Home Brew How-To Kombucha!

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“Gross! What is that thing?”
…Is the most probable reaction you’ll receive from someone catching a glimpse of kombucha tea fermenting in someone’s kitchen for the first time.
“Is that an alien fetus floating in a jar of Earl Grey?!” Ermm, no, it’s my kombucha SCOBY. And if you have not been completely turned off by this point, then read on, brave soul. This article will introduce you to kombucha tea, which has been around for centuries, but has only recently become a trendy, health beverage in North America for which folks will shell out, on average, $4 US per bottle. The good news is that it’s very inexpensive and relatively easy to make yourself at home.
So what’s all the fuss about kombucha? More importantly, why would anyone possibly want to incorporate this unconventional beverage into their diet?
A Rose by any other name…

“Gross! What is that thing?”
…Is the most probable reaction you’ll receive from someone catching a glimpse of kombucha tea fermenting in someone’s kitchen for the first time.
“Is that an alien fetus floating in a jar of Earl Grey?!” Ermm, no, it’s my kombucha SCOBY. And if you have not been completely turned off by this point, then read on, brave soul. This article will introduce you to kombucha tea, which has been around for centuries, but has only recently become a trendy, health beverage in North America for which folks will shell out, on average, $4 US per bottle. The good news is that it’s very inexpensive and relatively easy to make yourself at home.
So what’s all the fuss about kombucha? More importantly, why would anyone possibly want to incorporate this unconventional beverage into their diet?
A Rose by any other name…
Kombucha has gone by many names throughout history, including “Mushroom Tea”, “Japanese Fungus Tea”, “Chai of the sea”, “Russian Jelly-fish Tea”, “Stomach Treasure” and even “The Tea of Immortality”. Its many names are a testament to the many cultures it has become a part of. Kombucha is believed to have originated centuries ago in East Asia, most likely in the North Eastern area of China that was once known as Manchuria. It traveled via the Silk Road into Russia and eventually all of Europe, more recently branching into other Western countries as far as North American and Oceania. Today, kombucha can be found on nearly every continent in the world (save Antarctica).
The exact origin of kombucha is unknown, and like any other ancient innovation, many countries lay claim to it. One legend is that it was invented in the Qin Dynasty (220BC) for the Emperor Qinshi Huangdi, in a search for an elixir of health and longevity. Kombucha’s ancient roots in China have lasted over the centuries. During the Cultural Revolution, every household had a pot of Kombucha brewing, although this is no longer the case today because of China’s busy modern lifestyle. According to another legend, it was a Korean doctor named Dr. Kombu, who brought kombucha to Japan, for the Emperor Inyoko in 414 AD. Samurai were said to carry it in their wine skins to give them energy in battle. Others write of a fermented, vinegary beverage which filled the flask of Genghis Khan and his armies. A legendary drink for a legendary conqueror with legendary military as well as umm…other kinds of prowess.
The most definite recorded history of kombucha began in Ukraine and Russia during the late 19th century. It was very popular in Russia and Europe until World War II, when sugar and tea were rationed. Since these are the main ingredients in brewing kombucha, it is easy to understand why the practice was largely lost. After the war, it enjoyed a brief resurgence among the Italian elite, and then began to gain popularity throughout Eastern Europe in a kombucha renaissance of sorts.
In the 1960’s, Swiss research confirmed the health benefits of drinking kombucha, providing another boost to its popularity. An urban legend is that in the Chernobyl meltdown of the 1980’s people were astounded by a group of people who seemed to be resistant to the horrible effects of radiation. And oddly enough, many were elderly women. Upon further inspection, the common thread turned out to be that these women were regular Kombucha drinkers.
Over the last few decades, Kombucha has spread across the globe, and become the next trendy health beverage. It can be found practically anywhere in as many different forms as there are of kimchi in Korea, from the home-made varieties to the mass produced. It might be brewing on the kitchen counter of the sweet, elderly Italian nona that lives next door or found inside the grocery cart of a hipster at the nearest Whole Foods. And if this article is convincing, you might start brewing some yourself!

