Save Money, Make Kombucha

By Danika Trierweiler

I started drinking kombucha tea about five years ago.  While some people learn to like it, I loved it from the very beginning.  The combination of sweet, sour, and light fizziness made my taste buds sing!  I didn’t bother to learn much about it.  I just drank it and felt good.  It wasn’t until I began my nutrition degree at UT that I really became fascinated by the biological process of brewing kombucha.

Kombucha is a fermented black tea.  It begins life as a sugary tea mixture, and then through the miraculous process of fermentation thanks to the SCOBY (more on that in a moment), it becomes a slightly sweet, slightly sour elixir of health benefits.  A finished brew of kombucha is an oasis of probiotics, antioxidants, B vitamins, and a variety of beneficial acids.  It has been claimed to cure all kinds of maladies from arthritis and bloating to depression and anxiety.  However, there have yet to be any published studies on the health benefits or detriments of kombucha, and any evidence for its health benefits remains strictly anecdotal.

The fermentation process in a batch of kombucha occurs via the SCOBY.  This acronym stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast.  This literally means that colonies of yeast and bacteria cohabitate together for their mutual benefit.  There are about seven types of bacteria and yeast strains that are found in a kombucha SCOBY.  Examples include the all-important Saccharomyces (also used in alcohol production), Acetobacter (which includes Gluconacetobacter kombuchae, a strain only found in kombucha), and Lactobacillus.

The purpose of the bacteria and yeast colonies are to metabolize the sugar and the caffeine found in the tea into byproducts (the various antioxidants, acids, and B vitamins).  The SCOBY itself is not very attractive.  The best way I can describe it is like a big slimy pancake.  It is a round disk, whitish in color and rubbery in texture.  Totally unappetizing, but a wonderful example of fermentation. 

So, knowing what you now know, why not start making your own kombucha tea in your very own kitchen!  I started making kombucha tea at home when I realized how much money it was costing me.  In Austin, you don’t have to go far to find delicious, locally brewed kombucha, but at $4 to $5 a bottle, what’s a student to do?  With time to wait and a few supplies, this process is easily brought into any home kitchen, and is a wonderful introduction to home fermentation.  (See the F.A.Q. section for trouble shooting.)

What you’ll need

  • 3 ½ quarts water
  • 1 cup organic white sugar
  • 8 organic black or green tea bags
  • 2 cups starter tea from previous batch (or a bottle of store bought, neutral flavored kombucha)
  • 1 SCOBY
  • Stock pot for making tea mixture
  • 1 gallon glass jar
  • Optional: 6, 16 oz. glass jars with lid (old kombucha bottles are great)
  • Optional: fruit juice and/or fruit

Steps

  1. Make the Sweet Tea Base:  Bring the water to a rolling boil, remove from heat and stir in the sugar until it has dissolved.  Add the tea to the sugar water and allow too steep until the mixture has cooled to room temperature (letting it sit covered overnight is a great way to make sure it is cool).
  2. Combine with Starter Tea: Once the tea is completely cool and the tea bags have been removed, pour it into the gallon sized glass jar.  Add the starter tea. Make sure there is some space at the top of your jar.
  3. Add the SCOBY: With clean hands, gently add the SCOBY to the mixture.  It may sink, it may float, it may do some dance in the middle.  All of these behaviors are completely normal.
  4. Cover the Jar and Ferment:  Cover the jar with a few layers of cheese cloth or a coffee filter and secure with a rubber band.  It is important the covering keeps out bugs and other bacteria but allows the jar to breathe.  Once covered, set the jar in a warm dark place away from other fermenting projects and allow to rest for 7-10 days.  Keep an eye on the brew and taste test periodically by pouring some into a cup.  It is ready when the sweetness and the tartness of the brew are balanced and pleasing to your taste buds.
  5. Bottle the End Result (Kombucha)With clean hands, gently remove the SCOBY from the jar and set aside momentarily.  Pour the finished brew into bottles for a second ferment, leaving a headspace of about 1/5 of the jar.  If foregoing the second ferment, simply pour the kombucha into airtight jars and place in the fridge until ready for consumption. 
  6. Second Ferment: Add any desired fruit juice or pieces of fruit to the kombucha and cap tightly.  Leave on the counter for 2-3 days for proper carbonation, then store in the fridge until ready for consumption.
  7. Start a New Batch:  Check the SCOBY just pulled out for size and health.  If very thick (more than 1 inch or so), separate.  Now you have two SCOBYs!  Give it to a friend, start another brew, or compost it.  Add the healthy SCOBY to a new batch of tea (steps 1 and 2) and start the process again (steps 3-7).

F.A.Q.

  1. Can I use herbal tea for the base?

No. It is important to use actual tea as the base.  This refers to green, black, white; anything that comes from the Camellia sinensis plant.  The higher the caffeine content in the leaves, the healthier the SCOBY will be.  Also, make sure that the tea used does not have any natural or artificial flavorings added.

 2. Can I use honey?

Pasteurized honey may be okay, but should be avoided until one has experience brewing kombucha.  Raw honey should not be used because it contains bacterial strains that may alter the bacterial health of the SCOBY, resulting in a dead or moldy SCOBY and a ruined batch of kombucha. 

 3. What kind of sugar should I use?

The best sugar for SCOBY health is organic white sugar.  Sugar that has already been somewhat processed is easier for the SCOBY to metabolize than large “raw” sugar crystals.  I recommend organic sugar and tea to ensure that the SCOBY does not have to encounter any harmful pesticides or herbicides.

 4. Where do I get a SCOBY?

There are several ways to acquire a SCOBY.  If you know someone who brews kombucha at home they most likely have an extra SCOBY.  Simply ask this kind person for one and start brewing!  If this is not available to you, you can grow your very own SCOBY.  Simply buy a bottle of raw kombucha, pour its contents and a little additional sweet tea into a clean glass jar, cover with a coffee filter or cheese cloth, place in a cool, dark corner, and wait about 2 weeks.  You now should have your very own kombucha SCOBY and can begin brewing!  The last method available is to buy a SCOBY on the internet.  I have never done this and it seems skeptical to me, but by all means give it a go!

 5. Do I have to use a glass jar to brew the kombucha in?

Glass is by far the safest option for brewing kombucha because it is non-reactive and non-degradable.  Plastic is easily degraded by the acids in the kombucha and ceramic contains lead, which can be leeched out into the kombucha by the acids and other compounds.  Metal can be detrimental to the health of the SCOBY, therefore these two materials should never come into contact.

 6. How should I clean the materials used?

Do not use soap to clean anything that will come into contact with the tea or the SCOBY.  Soap residues can occasionally be left on jars, pots, or utensils and contaminate the kombucha.  It is best to either sanitize in boiling water, or rinse in distilled white vinegar.

 7. Does my SCOBY look normal?

Most likely.  Those unfamiliar with the appearance of a growing SCOBY have a tendency to freak out just a little bit when watching it grow for the first time.  It will look patchy, whitish, greyish, and brownish.  It might have holes or be thicker in some areas.  This is all normal.  You should only throw it out if the SCOBY is black, green, fuzzy, or shows any other signs of mold.  Smell it.  If it smells kind of like vinegar and kind of like tea, you’re good to go.  Trust me, a baby SCOBY looks weird, but is most likely normal and healthy.  

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