Adventurous as I can be in the kitchen, the thought of letting a blob resembling mucous float around in an unrefrigerated jar of tea on my counter top for two to three weeks made me a little queasy.
There are some nasty rumors floating around that this humble little blob is actually a killer! A virtual flotilla of deadly bacteria, only a fool would drink it, says the urban legend.
But, a concoction of kombucha promises so many health benefits I decided it was worth a try.
From ancient times to modern times, kombucha has held the pride of reputation as a health giving drink. Ancient Chinese healers claimed this fermented brew was so healthful it bestowed immortality to its drinker.
Modern Western society also boasts its popularity as an elixir for many conditions, from arthritis to colon disease. After being diagnosed with fatal colon cancer in 1983, when he was 72 years old, President Ronald Reagan drank kombucha daily. He lived to be 93 years old*.
Once you know the steps, kombucha is as easy as brewing a pot of tea. It just takes a few basic ingredients and time. And mastering this simple art can add up to real savings, too. Just one 12-ounce, store-bought bottle can cost up to $4. You can make it at home for pennies.
Loaded with B vitamins, probiotics and digestive enzymes, kombucha is a refreshing, bubbly alternative to soft drinks, sugary fruit juices and alcoholic drinks**.
Kombucha is a little tart and tangy, with just a hint of sweetness and lots of fizz! Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can adjust the fermentation time to adjust your ratios of type of tea—black, green or herbal—and how sweet or sour you want your kombucha to be.
To get started you’ll need a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast
(scoby), also called a ‘mushroom’ or ‘mother.’
I got my first scoby from my herbalist friend***. But if you don’t have a source just buy a bottle of raw, original or ginger flavored kombucha at your supermarket and use it as your starter liquid.
The scoby digests the sugars and produces the acids, enzymes and vitamins and begins the fermentation process.
There’s no doubt about it, scobys look scuzzy! They are rubbery and jellyfish-like with brown stringy tentacles. And they transform sugary tea into something bubbly and sour smelling. But, with a little skill and patience, you can create something truly delicious and healthful from the homely scoby.
Here’s How I Did It
I chose to use half green tea and half herbal peach tea bags for my first batch. Black tea is preferred because it is the most aged and strongest of the teas, but green or white can also work well.
I brewed the tea with raw organic honey instead of the suggested white sugar, just because I’m a purist, although I wasn’t in the least sure whether or not I was messing up the chemistry by fudging the ingredients.
The jury is still out about honey. Some say raw honey could mess up the balance of yeast, interfere with the fermentation process and possibly kill the scoby. On the other hand, my kombucha brewed up just great.
Too much heat also can damage the scoby. So, I made sure the tea was cooled way down before adding it to the starter liquid.
You’re supposed to use a wide mouthed glass or ceramic jar. All I had available was a gallon small necked cider jug. Using a glass funnel I nervously poured the scoby starter liquid into the jug.
The scoby was about 4-inches in diameter but it slid right through the funnel and plopped into the jug. Kombucha is an aerobic fermentation, which means it needs air, so I didn’t fill the jar completely.
I fastened my cheesecloth with a rubber band over the neck opening and set it on my stone tile floor in a corner. I mistakenly thought it was better to store it in a cooler space, but some more online research into fermenting advised warmer space helps the fermentation process because, just like beer or other fermented beverages, yeast loves warmth.
That brings the tally to three potential mistakes I made: I used honey instead of sugar, I brewed half green tea and half herbal tea, and I set my kombucha in a cool environment.
Honestly, I didn’t trust the nasty glob. How could I be sure this gelatinous mass wouldn’t turn my brew into something poisonous? But I was willing to see this experiment through.
I left my little chemistry lab on the floor and forgot about it for a few days.
Long after I set out my batch to ferment I learned it is preferable to place your scoby with its shiny side up. I honestly don't remember if my scoby landed on its head or not when it leapt out of the funnel. All I can tell you is, in just a few days, the blob had replicated itself to the diameter of the jug.
It must have been happy in its new digs because my little glob of goo had turned into a jellied frisbee that was almost the entire diameter of the gallon jug. It was so big I worried about how I was going to get this giant thing through the jug’s narrow neck.
The scoby was so nasty looking with its gooey bumps and brown tinged craters. I thought for sure something this ugly was a recipe for disaster. But it smelled fresh and only slightly vinegary when I took a whiff. And the scoby didn't look brackish—no blue or green—so I let it sit for another 10 days.
The longer you let a batch brew, the more fermented and sour tasting it becomes. I wanted a sweeter, less sour drink, so I pulled out the scoby at the 14 day mark.
And then, the moment of truth.
I undid the rubber band, peeled off the cheesecloth and took a tentative sniff. It smelled a bit vinegary, more peachy and a little earthy. But I was still afraid to take a swig. Was that stuff swimming around in my tea really ‘friendly’ bacteria? Visions of my future self hanging over the toilet in a sweat made me hesitant to test these waters.
