I have been making Kombucha for some time now, and people often ask me for a Kombucha culture that they can use to make their own. They also ask me what the hell Kombucha is. I love to share these cultures (and my experiences with Kombucha), but I find that I am often at a loss to explain exactly how to make the beverage (when placed on the spot). So, this post is meant as a tutorial for anyone interested in making Kombucha. If anyone would like a Kombucha culture, feel free to contact me, and I'll be happy to give you one or mail you one (if you pay the shipping).
First, what is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented tea. It has a taste that is somewhat vinegary (more or less so depending on time of fermentation, which we will discuss later), fruity, and quite delicious. Oftentimes, straight Kombucha is mixed with juice, and the beverage takes on external flavors. Kombucha's history is murky, though it has apparently been around for some time in Russia and China. Today, it is drank by hippies, healthy types, and people in Asheville.
Why does one drink Kombucha?
The reasons vary. Many claim that Kombucha is an extremely healthy beverage, some say it can help prevent cancer and detoxify the liver and kidneys. The science, to be honest, is quite shaky and inconclusive. I drink Kombucha because it tastes good, it contains caffeine, and maybe (who knows?) it is really, really good for me. It just might be a miracle elixir.
How does one make Kombucha?
In a nutshell (extensive instructions to follow), one makes sweet tea (southerners should get this part), and introduces a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to this tea. One then waits a time (a week, two, three, or more, depending on, as far as I can tell, the temperature of the place where it's growing). One can then drink the Kombucha at this point, or mix it with something containing sugar (juice, straight sugar, honey, etc) and bottle it, leaving it to ferment some more. In this way, carbonation is created.
Is Kombucha gross?
Some people think it is. My wife used to hate it, it made her gag, now she loves it. My friend and bandmate Xavi doesn't like it much, though he's working on it. Some people, myself included, love the stuff.
Is store-bought Kombucha different from homemade Kombucha?
It seems to taste quite different to me, though some local brands (like Buchi, here in Asheville) are really, really good, and really similar to homebrew.
Is Kombucha alive?
Yes, Kombucha tea is a live, fermented beverage. It is not pasteurized or irradiated or any such thing.
What does the SCOBY look like?
It looks like a thick, gross jellyfish. It has the texture of calamari.
How do you "harvest" SCOBYs?
Every time you make a batch of Kombucha tea, a new SCOBY is created. This is called the "daughter" -- The one there at the start of the batch is the "mother". At any point (usually at bottling time), you can merely peel off a layer of your SCOBY. Some people just let the SCOBY grow, though they can get enormous and take up a lot of room. I usually peel off a layer when a friend needs one. Otherwise, I "trim" it every couple of batches and compost it or start a new jar. When passing on a SCOBY, one should always include Kombucha tea in the container it travels in. Otherwise, it will die or grow moldy.
Now, on to how to make Kombucha.....
Things you will need:
-Sugar (white sugar usually, though I just today used some light brown sugar because I didn't have enough white sugar)
-Tea (black and green for me)
-A Kombucha culture (from me or a friend)
-A large vessel (I use vessels that I buy at a restaurant supply store. Mason jars work too, though I find that it's not worth it to me to make a small batch of the stuff, so I get the biggest jars I can find. See below for pictures of what I use)
-A kitchen towel and a rubber band or piece of string.
3 quarts water
5-7 tea bags (mix of green and black, or just black, or just green)
1 cup of sugar
HOW TO MAKE IT
Now, I've generally read that one should always make a new batch of Kombucha using some already fermented Kombucha, approximately 1/8 - 1/4 of the total batch that you are making. This means that if someone gives you a Kombucha SCOBY contained within 1 quart of Kombucha tea, you can only make 4-8 quarts of Kombucha for your first batch. I made my first batch like this and immediately used it to make a second, much larger batch. Now I always have Kombucha. (Note: You can also buy some Kombucha to help get you started. No big deal, one last purchase of the store stuff before making your own won't kill you.)
Step 1: Buy purified water, or better yet, fill up your pot with water and leave it out overnight. All the chlorine will evaporate and you'll have un-chlorinated water. Chlorine is bad for the Kombucha, as it can inhibit growth of the SCOBY and the fermentation.
Step 2: Boil the water. In this example, I'll be using 12 quarts of water, since that's how much I generally make. Then turn the stove off.