 

OK. But what the hell is it exactly?

Kombucha tea is a fermented beverage made with tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast. Although it’s sometimes referred to as a mushroom, fungus and even the “Mother”(look out!) the kombucha SCOBY is technically not a fungi — it’s a colony of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha tea is made by adding a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) to sugar and tea, and allowing the mix to ferment. The resulting liquid contains organic acids, enzymes, healthy bacteria, as well as other chemical compounds that are unique to each batch.
And what about the taste?
The SCOBY’s bacteria and yeast eat most of the sugar in the tea, transforming the mix into a refreshingly fizzy, slightly tart, fermented beverage. Like other fermented beverages (think beer, wine, makgeolli), its taste can drastically vary due to the different brewing materials and methods used. How sweet or vinegary the tea tastes depends on how long you allow it to brew. To put it simply: the longer you let the sweetened tea ferment, the more sugar the SCOBY eats and the more acids and probiotics it creates as a by-product, making the brew more sour than sweet as time goes on.
It also contains small amounts of alcohol which may explain why it’s so gosh darn addictive and happiness inducing. Though really, the alcohol content is very small amount – usually between .5 and 3%, depending on length of fermentation. Single fermentation home brews of kombucha usually contain only .5% alcohol. If you do a second fermentation in a bottle to flavor it and increase the carbonation, the alcohol content will increase slightly. But generally speaking, the alcohol content of home brewed kombucha falls below 1%.
To be fair, kombucha is not everyone’s cup of tea (sorry, couldn’t resist). My favorite unsavory description of kombucha’s unique taste is from a more detailed and humorous rant that can be found at http://jezebel.com/5968226/fuck-you-kombucha. The writer describes the flavor as something akin to”fermented foot juice mixed with botulism and then put in a Soda Stream”. As you might have guessed, however, I am on the opposite end of the camp. I love it’s slightly sweet and sour taste. But, I am also fond of beer, wines, and Hongcho (흑초) – a ubiquitous, Korean, summertime beverage made by mixing a concentrated fruit vinegar with water (more information about Hongcho can be found here http://blog.korea.net/?p=16032). I find kombucha especially refreshing in the summer over ice with a little squeeze of lemon or lime juice. It’s a nice change up to instant iced Americanos as it offers a little pick me up without the jittery feeling that highly caffeinated beverages can produce. Its aforementioned health benefits are also a plus and will be explored below.
Snake oil or Miracle cure?
Kombucha has been touted as a cure-all of all sorts of ailments, including digestive disorders, baldness, and depression. It is even used by AIDS and cancer patients to help boost their immune systems. However, at this time there is no scientific evidence to support these anecdotal health claims.
Yes, you may have heard many things about kombucha tea – that it contains countless probiotics, organic enzymes, amino acids and is rich in B vitamins. That is has hyaluronic acid and glucosamine to relieve joint pain as well as glucaronic acid which aids liver detoxification. That is gives one super sensory perception and mind powers. Well, unfortunately, all of these are myths.
Eileen Laird, from Pheonix Helix, has done a very neat job separating kombucha fact from fiction. She explains that very importantly, every batch of kombucha is different. The things you can count on EACH batch to contain include: (1) at least one beneficial yeast, (2) acetobacter (the beneficial bacteria found in the SCOBY), (3) gluconic acid (a pH regulator) and (4) acetic acid (an anti-microbial acid, which also stabilizes blood sugar). Most batches of kombucha will also contain an analgesic (a pain reliever), an anti-arthritic compound, an anti-spasmodic compound, a liver-protective compound, and several anti-bacterial compounds. The blend will vary from batch to batch. That’s why this elixir can’t be patented – it embodies change.
And what about the claims that kombucha can be deadly? This claim is unsubstantiated. The two deaths that were reportedly tied to consumption of kombucha were in no way found to be directly tied to the beverage. They probably were the result of improper brewing techniques. (For a more detailed and nicely organized look at Kombucha’s myths and truths go here: http://www.phoenixhelix.com/2013/03/25/kombucha-myths-vs-truths/#sthash.ygXRkGSz.dpuf)
The Bottomline

