by Suzanne Wentley
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While it's possible to buy kombucha in a store (like the bottles in picture above), usually the act of brewing kombucha starts with a random hippie friend. In my case, it was Chrissy, who was running a bubble tea shop in Raleigh, North Carolina years ago.
“I have a SCOBY that’s growing like mad,” she told me. “Can I give you a piece? Please?”
When I agreed, albeit a little reluctantly, she excitedly peeled off a piece of a strange mushroom-looking thingy used to brew kombucha at home. Then, she hooked me up with an in-depth step-by-step guide to set me up for success.
Now, I get to be the random hippie friend who will do the same for you.
Kombucha is a fermented beverage that costs nearly nothing to make but can have price tags of $4 or $5 per bottle when you find it in health food stores. It’s extremely good for you, as fermented foods are probiotics that feed the healthy microbiome that help your gastrointestinal tract properly digest and process everything you consume. (Experts recommend eating five servings of fermented foods a day, but most people don’t come anywhere close.)
At first, you may find it to be an acquired taste. Depending on how you flavor it (the process of which I’ll describe soon), the chilled beverage can be a little tangy. I think it’s delicious, and I always feel good about giving my gut a refreshing treat. It’s worth the minimal time and effort that goes into keeping your fridge stocked with the ‘buch.
Your Kombucha Shopping List
No, you don’t need a hippie friend to swing by to get started brewing kombucha. But you do need certain products.
A SCOBY, which you can indeed buy on Amazon, is not a fungus. The term is an acronym that stands for “Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.” But it does indeed look like a strange mushroom-looking thingy. It grows in a circle with a circumference of whatever it lives in, and then it starts to grow in thickness. Chrissy’s SCOBY was a few inches deep and easily peeled off in layers for me.
Big Glass Jar
For the first step in the fermentation process, you’ll need a large glass jar. I like those sun jars with a little spout at the bottom, although often the SCOBY will create some loose strains that will clog it.
You can get one with a lid, but you’ll want to keep the top off to let the SCOBY breathe. I use a piece of cheesecloth and a big rubber band to keep any random bugs out, but a clean dish rag and an old twist tie can work, too.
For the second fermentation, you’ll need about six or so airtight bottles. The best are the glass kind with little metal levers and plastic lids that clamp down. While you’re at it, you should probably pick up a funnel to make your life easier.
Once you’re set up with the infrastructure, you’ll need to pick up the base of the kombucha:
Next, you can think about what kind of flavoring you’d like. Nearly any kind of fruit will work, along with ginger root, lavender buds, turmeric, hibiscus, cinnamon sticks, or spirulina. Creativity is the key here, and it’s hard to go wrong.
Gather everything you need first, then head to your kitchen and get ready to brew.
Step-By-Step Brew Plan
For the first brew, you’ll want to fill up your big jar. Get the biggest pot you’ve got and fill it with water. Mine holds about seven cups of water, and I use four tea bags per pot. Bring the water and tea bags to a boil for a few minutes.
Once the tea is nice and dark, I stir in a half-cup of sugar until it dissolves. Then, wait until it cools before adding it to your big jar. Do this twice so your jar is completely filled.
Again, the ratio is:
7 cups of water
4 tea bags
½ cup of sugar
It's important to never pour boiling water on your SCOBY. It doesn’t like that! Also, wash your hands well before ever handling your SCOBY. It’s sensitive, but it’s also kinda gross and slimy. Once your sugar tea is cool, you can drop your SCOBY in the big jar with your clean hands. Cover the top of the jar with a dishrag or cheesecloth.
Then, all you have to do is wait. Now, you may feel that you’ve added a lot of sugar, but kombucha is actually a low-sugar beverage. That’s because the sugar is actually feeding the SCOBY, which is how it grows so much. As the SCOBY feasts on the sugar, it initiates a fermentation process in the tea. That by-product is what you’ll use for the next step.
After the initial two weeks, you can start the second fermentation process. Use that little spout to fill up the airtight bottles, leaving about two inches from the top. Then, you’ll want to add another tablespoon or two of sugar along with whatever flavoring you’d like. I love using berries and ginger, pineapple and mango, plums, and fresh lavender buds. As I said, you really can’t go wrong.
It takes another week for the second ferment to be ready. In the meantime, you can fill up your big jar with a fresh batch of sugar tea. Always leave at least 20% of your original fermented tea in the big jar. I personally use only half of the big jar with each batch, which gives me enough for five or six bottles. Once you get the process going, you can make a new second fermentation every week or so.
Fermentation For Health
I care a lot about keeping my GI tract healthy, especially because I recently had to go through a round of antibiotics for an infection. That destroyed my microbiome, so I doubled down on fermented foods. I try to drink a bottle of kombucha every day, along with eating whole-fat, plain Greek yogurt, and fresh kimchi or sauerkraut from the produce section of the grocery store. Regularly, I add tempeh or miso into my diet as part of my dinner.
I also brew my own water kefir, which is a slightly different fermentation process from kombucha. Kefir uses fermenting grains, which can also be purchased online. Instead of tea, you simply add the grains to water and a couple of tablespoons of sugar in a regular Ball jar. Water kefir has a slightly sweet taste but, again, is a low-sugar and low-calorie beverage that’s great for your health.
There’s a milk kefir that produces a product much like watery yogurt, and it’s delicious as well.
If all these foods inspire your DIY sensibilities, I recommend buying “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz. If you can figure out how to make sauerkraut at home without it being a super-gross rotten mess, you’ll exceed my success!
All this fermentation is worth it well beyond the benefits it brings to your digestive process. Some studies like "Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond," suggest foods and drinks like kombucha can help with weight maintenance, reduce inflammation, and reverse hypertension. That’s why it’s called a superfood.
But I find something even more fulfilling about the fact that I can brew it at home for pennies on the dollar. Home-brewed ‘buch also has less sugar than store-bought brands, and you can make whatever flavor you’d like.
Best of all? Once your SCOBY grows thick enough, you get to be that strange hippie friend who shares the goodness with others.
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