Kombucha is the perfect answer to our craving for fizzy non alcoholic beverages. It is wonderfully flavored, gently effervescent, only slightly sweet, nicely complex, and overall delicious. Although made with black tea and sugar, the bacteria have feasted on these very ingredients, changing them in their wonderful alchemy into more bacteria, yeast, carbon dioxide and a slight bit of alcohol.
How I came to Kombucha
My journey with fermented foods is now well into its fifth year. Such a lot has happened, and what our household consumes has remarkably changed in these years. Health has also subtly but perceptibly changed too. I now can’t remember when anyone was down and out with a cold or flu, yet we’ve been in contact with many who have. No one has reported urinary infections, yeast problems, or anything like.
My initiation to kombucha had nothing to do with this though. I was aware of kombucha, but had never tried it. One day shopping, I bought a bottle and it was decent if unremarkable. There was a small slimy thing in it I now recognize as a tiny scoby. I set aside a 1 cup jar with the scoby and some mango-orange juice to see what would happen. Indeed in about a week, it consumed all that juicy sugar and now had grown. “Well”, said I, “this is most interesting. Lets see where we can take this.” Long story short, I began investigating, joined the Kombucha Nation FB group, started a spreadsheet to chart my initial attempts, purchased a 3 gallon stone crock. By far the most succinct and useful article on it is a Wiley Library online article. I strongly advise readers to click the link for their (albeit nerdy and highly scientific) overview.
Initially my family members were pretty skeptical, and in my initial attempts, understandably so. They still kept going for the spritzer, worried that my bottles might explode in their faces or that somehow they might be poisoned, or that it would be simply awful. None of that happened, and now our homemade kombucha is the go-to drink. In fact I’m in deep trouble if there is not a couple of bottles of cherry kombucha waiting in the fridge.
About this blog
This blog is the online accompaniment to my first kombucha workshop at Karma Coop in Toronto. I’ve delayed doing such a workshop because of the complexity of the drink. It requires a lot more commitment, space, and timing than sourdough bread – so far my other workshop. Similar to sourdough, one is doing some serious microbial husbandry. Under the wrong conditions, the bacteria can die, while under the right conditions, they can produce magic.
As workshop participants you likely came because you are already familiar with commercial kombucha, and would like to be able to do it a lot more cheaply, and be in control of the flavors you want. However, there are a few things you need to invest in and be prepared to brew in a narrow range of days. So lets start there:
- 3 gallon crock will make 6 litres of kombucha at a time.
- 2 L (or so) pot (for the sugar syrup)
- 4-5L pot (for the tea)
- Wooden spoon
- Large bowl
- Large strainer
- Prep bottles: I prefer the 1L glass juice bottles. Mason jars could work except that what is called 1 liter is anywhere between 900ml and 1L.
- Storage Bottles: You need about 2 times the bottle volume than the kombucha you are planning on making. Your bottles must have a narrow neck, like a beer or wine bottle. Unless you use a narrow necked bottle of some kind, it won’t carbonate as well. The shape of the narrow necked beer bottle encourages natural carbonation. This is because the fermenting yeasts do not require oxygen, whereas the bacteria involved do. The narrow neck in a sealed bottle reduces the oxygen available, encouraging the yeast to continue fermenting, converting the sugars into carbon dioxide.Finally, consider where you will keep it in the fridge. They should be stored upright so your bottles need the headroom.
Here are some bottle options:
You could purchase 500ml-750ml-1000L flip top bottles at hardware or kitchen stores
Wash out and save wine bottles
Have a Corona party where you provide the beer. (non screw off top bottles are better as they seal a bottle cap better.) If you go this route, you also need to buy a bottle capper and bottle caps. In Toronto these can be purchased from a number of local wine making or brewer’s stores. (two are noted here but there are others) [photo of bottle capper and caps]
Any other bottle as long as it has a very narrow neck.
- Measuring cups
- A funnel that fits in a beer bottle
- A fine strainer that can nest in the funnel
- Weigh scale – use an electronic scale as you will be weighing and taring bottles.
