SPOIL ALERT: Making kombucha at home is easy, inexpensive, and tastes so much better than the store-bought stuff.
Kombucha: In the world of nutrition fanatics, this is the elixir of health. Outside of that world, you probably wouldn’t have heard of it– It has glorious cleansing properties, but tastes like sour, carbonated rotten fruit juice. That is, store-bought kombucha tastes like that (and smells like garbage). But you get used to the taste and learn to love it.
With home-made kombucha, you have control over the sweetness so that you only let it ferment to the level of tartness that you like. For me, that means that it ends up tasting like a delicious, lightly-carbonated sweet plum soda. And the process is so low-maintenance, and so fun.
It is standard to use regular table sugar to make kombucha, but I’ve been using honey and the outcome has been glorious. I have learned that it may be possible to hurt your scoby (the main “ingredient” of kombucha) if you use raw honey, because the honey might contain organic fragments that attack the scoby. I’ve also read that the honey might weaken the scoby over time, because honey contains anti-bacterial properties and that too can attack the scoby. I have not experienced either of these results and I don’t think there have been very extensive studies done, so– experiment! And share your results!
***Please note that I am not an expert in fermentation, and if you are interested in the finer points of the fermentation process, you should consult a specialist (I recommend the literature of Sandor Katz).
HOW LONG WILL THIS TAKE?
Each batch will be ready, from start to best drinkability, in a minimum of 10 days. Brewing and cooling the tea is done overnight, then the kombucha sits and ferments for at least one week, and then it is bottled and carbonated for two days.
Each batch will yield almost a gallon, a bit more than three wine bottles full. If you want to make multiple batches, you can start with one and then your key ingredient (the scoby) will double so that you can make two batches next time, and then those scobies will all double, etc. Just keep in mind that you’ll need more equipment.
EQUIPMENT YOU NEED:
(You probably have most of these already)
a 1-gallon glass jar/container
a wooden or large plastic spoon
a clean mesh cloth, towel, or coffee filter
a large (~a quart) glass jar
a large pot (for boiling water)
3 wine bottles with twist-on tops*
*It is really fun to pick out new wines to try, based on twist-tops
There are a few names for the scoby– the mother, the mushroom, the baby– but “scoby” is the acronym for Symbiotic Culture (or Colony) Of Bacteria and Yeast. The scoby is what makes kombucha, instead of just sweet tea. It’s what guides the fermentation process. It is a big flat white rubbery mushroom that sits on or in your tea to protect it from the elements while it eats away at the sugar in the tea and turns it probiotic. And every ten days or so, you finish a new batch of tea and a new (baby) scoby is born. That means that if you know just one person who makes their own kombucha, they have a new scoby available with every new batch. It’s fine to ask if they could spare one.
You don’t want the scoby to have any contact with metal, so make sure that you only use wooden, plastic, or glass instruments with the kombucha once the scoby is in the tea.
3 1/2 quarts filtered water
8-10 English breakfast tea bags
~1 cup honey
2 cups kombucha from previous batch*
*Your first scoby will probably be delivered to you in a jar with 2 cups of kombucha
Here is a summary of the simple steps to make the kombucha, followed by extended instructions:
1) Make and cool sweet black tea.
2) Add the scoby and let sit for a week.
3) Bottle and let carbonate for a couple days.
So simple, right? Here’s the longer version…
1) MAKE AND COOL SWEET BLACK TEA
Measure out the water into a clean pot and bring to a boil (it’s ok if the pot is metal, since the scoby isn’t involved yet). Transfer the boiling water to the gallon jar and add the tea bags and stir in the honey. Brew the tea until the water has cooled, overnight or all day. (I have also seen online recipes that instruct you to brew the tea in the pot, and transfer it to the gallon jar once it has cooled.)
Tip: I tied the tea bags to a non-metal spoon and propped up the spoon across the top of the jar, per the advice of my boss, Jill. It’s a great method.
2) ADD THE SCOBY AND LET SIT FOR A WEEK
Once the tea has cooled completely, gently pour your scoby and the 2 cups of kombucha into the gallon jar.
Cover the gallon jar securely with your clean mesh fabric or coffee filter. I use a thin apron and secure it with the apron strings.
Let it sit, covered, in a comfortably warm area of the house, out of direct sunlight, where it will be reasonably undisturbed. The scoby might float around, or it might settle on the top, and either is fine. Keep an eye on it because it’s totally fascinating, but try not to poke at it. If the mother scoby is floating around the middle of the gallon jar, a new scoby will grow over the top; if the mother scoby covers the top, the baby will grow as a second layer underneath it. Check out these trippy pictures of my scoby!:
Fascinating stuff, right?! The kombucha may start with lots of bubbles on top so it looks like something is going wrong, but be patient. After a few days the protective top layer will become more apparent.
Long strands will hang off the scoby, and there may be darker and lighter spots on the top. That is all fine. What you want to look out for is mold, or the entire scoby turning black. I haven’t experienced this, but if it happens, it means that organic matter got in there, or there was a bad balance with the honey or something. Just start over with a new scoby.
After one week, taste the kombucha by gently dipping in a clean glass or mug. You can either bottle it now, or wait for it to ferment more. If you let it ferment more, it will be stronger, more effective, it may get up to 1% alcohol, and it will grow more and more tart. You can let it ferment anywhere from one week to one month. (And if you can’t take care of it for a while but want to keep it alive, you can either just let it sit out or in the fridge, for up to a few months.)
3) BOTTLE AND LET CARBONATE FOR A COUPLE DAYS
Once the kombucha is the right flavor for you, you can use clean hands to carefully lift the scoby from the gallon jar into the quart-or-so-sized jar, and fill the jar the rest of the way with the new kombucha. Use a funnel to pour the rest of the kombucha into the wine bottles, up to about an inch from the top. You’ll want a little air in there, but not much.
Twist the caps on firmly and let the bottles sit at room temperature for two days. Once you put it in the fridge, it will stop carbonating. The longer you let it sit outside the fridge, the more it will carbonate. I only like it lightly carbonated (2 days), but some friends of mine had lost a jar of kombucha that I had given them, and they accidentally let it carbonate for two weeks before they found it. They loved the intense carbonation.
Serve up, and keep refrigerated. It will have a gorgeous honey color and tastes like heaven.
If you don’t want scoby residue in your kombucha, you can filter the kombucha before you pour it into the wine bottles to carbonate.
You can add additional flavoring, if you’d like. I’m a fan of the regular kombucha flavor– like I said before, it naturally tastes like sweet plum soda– but I’m planning to try out some added flavors soon. For example: lemon and ginger, or a sexy kombucha with aphrodisiac flavors, or different fruits, or even turmeric juice for a super-magical healing elixir. Flavors can be added when you bottle for carbonation, or you can make it a separate step and fuse the kombucha in a jar with the flavors after it is fermented, but before you filter and bottle it.
There are so many ways to experiment– So be safe, but play around!
Use different sweeteners. I’ve heard that you can even use straight fruit juice.
Use different teas. I’m going to experiment with green tea soon. Just make sure that you are using simple teas that don’t have floral oils (like Earl Grey).
Let it ferment and/or carbonate for different amounts of time.
Try adding different flavors.
Let us know in the comments if you try any experiments, have any questions, or have any other advice!