homebrew kombucha: when you let it go

Back in the early summer, I finally followed through on my 2014 goal of brewing kombucha (fermented tea) at home. It turned out to be a wildly successful project for me, producing some delicious kombucha that I flavored with pomegranate, peach, mango, cherry and even rhubarb. (Though not all at the same time.)

And it was a good project for me because kombucha gives you a little leeway when it comes to time. It’s not on a minute by minute schedule, so if you have to wait a few more hours (or days, ahem) to get to it and move it to the next stage, it’s pretty forgiving.

Well, the last 6 weeks or so have been pretty crazy. And I’ve had to prioritize what gets done. Mostly tomatoes. So some things fell to the wayside, including the kombucha. I’ve had two jars brewing for awhile now. Let’s just say, I “let it go.” (See what I did there?)

resized kombucha

That’s a pretty big SCOBY, and there’s a significant amount of extra room there at the top, as the bacteria and yeast have been gobbling the sugar in the tea for awhile now.

It doesn’t smell bad – just a slight vinegar smell, which is expected. No fuzz or otherwise gross contaminants that would signify that something had truly gone awry or that my SCOBYs were bad. I thought I was basically just giving myself two SCOBY hotels with this batch of kombucha, that it had gone “too far” to be usable as far as food.

Fermented-Cover-SMALLBut then I met Jill Ciciarelli at a Wigle Whiskey event for Penn’s Corner members. She gave us a sample of one of their experimental whiskeys, and in the course of me running my mouth, I mentioned that I wished I had gone to their kombucha and cocktails class. Turns out, she taught it. Must have been the whiskey, but I confessed that my poor kombucha had gone too far. Turns out, she wrote a book on fermentation, titled, aptly, Fermented.* And she told me that I can still use kombucha that’s been fermenting too long to want to drink it straight.

First of all, how did I not find this book when I was starting this process?!?! Allow me to kick myself here. It is so straight forward and easy to understand, it takes all the fear out of it. I appreciate Sandor Katz and love The Art of Fermentation, but that book is intimidating beyond belief for first time fermenters, and it’s also not a how-to. Fermented, however, is visually appealing and organized so well that I ordered myself a copy as soon as my library copy had to go back.

Ever want to put a post-it note in a library book that says “Do yourself a favor. Return this now and go buy it.”? I wanted to do that with this book. If you are considering fermenting anything – tea, cabbage, booze – get this book!

Anyway, back to my poor, neglected kombucha. I think one of my jars will remain a SCOBY hotel, holding a backup SCOBY in case something goes south with my next brew. I might always try to keep one on hand like that. As for the extras, the book mentions dehydrating them, and I’ve seen people make them into gummies, though that might be a goal for 2015.

But for the rest of the liquid, I’ll basically use it as what it is – vinegar! I can store it as vinegar and use it to make things like kombucha salad dressing (recipe in the book) or a marinade.

And hopefully this weekend, I’ll get a new batch for drinking going!


*I didn’t get paid or perked to talk about this book and the links are not affiliates. It’s just really good and you should buy it. That’s all.

2014 resolution update – July

This is the first year that I’ve made a concerted effort to work on actually completing my resolutions for the year. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t aim too high and made them realistic. Here’s an update on how I’m doing at the halfway point in the year.

Read 75 books.
Today I will finish book #46, so I’m well on my way to that goal. I do have to get the sub-goals in of finishing Margaret Atwood’s canon (6 more books) and one Russian door-stop novel. I’ve been reading a lot of books that are part of a series, so I end up going through the series and it delays my next choices. Even if I don’t hit the sub-goals, I will still read more this year than in any year since graduate school. I’m also reading in genres outside of my comfort zone, which is pretty cool. (I am a total graphic novel and comic convert.)

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I haven’t done another one since this post on the DARK Act. I need to get on that. I might write next about funding to reduce hunger.

