Check the beverage aisle of nearly any supermarket these days, and chances are you will find a swath of chilled bottles labeled “kombucha.” Kombucha, a traditional fermented beverage of increasing popularity, is hailed as a probiotic panacea and a tangy alternative to soda and juice.
Studies supporting kombucha’s health claims are still limited, but that has not deterred the many fermentation aficionados from shelling out several dollars per bottle.
Perhaps you are hopeful about the alleged benefits, curious about the fad or just prefer the taste of this bubbly fermented drink. Whatever the case, kombucha is a unique and customizable beverage that can be brewed easily at home for fraction of the commercial cost.
Kombucha tea is fermented by a team of beneficial microbes, a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, referred to as a SCOBY, or a “kombucha mother” to those in kombucha-brewing circles. The SCOBY looks like an opaque white pad that floats in the fermenting kombucha. Each new batch will form a new SCOBY, or “kombucha baby,” at the top of the brew. Extra SCOBYs can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator with a little plain kombucha, passed along to friends or simply tossed in the compost bin.
Kombucha is little more than sweetened and cooled tea that a SCOBY has been allowed to ferment. Any plain black or green tea will work, but take care to avoid teas flavored with oils (such as Earl Grey), which will damage the SCOBY. In addition, each brew should contain an amount (at least 10 percent) of plain kombucha. This addition makes the liquid more acidic, which protects the new brew from contamination during early fermentation.
Although kombucha does not require special equipment, you should select a brewing vessel with care. Non-food-grade plastic containers have the potential to leach unsavory chemicals into your brew, and ceramics may contain lead that can leach into the acidic beverage. The optimal vessel for brewing kombucha is a simple glass pitcher.
The most challenging part of brewing kombucha is locating a SCOBY. It can be ordered online from GEM Cultures (www.gemcultures.com) or purchased cheaply from a local kombucha brewer on craigslist.com, but the least expensive way is to snag an extra SCOBY from a friend.
Bring 1 quart of water to boil. Stir in 1/4 cup of plain white sugar to dissolve and add 1 tablespoon of loose tea. Allow tea to brew 15 minutes before straining the liquid into the brewing vessel. Cover the container and allow tea to cool to body temperature.
Once cooled, add 1/2 cup of plain kombucha as well as the kombucha mother. Cover the vessel with a clean, fine-meshed cloth secured with a rubber band. This will keep the kombucha safe from dust and fruit flies while the drink ferments.
Place the vessel in a warm, dark place (mine sits covered atop the refrigerator) and allow the brew to ferment undisturbed for one to two weeks, until the brew flavor is to your liking. Longer brewing time increases the tartness of the beverage. For a sweeter kombucha, brew for a shorter amount of time or increase the sugar in the initial mixture.
It is easy to brew kombucha safely, but it is important to be aware of signs of contamination.
The primary concern for contaminated kombucha is mold. Mold on a kombucha ferment looks the same as on old bread: a round, fuzzy circle on top of the floating SCOBY.
If you notice mold on the SCOBY, do not try to salvage the brew. Toss the entire batch, wash the vessel carefully and brew a new batch with one of your stored extra SCOBYs.
To ensure a healthful batch, wash hands, equipment and cooking surfaces before preparing the brew.
New kombucha brewers are often concerned by darker brown spots or threads hanging off the bottom of the SCOBY. This, however, is no cause for alarm. The darker spots are merely excess yeast from the culture and can be rinsed off or filtered out during bottling.
Once the kombucha is brewed, funnel it into bottles for storage in the refrigerator. An attractive and functional choice for storing kombucha is a glass bail-top bottle. The bail-top will allow some carbonation to build in the bottle and make for a lovely bubbly drink.
Add flavorings – a couple of frozen blackberries, a tablespoon of grated ginger or a teaspoon of dried hibiscus flower – to the brew to re-create (and surpass) the many chic options available at the grocery store. These ingredients add exceptional flavor and color, allowing for a personalized brew.