Kombucha Culture: the how & why of fermented tea
We’ve taken the leap…
We brewed tea. But not just any tea. Tea that has since been sitting in a 2-gallon jar with a SCOBY, fermenting into a glorious beverage called kombucha. While I’ve known about kombucha for a while and relied on its probiotic benefits after returning from overseas trips, the drink was new to my husband until recently.
After dragging him to one of many, many food events a couple weekends ago, we struck up a conversation with Ralph from MTO Kombucha, who sells his stuff at more than a dozen DC stores. I think we talked for an hour, all the while sampling his creatively flavored kombuchas — from lemon-rosemary to double ginger — in the heat of the day. Now, my husband is not one to drink or eat something just because it’s healthy. So when he said he liked the taste, I knew he meant it. It’s a sweet-ish, fizzy, acidic beverage that can take on all sorts of flavors.
We came home with some samples for more research and ended up ordering a case of kombucha to test the health benefits on our own.
The drink is most known for the healthful punch it packs. You’ve probably seen GT’s Kombucha at most grocery stores, but more local brewers are cropping up in the DC area, such as Barefoot Bucha and Capital Kombucha.
I’ve written before about how cool fermentation is — well, add this to the list. Kombucha is chockfull of probiotics that aid in digestion (like those yogurt commercials have been telling you) and is sweeping through health circles as the latest elixir of well-being. It’s nothing new though. Experts think kombucha was first made a couple millennia ago in Eurasia, and its had several resurgences of popularity in the states.
The drink is credited with a long list of potential health benefits, that it improves the function of the liver and other organs, treats acid reflux and arthritis and even helps with hangovers. The benefit I’ve noticed most is improved energy, and I love the stuff as a precursor to my 6 a.m. exercise class.
It just so happens that I already had on my calendar to attend a kombucha-making class in Charlottesville a few days after our serendipitous chat with Ralph. I was iffy about making the drive just for a SCOBY (we’ll talk about that in a second) and some in-person demonstration. But, I thought, what the heck. Nothing will make me commit like devoting some mileage to the goal!
Well, now I’m committed. I went to the great class, expertly taught by Ethan Zuckerman of Barefoot Bucha (his next class is Oct. 19), and I came home with a recipe, a SCOBY… and a list of other things to get. If you’re interested in taking the leap, too, here’s what you’ll need:
- A glass brewing vessel. A 2-gallon jar was recommended to me as having the best surface-to-depth ratio.
- Something to boil water in, like a teapot
- A larger-than-life tea strainer if you’re using loose leaf tea. I ordered one on Amazon.
- Green or black tea, loose leaf recommended, 5 teaspoons for one gallon of tea.
- A strainer for pouring tea into glass container. I am in search of a better one, since some of my tea remnants made it into the glass jar.
- A funnel for pouring from the jar into the bottles (or if you find a jar with a spigot, people seem to like that).
- A thin cloth or bandana
- A large rubberband
- Sealable glass bottles or jars
- Good filtered water
- SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a mushroom-like orb that floats (or sometimes doesn’t) in the jar, providing the fermentation fuel. It is to kombucha as yeast is to beer. Find a friend who will give you one or order one online.
- Starter liquid, about 2 cups. Most purchased SCOBYs come in this amount of liquid, but this is what you’ll preserve over from each batch for the next one.
- Organic, evaporated cane sugar or any processed sugar. Straight crystal sugar will take too long to process. You’ll need about two-thirds of a cup for one gallon of kombucha.
From here, there are oh-so-many places and ways to learn the art of kombucha making. There are several recipes from blogs and the like (see here and here). But the best way to learn might be in-person. I was fortunate to attend Ethan’s class in Charlottesville, where 20-plus people — many of whom had tried kombucha-making before — had informed questions to ask from their trials and errors.
So, I launched out to make my own. I won’t retell Ethan’s recipe here, though I highly recommend you attend a class like his to learn. I am no expert yet, but here’s the gist of how it works:
- First, you brew tea. Black or green, no flavorings like English Grey, since they contain oils that can coat your SCOBY. I used 5 teaspoons of loose leaf green tea and brewed it in as much water as I needed to cover the tea ball. That makes a concentrate that you can add water to nearly fill the 2-gallon jar. You can brew the sugar in with the tea or add it when it’s still hot.
- Wait for the tea to cool. Don’t pour it over your SCOBY hot or you could disintegrate it. Once cooled, add it to the jar and place the SCOBY on top. Place a bandana or thin cloth over the top and secure it with a large rubber band.
- Let it do its thing! You want to keep the jar between 72 and 85 degrees. Some advanced brewers use heating pads to maintain a steady temperature. My kitchen is probably the least evenly heated room in our house, so we’ll see! No direct sunlight. The warmer it is, the faster the process will go, generally.
- The great thing about this “first stage” is you can just keep tasting it to check its progress. You’re looking for the taste to turn from sweet tea to a bit of acidity — and however you want your kombucha to taste. It should take 5 to 10 days. You’ll see all sorts of things happening, little bubbles of action, a new layer of SCOBY developing across the top and maybe even some SCOBY floaties or filaments, which are totally fine.
- Once the first stage is done to your liking (taste, taste, taste!), it’s time to bottle. Barefoot Bucha uses the cute sealable bottles pictured above, which I’m told you can find at Wegman’s. Mason jars work just fine, something you can seal well. This is for the “second stage” in which the drink will become naturally carbonated and build in new flavors. This is the best time to add flavorings, but — if you add sugar or fruit — the process may go faster. The second stage can take another 5 to 10 days, but it’s harder to tell when it’s ready. You have to basically sacrifice a jar to see if it’s carbonated yet, but if you wait too long, you could have your whole jar explode into a fizzy disaster. It really is a science experiment!
A note on flavorings: check out some of the pros’ sites for ideas on flavorings. After my first batch, I might experiment with adding things like lime and basil, rosemary and lemon, or just some peaches (I had peach moonshine from Tennessee this weekend, and Oh. My. Goodness.).
There are so many other things I could say about it. Once you start experimenting — and I’ve only begun — all sorts of questions will come up. What are the little black dots on my SCOBY? Oh, probably that I didn’t filter the tea well enough. What if I let the first stage go too long? Well, you probably have vinegar now! But you can still use the liquid as a starter to start over. Most importantly, when your SCOBY starts multiplying, find a friend to bring into the kombucha fold. That way you can share trials and errors and, if you ever kill your own SCOBY, you know where to find a good replacement.
Have you made kombucha or thought about starting? What are your tricks? Trials? Best flavorings?