I first tried kombucha at my beloved Hamilton Whole Foods in Hamilton NY, the world’s best small-town whole foods grocery and deli. I’ve always found commercially produced kombucha a little too vinegary, but when my housemates started brewing their own that year I grew to love it. At one point we had about twelve different jugs of kombucha going at one time, and the kitchen looked like a mad scientist’s laboratory. Unfortunately when I moved out here my kombucha died of neglect. Don’t tell that to the batch I started today though. I don’t want to scare it.
Kombucha is a probiotic drink made by fermenting sweetened tea with a zoogleal mat of bacteria and yeast known as a mushroom, “the mother,” or SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts. The sugar is converted into vitamins, minerals, and acids (more on that here) and about 1% by volume becomes alcohol. And when you brew your own, not only can you use your favorite tea but you can stop fermenting at your desired sweetness and flavor it any way you want.
Here’s how you make kombucha – this is the method I picked up at college from my housemates, and have refined by comparing notes with other brewers since. First, you have to get your hands on the mushroom. As with sourdough starters and kefir grains, your best bet is finding someone who makes kombucha and becoming their friend. Luckily, kombucha makers are invariably thrilled to share their mushroom because with every batch, a new layer grows and if you’re not starting another jug there’s not much to do with the surplus other than giving it away, throwing it away, or using it topically on your face (a friend tried this and did not rave about the experience). Your last resort is ordering it online, but if you’re a friend email me first because I’d probably be happy to mail you one.
Once I put my old mushroom in the compost and N found it the next week and assumed someone had tried to recycle a kidney.
Next, find a large nonreactive container (kombucha is acidic) to ferment in. My current vessel is a sun tea jug we picked up at a house cleanout, but if you don’t have one, don’t go out and buy one. You probably already have something that would work. I started out with a large glass pitcher and graduated to a huge pickle jar provided by the aforementioned Hami Whole Foods out of the kindness of their heart. Any food safe, large glass or ceramic jar or jug with a wide mouth would work as long as you’re certain it doesn’t contain lead.
Sanitize the vessel – I use boiling water. Since it will be full of sugar water, you don’t want any non-SCOBY bacteria breeding in there. Then heat enough water to fill most of the jar and steep your tea.
You can use any tea made from actual tea leaves: green, black, or white is fine but herbal infusions like chamomile are not. I use a smoky blend of black tea and lapsang souchong that was apparently a favorite of J. Pierpont Morgan. If you’re not a tycoon, you can still drink kombucha like one…
It was a Christmas gift from my mom. Thanks, mom!
Add enough sugar that the tea tastes like a mild Southern sweet tea, then let the tea come to room temperature. My friend R who is probably sunning herself on a Hawaiian beach right now used agave nectar or maple syrup (I think), and this did work for her. Your mushroom might or might not work with non-sugar sweeteners, and if it does your kombucha might be a little murkier than otherwise. Honey is antibiotic, and will not work.
I was impatient and cooled my tea in a bowl of cold water in the sink. A bowl that matched my jar, thank you very much. I’ve never felt more feminine.
Once the tea has reached room temperature, add your mushroom. Usually when moving a mushroom from place to place it should be kept in a little kombucha bath – add that liquid as well, or cider vinegar if you don’t have it. Then secure a tea towel around the top with a rubber band and leave in a warm place. The length of fermentation will depend on your own kitchen and the time of year – warmer temperatures mean faster fermentation. If it looks like there’s scum or mold growing on the surface, don’t panic – that’s your new growth of mushroom.
Start tasting your brew around the one week mark. By this point, the mushroom will be a thick rubbery pancake on the surface and might have started shedding dark yeasty tentacles. Don’t worry about that. It’s supposed to look like a failed science project. If the drink tastes too sweet, leave it. When it reaches a tasty sweet/sour balance, pour off and strain most of it. Leave a few inches in the bottom of the jar with the mushroom.
To start the next batch, brew up a new batch of sweet tea in a saucepan, cool to room temperature (covered, so airborne microbes don’t get the chance to infiltrate it before your SCOBY can), then pour into your jug and repeat the fermentation process.
Bottling: I always stored my brew in glass tea and wine bottles, but now that we have beermaking supplies I might use beer bottles and cap them until I’m ready to drink them. Refrigerating them will stop the fermentation for the most part, but they might grow mini-mushrooms if you leave them long enough. And definitely play around with flavors! The crew at Buffalo Barn Raisers who set me up with this mushroom recommend sarsaparilla, and I want to try a batch with sassafras if I can get my hands on some. Adding sugar during the bottle conditioning phase will result in fizz. One friend always bottled with a few raisins for that purpose, but other kinds of fruit would work too and add flavor – how good would orange be? Honey can be added at this point as well, since fermentation is done. And you can’t go wrong with ginger.
And if you’re wondering, my next personal brewing challenge is probably going to be kvass. Thanks, Wikipedia!
And since it’s finally feeling like spring around here and we have a strong sun for the first time in weeks, I got out our other sun tea jug and made… sun tea.
Looks like the afternoon sun in March is just strong enough to brew.
Happy tea drinking! Or green beer. Whichever.