Step 3: Add your sugar (in this example, 4 cups) and stir it in until totally dissolved. It happens quickly. Add your tea bags (14 or so black, 14 or so green), and let them steep for twenty minutes or a half hour. Take out the tea bags, cover the pot with a kitchen towel, and let the mixture cool. This is VERY important, as hot liquid will kill the SCOBY.
Step 4: When the tea has cooled to room temperature, pour it into the vessel you will be using. Using clean hands (or no hands at all), place or pour the SCOBY into the vessel. It might float or it might sink. It doesn't matter.
Step 5: Cover the vessel with the clean kitchen towel and secure it with a rubber band or a string. It should look like Yasser Arafat.
Step 6: Leave the vessel somewhere warmish for a while. Mine seems to take a while, especially in the winter, so I usually expect around three weeks, maybe more. This time also depends on how acidic and vinegary you like it to taste. I like it really strong. You will notice that your SCOBY will grow thicker and and will stretch to the size of the container your are using (unless it was already bigger than your container). It's like a goldfish.
Step 7: Taste it occasionally to see how strong it is getting. Decide what your favorite point is -- this might take a few batches to figure out, and I say let it go until it's gone too far -- then you know your limit. The best way to taste it is to take a clean ladle and just lightly push down the SCOBY and scoop out some liquid. I drink it like this all the time. While you're there, wet the SCOBY down -- it will stay healthier like that. Dry SCOBYs are bad.
NOW, at this point, your Kombucha is done if you want it to be done. I drink Kombucha regularly from the top of my fridge, ladled out as I want it. Some people use vessels with a little spout (like a water cooler type spout) and drink it like that, topping off the liquid with fresh tea as the level drops. This is also the point, if you want to, at which you bottle the Kombucha.
Bottling the Kombucha does a few things. The first, which has been known for a while, is that it carbonates the liquid (though in the winter this can take forever, it seems). The Kombucha tea is bottled with 10% fruit juice (or some more sugar, honey, etc), closed up (I generally use Grosch-type bottles, though any bottle will do really), and left to sit another week or so. It should take on a new flavor and a nice, natural effervescence. (Note: remember to leave some Kombucha behind for your next batch, and also, I suggest you get the tea for your next batch ready before bottling your present batch. This way you have no time in between the two batches)
There are, however, some other things that happen, and some warnings to heed:
1. Apparently, this secondary fermentation raises the alcohol level of the Kombucha (which before bottling is at like 0.5%) above 1%. Back in the summer, the FDA apparently figured this out and all of the Kombucha in the markets was suddenly gone, as everyone figured out how the hell to make Kombucha without it going above the alcohol level allowed in "non-alcoholic" beverages. I think that level is something like 0.7%. It seems that some companies (Buchi, for example), now use pumped CO2 to carbonate their Kombucha instead of putting it through a secondary fermentation. So, that's up to you on whether that matters to you or not.
2. The other thing that one should watch out for is exploding bottles. This is a danger with any carbonated beverage, and is NOT funny at all. Bottles under pressure and still fermenting can turn into grenade-like artillery and can seriously hurt people, and make a god-awful mess. Best idea, as far as I can tell, is to keep an eye on your bottles and err on the side of caution. Any sign of cap distension or that sort of thing should be considered dangerous. Also, as soon as you think you've achieved carbonation (after trying one, for instance), the rest should be refrigerated. This will slow down (nearly stop) fermentation and thus lessen the risk of explosion. And honestly, I always close my eyes and open the first bottle of any batch away from me. One time I nearly took off my brother's head with a Grolsch top. It hit the ceiling, as did the liquid. It was hilarious, but scary as hell. That was in the summer, so things were moving quickly in the fermentation region.
One idea as well is to bottle in Mason Jars, though I'm not sure how airtight they can be made. With the Mason Jar lids, you can see the tops puffing out as the yeast creates the CO2 byproduct.
One very nice thing about bottling is the chance to explore different and creative flavors. I've made fresh strawberry Kombucha, ginger Kombucha, ginger-cayenne-habanero-apple Kombucha (an idea stolen from Buchi), cherry Kombucha, and all sorts of other flavors.
So, I reckon that's about it. Any questions, feel free to comment or contact me directly. Anyone interested in a Kombucha SCOBY can also just let me know, and I'll try to help. Check out the Wikipedia page on Kombucha too, for more information.