (all kombuchas): Once your kombucha is bottled, maintain the bottles at room temperature for 1-3 days and out of direct sunlight. With the bottles sealed, the carbon dioxide that is produced during fermentation is trapped and will make the kombucha fizzy. Check your kombucha each day for fizziness. When the kombucha is carbonated to your liking, refrigerate the bottles to stop the carbonation process.
Makes about 3 quarts (I lose a lot to evaporation). Will last in refrigerator for up to a month.
Start the next batch of kombucha: Make fresh sweet tea. Combine with your 2 cups of starter tea reserved from the previous batch of kombucha. Pour into a clean gallon jar (or 2 half gallon jars) and drop the scoby(s) into the jar(s). Secure the tops with coffee filter, paper towel, or kitchen towel and let ferment 7 to 10 days.
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