homebrew kombucha: making a SCOBY

I finally bit the bullet on moving forward with my homebrew kombucha after writing about the status of my goals for 2014. I pulled out the supplies Mark had given me a couple years ago, as well as my copy of Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation and a few step by step tutorials online. (While The Art of Fermentation is awesome and gives a ton of good information, especially trouble shooting, I really needed a step by step, numbered instruction list for my own learning style. For some people, that book might be enough.)

Basically, kombucha is fermented sweet tea. People drink it for a lot of reasons – everything from enjoying the taste to thinking it cures cancer. I am strongly in the “enjoys the taste” camp, with also an added benefit I’ve seen with my own GI issues, since the “good bacteria” in kombucha can aid digestion. I don’t think it’s a cure for anything (and even a hippie fermenter like Katz doesn’t claim that). The main reason I want to make it at home is because a 16 ounce bottle of it is almost $4, and I want to drink too much of it for it to be cost effective for me to buy it at the store.

To begin, you need a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). You can purchase them online, or get them from someone who homebrews their kombucha, or you can make one. While Mark had originally purchased one for me back when I got the other supplies, I’m not sure how effective it will be after this long. So I’m trying an experiment – going to brew batches with the SCOBY he purchased for me as well as one I make on my own. Which gives me the opportunity to learn to grow one. (Though thank you to Deanna who generously offered a SCOBY baby for me to use!)

So I began with my book, this tutorial and these supplies:

Water, sugar, organic black tea and a bottle of store-bought original kombucha. (I like GT’s kombucha, in case you want to try some in the store to see if you like it. But I prefer the flavors that have juice in them – like mango, cranberry and strawberry. I’ve tried other brands, but none are as tasty as GT’s.) The cheesecloth and half gallon Ball jar are for the setup.

Boil the water, and then add the sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Next you steep the tea for a bit. The marks on the bottom of my pan are from stirring through the bubbles on the bottom (though it looks like something’s floating in there!). It sits until it comes back down to room temperature.

While this steeped and cooled, I measured out the 8 ounces of GT’s I would use. You can vaguely see in this close-up of the GT’s kombucha that there are floating pieces of brown film-like substance in it. I made sure to fish those pieces out and include them, since they are baby SCOBYs.

After the tea was cool, I added it to the mason jar. (And managed to clean off most of the kitchen island to take a photo without as much crap in the background!) The tea was quite dark, and the kombucha quite light.

Obviously after adding the kombucha and stirring, the color changed slightly. I cut a piece of cheesecloth and placed it over the top of the jar, using a rubber band to hold it in place. Then I transferred the jar to the warmest room in our house – the one that’s most likely to hold temperature and one that has a door to keep the cats from their own curiosity – the office. 

It will hang out in the office for anywhere from a week to 3 or 4 weeks, depending on how long it takes to develop. The liquid from this SCOBY growing will likely be too vinegary to want to drink. So this weekend, I’ll probably start a regular batch using the older SCOBY to see what happens. A culinary science experiment!

A lot of people ask if it’s safe to ferment things at home – and the answer to that is absolutely. People have been fermenting things to eat and drink since the dawn of time, and certainly before modern food preservation. There are signs to look for that your kombucha is not good, but like other living foods, it should be pretty obvious in the smell and look that something is off and you should start again. So I’m not afraid to try out a batch with this older SCOBY, because I’ll still be able to determine if it’s ok to drink.

Are you a kombucha drinker? If so, why? What kinds do you like?