Run a marathon.
I’m in my 8th week of a 23 week training schedule. (Most plans are 18 weeks, but I am drawing mine out due to previous injuries and lingering issues with my IT bands.) Last week’s long run was 13 miles, and it was the first time I ran that far when it wasn’t a race, and only my fourth time at that distance at all. It was quite honestly one of the most difficult runs I’ve ever had – humid and disgusting outside, dehydrated big time. Everything was screaming at me to stop, and even though I had to walk more than I had hoped, I finished. (Which was really only because of the two awesome ladies I run with.) 

It’s been good to be on a training schedule and to be following it. I’ve put in 246 miles so far this year and that number is about to go way up because it’s going to get hard soon – after the holiday weekend we bump up to 15 miles for a long run and I go into distance territory that my body has never traveled. It’s an adventure, this marathon training. Don’t forget, I’m posting photos on Instagram under the hashtag #yearofthemarathon in case you want to follow along on the adventure.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
I really need to kick this into high gear during this marathon training, because even though I do drink water constantly, I am always fighting being dehydrated in this weather. And I was doing some research this week that dehydration while running can also increase your heart rate, which is something I’m hyper sensitive to as an asthmatic.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Done and done. Completely knocked this one out of the park, and it might be the coolest thing I accomplished this year (unless I do complete the marathon, that is). Read about it here

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Making slow progress on this one. I finished cutting all of the squares for my quilt this weekend. (I’m technically getting materials together for two, planning to start with my own quilt to get the hang of it before I do Mark’s.) Now it’s time to fire up my grandma’s sewing machine, which will hopefully happen in July.

Can one new thing.
Technically I’ve met this goal with our strawberry vanilla jam, a variant I hadn’t made before. But since I think the spirit of this was for me to do something entirely new, I won’t count this done yet. But it will be full on canning season in the next couple months.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
Didn’t really get around to planting specifically bee-friendly plants, but we definitely have more flowers this year compared to last, which is at least a step in the right direction.

Make the chickens some treats.
I actually completely forgot about this one, so this is a good reminder. Perhaps because of the heat and humidity, I’ll make something that’s refreshing for them.

Organize the basement.
The basement has stayed relatively organized since we transitioned one side of it to a work area for Mark. I still have a few things I’d like to do down there, especially to get a root cellar ready for later this year. But it’s better than it used to be (at least when Stormy and Vader don’t knock food bowls all over the place).

How are you doing on your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!

homebrew kombucha: tasting

After three days of second fermentation (after the addition of juice to the kombucha), we broke out a bottle of the mango kombucha. I was pretty nervous – not about safety, but about whether the juice to tea ratio was right and whether or not it was carbonated enough. 

We both like our kombucha cold, but since it ferments at room temp, we added ice. 

The mango was quite good. Mark thought the juice ratio was perfect, though I thought it was slightly too much. We both thought it could use another day or two of carbonation (we had these at day 3). But it was truly delicious.

We tried the tart cherry the next day (day 4 of carbonation). I thought the cherry had a better ratio of juice to tea than the mango, and Mark, even though he’s not as much a fan of tart flavorings as I am, thought it was good as well. Ironically, we both felt it needed more carbonation than the mango one, even though it sat for another 15 hours. I think that might have something to do with the particular juice and how much sugar is in it, etc. 

We also gave a bottle of cherry to our friends, who both reported it tasted great. And one of them wasn’t really interested in GT’s kombucha when he had it, but liked mine! Better than GT’s? For a tiny fraction of the price? I’ll take it!

From this point forward I’ll keep a supply of kombucha going and will be trying to work it into my diet daily, for the GI benefits it supplies as well as the fact that it tastes fantastic. I’m quite proud of myself for finally following through on this project and checking off one of my 2014 goals!

To read more about this process, check out these other posts in the homebrew kombucha series:

Making a SCOBY
Making the first batch
Flavoring and bottling


homebrew kombucha: making the first batch

One of my goals for 2014 was to homebrew kombucha. Almost exactly a month ago, I started by growing a SCOBY. The SCOBY has been ready for a little bit, but I only had time to start the kombucha this weekend. I’m using this recipe for the base, since it’s as simple as it comes.

You start by boiling some water. Easy peasy.

Once it comes to a boil, you add a cup of sugar.