- Labels – its a good idea to know what’s in the bottle and when it was bottled.
That’s the physical equipment. Beyond that you need the following ingredients: These quantities will produce a 6 L brew.
- A SCOBY ( a Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast) For your first brew you need it gifted to you. For subsequent brews, reuse your scoby.
- Kombucha starter: 1 litre or so of your previous batch. For your first brew, you can get by with commercial kombucha, but its best if it can be gifted to you
- Tea: you can use a variety of tea (20g)
- Sugar – any will do (600g)
- Water – distilled, reverse osmosis, filtered, UV treated: you want to avoid water with treatment chemicals or other bacteria that could interact with your ferment and produce off tastes (4-5L)
- Juice: NOT fruit drink! Real juice! (2L)
It’s important to recognize that there are many ways to make kombucha. Google it or read through the Kombucha Nation FB page for other techniques and ideas. I’m presenting this method as a fail safe way to at least get started before you try your own variations.
Your kombucha brews in its first fermentation (F1) phase for about 10 days. This could be as little as 8 and as long as 14 days, at about 19C. If it is warmer, the fermentation must be shorter, if cooler, it can be longer. What you want to avoid is it getting over fermented and turning to vinegar. If its brewed too quickly, the bacteria won’t have fully fermented.
On brew day, it will take about 2 hours of your time. This can be split up over 2 days.
You need to have the following space available
- A kitchen counter
- A hopefully cool dark place to store your first ferment (called 1F from now on)
- A cool dark place to store your bottles with the second ferment in it (called 2F from now on)
- Fridge space to store 4-6 bottles at a time.
The existential kombucha questions
- Do I want to invest in equipment needed?
- Do I have the space?
- Do I want to be locked into making booch every week and a half?
If your answer to all these questions is a hearty and enthusiastic YES! Then lets get going – Those in my workshop can Email me and I will get you set up with a scoby and starter.
Every 10 days or so I do a Kombucha brew day. I start a new batch and bottle the old. I process about 6 litres at a time and the method I have worked out gives me reliable, delicious kombucha every time. Here’s how:
- Make the tea: Heat 2L water, 20g tea and 200g sugar until boiling. Put a lid on it and turn to low. After 5 minutes turn off and leave for about 20 minutes or until the tea is strong. Changing the quantities will change the amount of kombucha you make.
- Make sugar syrup: Sugar syrup is a 1:1 sugar:water mix. It needs to be fully dissolved. Weigh 350ml sugar and 350g water in the smaller pot. Heat until the sugar is fully dissolved, but don’t boil as the evaporation will change the ratio of sugar to water. Pour into a jar that you can easily pour from.
- Take your crock and remove the scoby to the large bowl. Cover it with fresh water.
- Place your weigh scale beside your crock and have liter bottles ready. Pour 650g of 1F kombucha in each bottle. Leave approximately 1L of 1F kombucha in the crock. Its important to weigh the kombucha as 650g of kombucha will not quite be the same as 650ml
- Add 100g of sugar syrup to each bottle (i.e. 50g sugar). Make sure your syrup is not hotter than lukewarm.
- There will be approximately 250ml of space left in each bottle. Fill each up with juice of your choice.
- Prepare your bottles according to the quantities before you. 1 L will nicely fill 3 x 330ml beer bottles, or 2 500ml fliptops – its all easy math.
- Nest the strainer in your filter and fill each bottle until it goes into the neck of the bottle, and cap it.
- Label it – flavor and date – and store
- Add 2 litres of cold water to your tea. If it is quite hot, weigh out 2kilos of ice cubes and add that, or a mix of weighed ice cubes and cold water. The temperature cannot be higher than lukewarm.
- Strain the tea (should be about 4 L) into the crock with the starter kombucha.
- Add the scoby and the water it was in.
- Cover tightly and store in a cool dark place for 10 or so days.
- Leave some of the bottled (2F) kombucha at room temperature for about 4 days. It will begin to develop natural CO2. If you give the bottle a gentle shake you will see if it is fermented or not by the bubbles that appear. DO NOT shake vigorously! Store the rest of it in a cool place. If all of it remains above 21C it will need to be refrigerated after 4 days otherwise it will quickly over ferment and you will get very messy explosions.
