Ah yes, kombucha. It’s everywhere, it’s excellent for your gut health, and it is definitely the hip drink of the decade. It’s also a wee bit overpriced for my budget at $4 a bottle. So, join me, why don’t you, in my latest money-saving adventure: a recipe for homemade booch, teeming with probiotics.
First step: cultivate a SCOBY. To brew kombucha, you first need a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It also goes by the quietly imposing name of mother. There are several suppliers from whom you can purchase a full-size SCOBY, but what’s the fun in that? To cultivate your own mother, you’re going to buy a bottle of good quality, unflavored, unpasteurized, raw kombucha.
A trusted source recommended the brand Health-Ade, and I had excellent SCOBY-growing luck with their bottles of small-batch brews. Any brand will work, so long as it’s raw and unpasteurized. When buying a bottle of pre-made kombucha, the most important thing to pay attention to is the amount of floaty sediment in your bottle: the more the better. Those little stringy nebulous bodies are essentially bits of the mother that broke off from the main SCOBY during the bottling process and ended up in your bottle. They may not look appealing, but trust me, they are exactly what you want. You’re also going to want to avoid any kombucha that’s been flavored, especially if it’s got fruit juices in the mix: flavoring might interfere with the health of the SCOBY you’re trying to grow.
Second step: wait. If you’ve read my sourdough recipe, you know just how much I like to wait for my food. For your SCOBY to develop, you will need to wait anywhere from 1 week to 4 weeks. Much like keeping a sourdough starter, you want to start with an ultra-clean jar and give it a nice, clean, temperate environment. The warmer it is, the faster the SCOBY will develop, but the ideal temperature is between 75° and 80°. Because it is a living organism, you’ll want to give it air. To avoid bad things from dropping into it, we’ll cover the jar with a breathable fabric like a coffee filter or cheesecloth.
Third step: ferment! There are two stages of fermentation when it comes to brewing kombucha. The first stage occurs in your SCOBY jar and the tea mixture will slowly turn from sweet to sour. Once it reaches your desired level of tartness, you will bottle the liquid in a food-grade sealed bottle to let the natural carbonation build up during the second fermentation. Fruit, juices, and other flavorings can and should only be added during this second stage so as to not harm the mother’s development by introducing conflicting yeast cultures. My favorite add-ins include pineapple puree and ginger.
A word about food safety. Because this is home fermentation, you’ll want to take extra care to ensure all of your containers and tools are sterilized. I recommend immersing your jars and bottles in boiling water for a few minutes to eliminate undesirable pathogens from sneaking their way into your brew. Wash your hands well and keep your jar in a place where it won’t be disturbed, far away from activity and potentially germy situations.
Pay close attention to how your SCOBY looks—but only after the first week. It will look quite funky in the beginning with patchy white snowflake shapes, so avoid spending time in the first few days agonizing over whether you’re breeding a SCOBY or mold. But if you begin to see green, black, fuzzy and dry spots, it’s most definitely mold. When that happens, always veer on the safe side: toss the entire batch and start anew.
A growing SCOBY will start off looking very stringy—that’s due to the yeast clusters. Over time, it should become a floating layer of milky, semi-opaque jelly that covers the surface of your tea mixture and conforms to the shape of your container. Use all of your senses to check in on the health of your SCOBY: it should smell sweet and vinegary, it should look smooth and glossy after it’s fully developed, and it should feel resilient and flexible, not brittle. Younger SCOBYs will be whiter in color while older SCOBYs will be darker and browner.
A word about ingredients. Use organic tea and sugar whenever possible. Although not necessary, you are still creating a living organism and it’s better to feed it the best possible ingredients. Only use unflavored tea of the Camellia sinensis tea plant to start. While you can experiment once your SCOBY becomes stronger, do not use herbal “teas” to start because they do not contain the nutrients your SCOBY needs. I’ve had the best results using black tea in beginning; green tea is fine to use after the second brew with your SCOBY.
Do not use artificial sweeteners! Kombucha needs real sugar in order to do its thing and the sugar you put into the brew will be consumed by your SCOBY.
A few more thoughts: I prefer my kombucha to have a deep tea flavor, so this recipe calls for quite a bit of tea. If you’d prefer a lighter taste, feel free to halve the amount of loose-leaf tea or tea bags but do not use less than that to avoid starving your SCOBY. And if you accidentally let the brew sit for too long without tasting (like I did) and your kombucha over-ferments and becomes too sour, you can either use it as a vinegar or dilute it with fruit juice or water before drinking.
One more money-saving tip: If you’re not ready to commit to buying flip-top fermenting bottles, you can begin your first few fermentation experiments using the bottle that your store-bought kombucha came in. Beware: this is only a short-term solution, because once the flimsy piece of plastic or cardboard stopper falls out of the cap, your bottle will no longer be airtight and won’t be capable of holding in all the fermentation carbonation.
- 1.c.water1 tbsp.
- unflavored loose-leaf black tea or 2 black tea bags2 tbsp.
- granulated or raw sugar1
- (16-oz.) bottle unflavored, raw, unpasteurized kombucha with sedimentFOR KOMBUCHA3 c.
- water2 tbsp.
- unflavored loose-leave black tea or 4 black tea bags3 tbsp.
- granulated or raw sugar1/2 c.
- kombucha starter tea1
- SCOBY, at least 1/4″-thick
- Fresh fruit, juice, or herbs, for flavoring (optional)
To make scoby
- Bring water to a boil. In a clean, 4-cup wide-mouth glass jar, combine tea and hot water and let steep at least 5 minutes. Using clean utensils, strain out tea or remove tea bag and stir in sugar, then let cool completely until mixture is room-temperature.
- Pour in kombucha, including any sediment in the bottle, and stir to combine. Cover jar with a lint-free cloth, such as a coffee filter. Keep jar out of direct sunlight in a clean area where it won’t be disturbed, ideally with an ambient temperature between 75° and 80°.
- White snowflake-like clusters, dots, and descending strings of SCOBY will begin to form on the surface and slowly create a film on top, eventually joining together into one cohesive mass with a glossy top. Once SCOBY has formed and grown to at least ¼” in thickness, usually between 1 and 2 weeks but possibly up to 4 weeks, it is ready to be used in your next brew. Reserve tea mixture to use as starter tea in your brew.
To make Kombucha
- Bring water to a boil. In a clean, 4-cup wide-mouth glass jar, combine tea and hot water and let steep at least 5 minutes. Strain out tea or remove tea bag, then stir in sugar. Let cool completely, until the mixture is room-temperature.
- Begin first fermentation: Pour kombucha into the sweet tea mixture and stir to combine. Using clean hands, add in SCOBY. Cover jar with a lint-free cloth or coffee filter and secure tightly with a rubber band. Keep jar out of direct sunlight where it won’t be disturbed, ideally with an ambient temperature between 75° and 80°.
- After 3 to 4 days, begin tasting your kombucha. When it reaches the desired amount of acidity, begin second fermentation: Using clean hands, remove SCOBY from jar and set aside in a clean container. Stir kombucha gently and reserve ½ cup as starter tea for your next brew. Funnel remaining kombucha into a clean brewing bottle, straining if desired.
- To flavor your kombucha, add up to ¼ cup fresh fruit, puree, or juice, or 1 to 2 tablespoonfuls herbs of your choice into the bottle. Secure cap tightly and let bottle rest out of direct sunlight, “burping” the bottle once a day to release excessive carbonation. When desired level of carbonation and acidity is achieved, usually in 2 to 3 days, refrigerate kombucha until ready to serve.