Once the sugar dissolves, add the tea bags and let it steep for a long time – until it cools off on its own.

Fast forward a couple of hours (I baked 96 mini blueberry cupcakes while this was cooling!) and you’ve got sweet tea. Squeeze the tea bags and remove.

Here we’ve got the sweet tea, a brewing container, some starter kombucha, as well as my SCOBY, floating on the top of the jar. I’ve read that you can use that liquid as the starter instead of the original kombucha, but I don’t like to experiment and divert from recipes when I first make them. Just my personality.

 Add all 16 ounces of the original kombucha to the starter tea. You do this so that the acidity of the tea stays high enough that the bad bacteria don’t grow. You only want the good ones! Once this first batch is done, I can save out 16 ounces of that batch for the next one I make. So you might very well be looking at the last bottle of commercial kombucha I’ll be buying!

I then transferred the tea mix to the brewing container. I had chosen this container after a lecture I heard at Mother Earth News Fair about good containers for started kombucha. Since the spout on this container doesn’t have any metal, it would be ideal for brewing and then transitioning to bottling.

Then it’s time to transition the SCOBY over. Man was this thing weird. I’ve seen pictures of them, but never touched one before. And it was seriously a blob. But I was pleased to see that it was healthy with no problem areas – only just one thin spot.

Ironically, once I put the tea mix in the beverage container, I had to step away to attend to something, so it sat on the counter for a bit before I could put the SCOBY in. During which time the container’s seal proceeded to leak. Just a tiny bit – not enough that you’d notice at a party if you had punch in the container. But enough that I knew I couldn’t leave the container like that to brew for a week, or I’d lose it all.

Plan B was to split the SCOBY in two and use half gallon mason jars to brew. Cutting the SCOBY was ridiculously hard though, since it was like thick tire rubber. Definitely an experience. I covered them both with cheesecloth held in place by a rubber band, like the jar on the right, and set them in the same place where I grew the SCOBY, since it seemed to have the right temp and light to grow a good SCOBY in the first place.

So now I sit and wait for 7-10 days while these ferment. Then it will be on to the next step – bottling, flavoring and carbonating! Stay tuned!

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?

Mother Earth News Fair recap

For the third year in a row, we headed to Seven Springs for the Mother Earth News Fair (MENF). The best way I can describe it is a giant convention and vendor fair for sustainable living. Vendors showcase everything from farming equipment to handmade soaps and workshops are offered for just about all things under the sun – from classes about livestock to home fermentation.

We have found something new to learn and discover each year, and the fair gets bigger and bigger. This year, I went to workshops on chickens in gardens (and how they can peacefully co-exist), home fermentation, building a real foods pantry and foraging for wild foods. A wicked storm moved in on Saturday and when we were soaked and freezing, we skipped an afternoon of workshops to get dry and warm. But otherwise? Awesome.

In particular, the class on lactofermentation inspired me to finally get off my duff and get my kombucha (fermented tea) going at home. Mark had given me all the tools to get started for a gift one year – including a SCOBY – so I don’t know what’s been holding me back from starting. Someone at one of the workshops mentioned that you can’t be afraid to be a beginner. I think it’s given me enough push to get started!

Mark and I laugh that we both leave the MENF each year and want to quit our jobs and move off grid into a cabin in the woods and raise some goats. While that’s not in our immediate future, it’s nice to come away refreshed and with new ideas on how to live more sustainably.

One of my favorite parts of the fair is the presence of all manner of animals. If you follow me on Instagram (@nextgenhouse), you might have seen these guys.

Seven Springs doesn’t offer much in the way of good food options for this fair, which is the only down-side. Particularly at a conference about sustainability, I don’t want to eat commercially raised meat or rock-hard, out of season vegetables. Thankfully there were a few vendors that had some good snack options – and one local food truck in particular that had good meal options – Randita’s Grill.