A few other notes….
You need to find a scoby – most people get one from a friend, or someone you know. Anyone who makes kombucha can peel off some of their scoby and give it away. If you are truly in need, take one of the tiny scobys from a commercial Kombucha and put it in a 1 cup jar with a little juice. Leave it out, covered, on the counter. It should grow. As it gets bigger, feed it more juice, and work up towards the container you will be fermenting your kombucha in. You also need to get a litre of kombucha as a starter. This can be from said friend, or can be bought commercially.
Fruit flies love kombucha too. They can’t keep away – they’ll even dive bomb anything that does not have a lid. If you have these critters buzzing around you will need to cover the kombucha, keep lids on your jars and bottles and and tie several layers of a thick tea towel on top of your crock tightly with a string or elastic. If you do get an infestation on your scoby, toss that top layer off as its going to be hiding eggs, and be scrupulously careful about ensuring nothing can get in.
How long can you keep it?
Kombucha is pretty happy in a cool environment for a couple of weeks, but after that it really should be refrigerated, otherwise it will be over carbonated and fizz up or even explode. If it is kept longer than a month, it will ultimately change to vinegar.
What else can you do with kombucha?
- Marinate meat: because it is acidic it has a similar effect on meat as does wine or beer. Before adding the kombucha, rub 1.5% of the weight of the meat in salt, and add pepper and garlic. Leave for about an hour, then add kombucha until the meat is marinated and flavored. Its best to leave it for several hours. Before cooking the meat you can reduce the marinade, add flavorings and cornstarch to make a rich gravy.
- As a mixed drink: with vodka, gin, rum… try out different possibilities. Likewise it can be a mojito base
- If it turns to vinegar, use as the acid in a salad dressing. By weight: 3 parts oil, 1 part kombucha.
- Anything you do with juice, you can do with kombucha
Kombucha contains active lactic acid bacteria. This is the same stuff as the gut bacteria in your body that keeps you healthy. In our family, we depend on kombucha to keep us healthy around. However, more is not always better. Kombucha can be wonderfully preventative, but also if you drink too much you could get sick too. Everyone is different, and it really is unpredictable. My suggestion would be to try a single bottle in a day and see how your system reacts to it, and go by what feels right for you.
The main cleanup issues concern your bottles once you have poured a brew. They really must be thoroughly rinsed right after pouring. If you have a dishwasher, definitely put them in there. However, don’t count on your dishwasher to actually get a lot of water up that narrow neck and clean things as you would expect. In fact if you put your dishes in without rinsing them there’s a good chance some of those food particles will get baked on the inside of your bottle. The main purpose of the dishwasher is to sanitize the bottles by virtue of the heat. You want your bottles as clean as you can get them, otherwise unwanted bacteria and yeast will find your kombucha a pleasing environment to grow in too.
Cleaning your crock between brews is, as far as I am concerned, optional: it should be kept free from anything except the scoby and kombucha you put into it, so unless you are getting an off brew, I would keep your starter booch in the crock, add the tea and the scoby and wrap it up again.
Sooooo………….A quick brewday recap:
First ferment (1F)
- 2L water
- 20g tea
- 200g sugar
- 2L more water once tea has brewed and cooled down (tea must be at room temperature before the scoby and starter are added.)
- Into your crock, pour the tea (strained), your scoby from the prior batch, and 1 litre of kombucha from your prior batch. Cover and ferment at room temperature for about 10 days.
2nd ferment (2F)
Per litre of finished kombucha, combine
- 650 g 1F kombucha (from your crock)
- 100g of 1:1 syrup:water
- 250g juice
Bottle in narrow necked bottles, leave at room temperature for 4-5 days.
Kombucha Nation FB group https://www.facebook.com/groups/KombuchaNation.CulturesHealthHealing/
is a great resource to see how others do Kombucha. There is a thorough files section to more carefully examine different aspects of Kombucha.