by Courtney Cable
At first I was hesitant, giving in to the part of me that is resistant to change and skeptical of all things new, but then slowly, I took the glass bottle from his outstretched hand. I tried not to look too closely at the cloudy liquid with fizzy bubbles pop-pop-popping at the surface and flecks of spirulina swirling. I took the smallest of sips. I was being polite, really. I wasn’t prepared for the tangy dance it would do on my tongue. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much.
Once reserved for foodies, proponents of alternative medicine, and others “in the know,” Kombucha is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream, with space reserved for its sale in chain grocery stores and celebrity devotees happily photographed sipping away. Kombucha is a bubbly, fermented sweet tea, sometimes flavored, that many drink for its perceived health benefits. There are a number of origin stories for this brew, but many agree that it most likely originated in Asia at least 2,200 years ago where it was called the “Tea of Immortality.” It was then carried west to India and Russia by travelers and subsequently spread throughout Europe and North America.
Kombucha is the result of the actions of a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (or, SCOBY). The SCOBY, also called a “mother,” is a thick, flat, gelatinous mass that grows to fill the container that houses it. Together, this mix of bacteria and yeast break down the sugars in the tea to produce a probiotic drink. The mother produces “babies” that can be given away to friends who can use them to initiate their own brews in much the same way that people pass along precious sourdough starters.
Rich in enzymes and bacterial acids, kombucha is a detox wonder. Anecdotally, it has helped people to detox their livers, ward off cancer, heal digestive problems, ease joint pain, and boost immune systems. While clinical trials of kombucha itself are scant, analyses of this liquid show that it does contain the compounds that have been proven to help with these maladies. It contains large amounts of B vitamins, antioxidants, and glucaric acid, to name a few, which are proven to enhance immune function, protect the body from free radicals, and prevent cancer, respectively.
I personally have felt the benefits of daily kombucha consumption. I include a glass with my afternoon meal and I immediately feel rejuvenated with an energy boost that helps me to keep up with my very active one-year-old. I also credit it with longer-term benefits that I’ve experienced, such as increased immunity (I haven’t been sick in years!) and digestive regularity. The best part is that these benefits have been passed on to my breastfed son. On the days that he struggles with constipation, a dose of kombucha for me always does the trick to get things moving for him. Plus, it’s delicious.
Ready to get started?
The basic start-up equipment is very simple. First you will need a large clear glass container to house your brew. The high acidity of kombucha causes it to leach impurities from everything it touches, which is why it’s so important that it never come in contact with metal, crystal, or pottery (or plastic, if you’re being extra careful). I use a two gallon jar that I purchased for under ten dollars at a discount store (and the following instructions are for a two gallon batch), but one gallon jars are easily obtained for free from restaurants and jars sold to make sun tea also work well, just scale down the recipe accordingly.
In a large stainless steel pot, bring about two gallons of non-chlorinated water to a boil. Pour it into your glass container along with 1/3 cup of organic loose black tea or 15 tea bags, leaving a few inches of space at the top. Black tea works best, but once you’ve made a few batches you can start experimenting by mixing in some green and white teas as well. Your tea should be plain and unflavored, caffeinated, and not herbal.
When the tea has finished steeping, remove the tea leaves or bags from the jar and, using a wooden spoon, stir in three cups of organic cane sugar. Do not use honey as it has antibacterial properties and will kill your SCOBY. Allow the sweetened tea to cool to room temperature; excessive heat will also kill your SCOBY.
Once cool, add in the SCOBY along with one cup of finished, fermented kombucha. Once you get going, you can reserve a cup from your previous batch to use, but to start out you can use some that has been passed on to you from another brewer or use store-bought raw, unfiltered kombucha, such as that made by Synergy or GT’s. In a pinch, you can use ½ cup of distilled white vinegar. This helps to acidify the brew right from the start to prevent the growth of mold.
Cover the top of your container with a clean dish cloth and secure with a rubber band or string. This will keep out bugs and contaminants, but will allow the SCOBY to breathe. Place it out of direct sunlight and away from other ferments (such as kefir) and allow to sit undisturbed for 10-14 days. Ideally, it should be kept between 74 and 84 degrees. Lower or higher temperatures will also work, but you will get unpredictable brewing times and results.
After the 10-14 day ferment, start taste-testing your brew. The longer you leave it (or the higher your room temperature) the lower the sugar content and the more tart the taste. The variety of acids and nutrients that will form also depend on the brew time. Once it’s fermented to your liking, it’s time to decant to bottles. Purchasing a length of flexible plastic tubing from any store that sells brewing supplies will make this process infinitely easier and it will only set you back about two dollars. You can also purchase an auto-siphon, but I found this to be an unnecessary expense. As for what bottles to use, reusing glass bottles from store-bought kombucha works perfectly, but mason jars, any glass beverage bottle, or grog-type bottles are also very effective.
Your SCOBY may be floating at the top or hanging out in the middle of the liquid; either is fine. You will also most likely see strands of the culture suspended in the brew. Don’t be alarmed, this is completely normal. After you remove the dishtowel, scoop out your SCOBY and place it into a covered bowl. Take a look at this transformative wonder! My husband is completely grossed out by it, but I think they are things of beauty. You will notice that there are now two thick layers to your SCOBY instead of one. The one on top is the baby. Keep one for your next batch and pass the other along to a friend or compost it. In the same bowl, reserve a cup of your finished kombucha to use when starting your next batch.
Have a partner hold the tubing in the fermentation container for you, suck to start the liquid flowing, and then fill up your bottles and cap them. At this point you can add whatever flavorings strike your fancy. Organic fruit juices are wonderful, as are ginger and mint. Get creative! Store your bottles in the refrigerator; they will continue to ferment, but at a much slower rate. For me, a two gallon batch makes exactly the right amount to keep me in kombucha from the end of one batch to the next.
I received my SCOBY the summer following my son’s birth as a gift from dear friends. As I struggled to adapt to my new role as a stay-at-home mom, kombucha brewing became an important part of the rhythm of our days. The fact that the starter is passed from friend to friend, down through the generations, creates a palatable link between us and all those who came before. Every two weeks when I pull back that cloth and look at the pearly new SCOBY that has grown, I feel an intense feeling of gratitude for this simple nourishment and for the individuals kept it alive through time until it reached my kitchen; much like the symbiosis in the kombucha mother itself, it took many hands working together. In an act of everyday magic, an unassuming jar of tea and sugar is transformed into an elixir that is imbued with the healing love of 2,000 years of mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors.
Courtney Cable is a wife, mother, and homemaker who is attempting to carve out a gentle, creative, and sustainable life on the flat plains of Iowa. She holds an MA in Intermedia Art and is a frequent contributor to the online magazine Rhythm of the Home. She writes about her days on her blog, A Life Sustained.