Kombucha is not a miracle cure nor is it snake oil. But it may have beneficial effects for many, seemingly acting as an adaptogen and restoring health where it is needed. As Hannah Crum of Kombucha Kamp says, “Kombucha is not a panacea – it doesn’t cure anything! It brings the body back into balance so that it may heal itself naturally. That is how it is able to do so much.”. Many people swear that it has helped them in some way. But like any other medicine, herb or diet, the results vary from person to person. For myself, it gives me stable energy, is a wicked hangover cure, and helps sort out any digestive issues. Since everyone’s body will react differently, try it out for yourself and see what it can do for you.

How to Make a Kombucha Homebrew
(Recipe adapted from these websites: http://www.culturesforhealth.com/make-kombucha and http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-kombucha-tea-at-home-173858)
Makes about 1 gallon tea

What You Need

Ingredients
3 1/2 quarts OR 14 cups OR 3 L’s filtered water

1 cup white sugar

8 bags black tea (or 2-3 tablespoons loose tea)

2 cups starter tea from last batch of kombucha
OR store-bought (unpasteurized, neutral-flavored) kombucha
OR an equal portion of either distilled white vinegar or pasteurized apple cider vinegar (preferably organic) in place of starter tea

1 SCOBY per fermentation jar

Materials
Stock pot

Strainer if using loose leaf tea


An 1 gallon glass jar or two 2-quart glass jars

A plastic or wood stirring utensil (never use metal in contact with a kombucha SCOBY!)

A breathable cover for the jar such as a tight-weave dish towel or paper coffee filter (I use a clean old t-shirt that I cut up and it works fine)

A rubber band to secure the cover


Bottles: Six 16-oz glass bottles with plastic lids, 6 swing-top bottles, or clean wine bottles