I called my friend who gave me the original scoby and recounted every step and globby variation to my scoby’s growing stages. She assured me that people let the tea ferment for far longer times—under more neglectful conditions than I’d left my batch—and have had nothing but delicious kombucha as a result.
So I poured a small glassful of my very first batch of kombucha and sipped cautiously. It tasted great. Tangy, peachy, tart, with just a hint of bitterness. And not too sugary. Then, in a moment of confidence, I poured a full glass and drank it down. I liked it better than store bought kombucha because it was more tangy than sour and less sweet.
The only gastrointestinal event that happened to me was a long, satisfying fizzy burp after I’d drained my glass. And, I have to say, I felt pretty darned proud of myself. I was getting so much more than a fresh batch of kombucha out of my experiment. Not only had I managed to brew a healthful drink, I also felt like I was drinking in new knowledge. I now had a deeper appreciation for the art and science of brewing and fermentation. I saw that great wines take skill and grace. I remembered that Mother Nature is an amazing and awesome thing. I also got a great big dose of Do-It-Yourself satisfaction.
I strained the rest of the tea through a cheesecloth into a glass pitcher.
Then came the fun part. The ‘mother’ scoby had a baby, which is really just another layer of the culture.
I fished the blob out of the jug with no problem. Like a shape shifting entity, the round scoby disc conformed to the jug’s slender neck. I only had to tug slightly to pull out the ‘plug.'
I peeled it apart and put it in a small jar with some of the tea to use for my next batch. If you take good care of your scoby, keep it free of contaminants and in the proper temperature environments, you should be able to make four to six more batches with it. The scoby can stay in the fridge for several months.
You can also use your starter liquid in salads, as a glass or counter top cleaner, or even a hair rinse for soft, shiny hair.
I made my own hair rinse with a few ounces of the starter liquid, spring water, cliff rose flowers and rosemary. It smells wonderful and the vinegary kombucha makes hair shiny and soft!
It’s one month later and the brew is still fresh, tantalizing and energizing.
Are you ready to try it for yourself? With this relatively simple recipe, you can make your own in just a couple weeks.
1 healthy scoby
1 gal. fresh spring water
8 tea bags of your favorite organic tea
⅓ cup organic sugar
1 large stock pot to hold 1 gallon of water
1 1-gal. glass jar, or 2 2-qt. glass jars (you'll need 2 scobys)
1 cheesecloth or paper towels (to cover jar)
1 rubber band
6 16- or 12-oz. soda bottles, jars or glasses with lids (for storing your kombucha drinks)
1. Make the Tea Base:
Bring water to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar to dissolve. Drop in the tea bags and steep until the water has cooled.
2. Add the Starter Tea:
Once the tea is cool, remove the tea bags or strain out the loose tea. Stir in the starter tea. The starter tea is acidic and prevents unfriendly bacteria from forming in the first few days of fermentation.
3. Transfer to Jar(s) and Add the Scoby:
Pour the mixture into the glass jar. Gently slide the scoby into the jar with clean hands. Cover the mouth of the jar with a few layers of cheesecloth or paper towels secured with a rubber band.
4. Ferment for 7 to 10 Days
: Keep the jar at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and where it won't get jostled. Ferment for 7 to 10 days, checking the kombucha and the scoby periodically.
It's normal for the scoby to float at the top, bottom, or even sideways in the jar. A new cream-colored layer of scoby should start forming on the surface of the kombucha within a few days. This is the ‘baby’ and it usually attaches to the mother scoby. It is normal for brown stringy bits to form and float beneath the scoby, sediment to collect at the bottom of the jar, and for bubbles to cling around the scoby. These are all normal signs of healthy fermentation.
After seven days, sample the kombucha daily by pouring a little out of the jar and into a cup. When it reaches the right balance of sweetness and tartness for you, the kombucha is ready to bottle.
5. Remove the Scoby:
Remove the scoby from the kombucha. You can make another pot of tea for the next batch of kombucha. If the scoby is getting very thick you can separate it and keep it as another scoby.
6. Bottle the Finished Kombucha:
Measure out your starter tea from this batch of kombucha and set it aside for the next batch. Pour the fermented kombucha (straining, if desired) into bottles, along with any juice, herbs, or fruit you want to use as flavoring. Leave about a half inch of head room in each bottle. You can also infuse the kombucha with flavorings for a day or two in another jar covered with cheesecloth, strain, and then bottle.
7. Carbonate and Refrigerate the Finished Kombucha:
Store the bottled kombucha at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. Allow 1 to 3 days for the kombucha to carbonate. Refrigerate to stop fermentation and carbonation. Drink your kombucha within a month.
* This message is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare practitioner with any health concerns.
** If you are sensitive to alcohol, please note that, because of the fermentation process, kombucha produces about one percent alcohol.
*** Make sure you get your scoby from a reputable dealer or source to avoid the risks associated with unhealthy scobys.