Kombucha, baby!

Guest article by Andrew Ritchie.

Maybe you’ve seen it on Portlandia, noticed it on the shelves at your local co-op, or heard about it from your hippie friends. (Or perhaps you are the hippie friend). But what the heck is kombucha, anyway?

It’s not a fungus, even though it may appear to have a giant mushroom floating on top of it. It’s not seaweed, despite the stringy tendrils and the Japanese word for kelp being kombu. In fact, the effervescent beverage originated in China, and is produced by allowing a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (known by the lovable name of SCOBY) to ferment black or green tea. Many fans of kombucha swear by its probiotic and medicinal properties, however no scientific evidence yet exists to support these claims.

Kombucha is simple enough to make, requiring only organic tea and sugar once you acquire a SCOBY from another kombucha enthusiast, website, or local commercial brewer. The SCOBY is initially known as a “kombucha mother” and will begin reproducing layers of new SCOBYS (called babies) with each successful brew. The resulting beverage is somewhat sour, reminiscent of apple cider vinegar and contains a very small amount of alcohol, typically less than one percent by volume. Once it has fermented for a few weeks, it can be enjoyed as is, or with nearly any combination of fresh fruit and herbs added during the bottling phase. House favorites include additions of ginger and fresh peach, strawberries and basil, and blackberries and grapefruit mint.

Now that you have an idea of what exactly it is, here are some directions on how to make kombucha for brewing your very own one gallon batch:

1. Acquire a beautiful SCOBY specimen and some of the leftover liquid from a previous batch (if you don’t know anyone who’s down with the ‘buch and you feel weird about finding a SCOBY mother on Craigslist because, yeah, that’s pretty weird, there are plenty of places to buy them online.)

2. Sanitize a one gallon jug (mason jars work great) by boiling or using a food grade sanitizer such as Star-San (also handy to have around if you are interested in brewing beer or just being a cleaner person in the kitchen.)

3. Bring four cups of water to a boil and then pour into your sanitized brewing jug. Add about five teabags or the loose leaf equivalent of either green or black tea (preferably organic) and allow to steep for ten minutes or so before dissolving a cup of organic sugar into it.

4. Once the sugar has dissolved, add purified cold water to your brew jug until it’s about 3/4 full, as this will help bring down the temperature of the tea mixture so it doesn’t cook your little baby SCOBY.

5. When your tea is no longer warm to the touch, it is time to scoop up your SCOBY (clean your hands with purified water or vinegar first) and gently spill it into the jug, followed by the liquid that came with it.

how to make kombucha

6. Cover the lid of your jug with a dish towel or similar breathable fabric, attach it with a rubber band and tuck it out of sight for a week or so. It will do best in a warm environment out of direct sunlight, and I’ve had great success storing mine in a cupboard.

7. After a week, you can slide a straw past the gelatinous jellyfish looking thing that has grown in there, and taste your ‘buch to see if it’s ready to bottle. If it’s too sour, don’t let it ferment as long next time. Too sweet, and let it go a few more days, tasting it every 24 hours until it’s to your liking. It should taste a bit like apple cider vinegar, and usually hits its optimum flavor after fermenting for a week or two.

8. When you are ready to bottle, remove the SCOBY and place it in a clean bowl. Spoon two cups or so of the kombucha over the SCOBY, cover with a cloth, and set aside. You now have a SCOBY mother and your starter ‘buch for your next batch.

9. Pour your fresh kombucha into sanitized bottles, and if you wish to add fresh fruit, juice, or herbs, now is the time. Experiment with different combinations or simply enjoy the unadulterated natural flavor. Seal the bottles up and stow them back in the cupboard for another few days.

10. It’s important that you open the bottles up every 24 hours to release CO2 buildup that could cause a messy overflow or even a bottle explosion, ending in a very hard to explain trip to the emergency room. Pro tip: set an alarm reminder on your phone so you never have to deal with the aftermath of broken glass and sticky kombucha everywhere. This is especially important if you add ginger or fresh berries, as they release a great deal of CO2.

11. After a few days of secondary fermentation in the bottles, your ‘buch is finally ready to enjoy. Move the bottles to the fridge to end fermentation, and start with a four ounce glass of it once a day until your body adjusts to this strange new liquid.

12. Rinse, repeat, and enjoy. Experiment with fermentation times, fruit and herb additions, and tell your friends about all the fun you and your SCOBY are having together. After your next batch you will notice a second or possibly third layer of SCOBY has grown, and it will resemble a stack of (kind of gross looking) pancakes. You can pry these apart with clean hands and give them to friends or use them to start additional batches until you have grown a great kombucha empire. Have fun!

About the Author:

Amanda Leff Ritchie is a Pittsburgh-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter @mermanda.

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