It’s no secret that we aren’t vegans by any stretch of the imagination, so I was a bit hesitant to try out a vegan food truck. I guess in my head I was expecting creepy textured vegetable protein, but I ended up having a great chili and a fantastic salad that was fresh and delicious (with figs! so yum!), a sharp contrast to the processed commercial offerings at the main food area. (The main food area had a mashed potato martini bar. I mean, seriously. Ew.) I was impressed by the food from Randita’s – and also how the people in the truck kept their cool despite a ridiculously long line and pouring rain. I’m adding their restaurant in Saxonburg to my list of places to try!

Really, we actually end up learning a lot from the vendors we meet. Here are some of my favorites:

Snack Taxi – I bought two reusable snack bags for my lunch and thus far they’ve been working out fantastically. I am working on reducing consumption of plastic bags, so my two Snack Taxi bags have already saved me almost 20 bags! Plus it looks cute too.

St. Lynn’s Press – Pittsburgh publisher of some great gardening books, including some by local authors. We picked up Good Bug, Bad Bug to help us with pest ID. They’ll be publishing The Steel City Garden: creating a one-of-a-kind garden in black and gold by Doug Oster in the fall, which looks to be awesomely Burghy! Might be an idea for our front yard flower area. 

Gourmet Grassfed – I had my first ever beef jerky from Gourmet Grassfed and holy cow (no pun intended), was I surprised at how delicious it was. We bought some jerky and beef sticks – they’ll be perfect for Mark to take out in the woods when he’s hunting all day.

Farm Fromage – Fantastic raw milk cheese from PA farms. I had a mushroom and leek jack cheese which was amazingly bizarre but delicious.

CeCe Caldwell’s Paints – non-toxic, eco-friendly paints, including one called Pittsburgh Gray, which is highly appropriate

Singer Farm Naturals – producer of some delicious cherry juice concentrate. We picked some up to mix with soda water as a yummy drink, but I’m also interested in its use as a recovery drink for running after seeing a blurb about it in an issue of Runners World.

Farm to Table Pittsburgh

Mark and I spent Friday at the Farm to Table Pittsburgh conference. Though we found that we were familiar with most, if not all, of the ideas and vendors presented there, we were very happy to support the conference with our tickets in hopes that each year it will continue to grow and get larger. 

We went to two different presentations in the morning. First, we saw Nigel Tudor from Weatherbury Farm (where we get our beef) talk about the benefits of grass-fed beef. Though we already eat only grass-fed beef and know and appreciate its benefits, I learned a few new things.

The mother cows will give birth to calves in mid-May, and that is the time of year when their nutrition requirements are at their peak. Perhaps not coincidentally, mid-May is also the peak time of the pasture growth. Whatever pasture the cows cannot keep up with is mechanically grazed at the farm and stored for winter. The cows on the farm are rotationally grazed so as not to over-graze certain parts and to allow the pasture itself to thrive, including all of the cows’ favorite types of grass.

The average American eats around 66.5 pounds of beef per year. If someone switched to grass-fed beef only, and made no other dietary changes, within that year he/she would see a savings of 17,733 calories, or about 6 pounds a year.

Did you know that cows can self-medicate? They know which types of grass to eat when they have specific ailments, like an upset stomach(s). That’s why having a variety of grasses in the pasture is important and monocultures don’t work. Pastures with a high level of organic matter are also less prone to flooding, since organic matter holds 8 times its weight in water.

The second presentation was on fermented foods by Scott Grzybek of Zukay Live Foods. I’ve been interested in fermentation since I first had kombucha, and I attended a class at Mother Earth News Fair last year on making your own. The presentation we saw Friday focused mostly on the basics of fermenting and the benefits of good bacteria. The more raw foods I consume, the better my digestive health, so I didn’t need any convincing. 

Probably the best thing we learned was that you can’t use city water to start your ferments because of its chlorine content, which kills off bacteria. Mark realized it was probably why his sourdough starter wasn’t really going anywhere, so we’re excited to try it again with spring water. 

I realized that I’ve been holding back on trying a few new things, like making my own sauerkraut and brewing kombucha at home, because I was afraid to mess up. If anything, this Farm to Table conference gave me the confidence to just go for it and try it. What have I got to lose?

In my link roundup on Friday, I will post links to some of the great businesses we found at the conference and also share a recipe we picked up.