Instructions
Note: Avoid prolonged contact between the kombucha and metal both during and after brewing. This can affect the flavor of your kombucha and weaken the SCOBY over time.
1. Make the Tea Base: Bring the water to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar to dissolve. Drop in the tea and allow it to steep until the water has cooled. Depending on the size of your pot, this may take a few hours.
2. Add the Starter Tea: Once the tea has cooled to room temperature, remove the tea bags or strain out the loose tea. Stir in the starter tea. (The starter tea makes the liquid acidic, which prevents unfriendly bacteria from taking up residence in the first few days of fermentation.)
3. Transfer to Jars and Add SCOBY: Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon glass jar (or divide between two 2-quart jars, in which case you’ll need 2 SCOBYS) and gently slide the SCOBY into the jar with clean hands. Cover the mouth of the jar with a few layers of cheesecloth or paper towels secured with a rubber band.
4. Ferment for 7 to 30 Days: First choose a safe spot. An ideal culturing spot should be at room temperature. Temperatures between 70° and 80°F are ideal. The best fermenting spot for kombucha is out of direct sunlight. Be sure the spot has reasonably good airflow because access to oxygen benefits the fermentation. If you have a good spot in mind (airflow-check, good temperature-check) but it gets hit by direct sunlight you can protect your SCOBY by making “a dress” for the glass jar. Simply cut an opening over the bottom of small black garbage bag and place it around the neck of the glass jar. Try your best to not disturb it!
After 7 days, use a straw to taste the kombucha every other day. When it reaches a balance of sweetness and tartness that is pleasant to you, the kombucha is ready to bottle. Some people like their kombucha best after it has been fermenting only a week. Others prefer 2, 3, or even 4 weeks or more of fermentation. Keep in mind that shorter fermentation periods will result in a sweeter brew. Longer periods will result in a more vinegar-like taste.
5. Remove the SCOBY: Before proceeding, prepare and cool another pot of strong tea for your next batch of kombucha, using the same recipe found above. With clean hands, gently lift the SCOBY out of the kombucha and set it on a clean plate. As you do, check it over and remove the bottom layer if the SCOBY is getting very thick. You can give bits of your SCOBY away after the first few brews. Sharing is caring, people.
6. Bottle the Finished Kombucha: Measure out 2 cups starter tea from this batch of kombucha and set it aside for the next batch. Pour the fermented kombucha (straining away any stringy bits if desired) into bottles. At this stage you can look into second fermentation techniques. (More on this here: http://www.culturesforhealth.com/flavoring-bottling-kombucha)
7. Carbonate and Refrigerate the Finished Kombucha: Store the bottled kombucha at room-temperature out of direct sunlight and allow 1 to 3 days for the kombucha to carbonate. Refrigerate to stop fermentation and carbonation, and then consume your kombucha within a month.
8. Make a Fresh Batch of Kombucha: Clean the jar being used for kombucha fermentation. Never use bleach!! Combine the starter tea from your last batch of kombucha with the fresh batch of sugary tea, and pour it into the fermentation jar. Slide the SCOBY on top, cover, and let the process begin again!
Additional Notes:
• Batch Size: To increase or decrease the amount of kombucha you make, maintain the basic ratio of 1 cup of sugar, 8 bags of tea, and 2 cups starter tea per gallon batch. One SCOBY will ferment any size batch, though larger batches may take longer.
• Putting Kombucha on Pause: If you’ll be away for 3 weeks or less, just make a fresh batch and leave it on your counter. It will likely be too vinegary to drink by the time you get back, but the SCOBY will be fine.
• Other Tea Options: Black tea tends to be the easiest and most reliable for the SCOBY to ferment into kombucha, but once your SCOBY is going strong, you can try branching out into other kinds. Green tea, white tea, oolong tea, or an even mix of these, make especially good kombucha. Herbal teas are ok, but be sure to use at least a few bags of black tea in the mix to make sure the SCOBY is getting all the nutrients it needs. Avoid any teas that contain oils, like earl grey or flavored teas.
Troubleshooting Kombucha
• It is normal for the scoby to float on the top, bottom, or sideways in the jar. It is also normal for brown strings to form below the SCOBY or to collect on the bottom. If your SCOBY develops a hole, bumps, develops dry patches, darker brown patches, or clear jelly-like patches, it is still fine to use. Usually these are all indicative of changes in the environment of your kitchen and not a problem with the SCOBY itself.
• Kombucha will start off with a neutral aroma and then smell progressively more vinegary as brewing progresses. If it starts to smell cheesy, rotten, or otherwise unpleasant, this is a sign that something has gone wrong. If you see no signs of mold on the SCOBY, discard the liquid and begin again with fresh tea. If you do see signs of mold (will look like the mold you would find on old cheese), discard both the SCOBY and the liquid and begin again with new ingredients.
• A SCOBY will last a very long time, but it’s not indestructible. If the SCOBY becomes black, that is a sign that it has passed its lifespan. If it develops green or black mold, it is has become infected. In both of these cases, throw away and begin again.
• To prolong the life and maintain the health of your SCOBY, stick to the ratio of sugar, tea, starter tea, and water outlined in the recipe. You should also peel off the bottom (oldest) layer every few batches. This can be discarded, composted, used to start a new batch of kombucha, or given to a friend to start their own.
• If you’re ever in doubt about whether there is a problem with your SCOBY, just continue brewing batches but discard the tea made. If there’s a problem, it will get worse over time and become very apparent. If it’s just a natural aspect of the SCOBY, then it will stay consistent from batch to batch and the kombucha is fine for drinking.
Lemon-Ginger Zinger Kombucha
(Recipe from http://www.culturesforhealth.com/lemon-ginger-zinger-kombucha)

Great Free Online Kombucha Resources
……for more pointers, recipes etc.
http://www.culturesforhealth.com/kombucha#Kombucha_Articles_Videos_Recipes

By Joanna Tambakis

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