How To Grow Delicious Slabs of Bacteria and Yeast To Flavor Water
Much like sausage, kombucha is one of those things for which you may not want to learn a creation story. But if you are hooked and tired of buying it for $5+tax per bottle (I saw one for $8 the other day), here’s the nitty gritty. To get started, you will need the gather the following for a one gallon batch (scale up or down as needed) before acquiring a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY):
Organic green tea: I use bagged tea as it’s simpler, but you can use loose leaf. If you want a flavor, go for it. If you want to risk soaking chemical-laden leaves in hot water, go ahead and use conventional rather than organic, but it seems risky to me.
Raw local honey: you could use pasteurized, mass-produced honey but then you lose all the micronutrients found in the magical stuff. I prefer local, Spring honey so I’m working on building my relationship with regional pollens and thereby reducing seasonal allergies.
A water filter: the chlorine in tap water is added specifically to kill bacteria, so it doesn’t go well with fermentation projects. If you want to go all out, you can get a Berkey. A Brita works fine and if you’re in a pinch, just leave tap water in an open glass container (like a wine bottle) for 24+ hours to let the chlorine dissipate and let the water boil for 10+ mins during the brewing process.
A one gallon glass jug: your SCOBY’s new home. You’ll need a cover for it that lets air and only air (no flies, no dust) into it. I have used a coffee filter and a rubber band, cheesecloth or adorably silly little cloth covers.
6 reusable beer bottles: these are for the second ferment, which will produce the bubbles.
A funnel: to get the brew from the one gallon glass jug into the beer bottles.
A pot: big enough to boil a gallon of water.
A filter: to strain out any juicy SCOBY bits, if that kind of thing weirds you out. You can also just drink them. It’s basically the same thing as your $40 bottle of probiotics.
A dark cupboard: to store the brew while it ferments. Since the container needs airflow, you are best off using a spot with no food in it to keep flavors out.
A wooden spoon: everyone says not to stir ferments with metal and plastic is gross. You might not need it, but it doesn’t hurt to have it on hand.
A glass pitcher: sometimes pouring out of a gallon jug into beer bottles, even with a funnel, is hard and it’s nice to have an intermediary container. With a handle!
Flavory things: juice, mostly. I prefer raw, organic juices that aren’t too thick like cranberry, ginger and apple. Pineapple is delicious but it can get a little wild.
Ok, now that you have spent a lot of money on all these things I know you are committed and I can give you one of my precious SCOBYs. I brought her here from California, where I got it in 2015 from my friend Sam who also taught me how to milk goats. On the cross-country drive here we spent the night in Wyoming during a snow storm and I forgot the SCOBY in the car overnight. I was very nervous I killed her, but she’s a survivor.
Once you have gotten it home, get all of this stuff out and wash anything that can be washed, including your hands, surfaces, etc. This is very important because you are making a warm, wet environment to grow bacteria in and while the expertly chosen strains in the SCOBY I gave you taste good and won’t make you sick*, this is not the case for all bacteria that may be found around a kitchen.
The next thing you need to do is relax. It is really hard to mess this up. We can talk about a few potential problems and how to solve them here, but generally it will be fine. Lots of my kombucha tastes pretty damn mediocre, so I just don’t serve it to guests unless I’m mixing it with bourbon or in salad dressing.
Now you need to make the tea. In your large pot, measure out a little under a gallon of water (if your jug is too full you will spill it, it’s inevitable and sticky) and bring it to boil. If you have a thermometer, you want the water at 160–170 degrees (which is quite a bit below boiling at 212). I like to make sure the water is really clean, so I bring it up to a hearty rolling boil, let it go for a while, turn off the heat, then add in the tea.
I like it strong, so I use 12 tea bags. This is admittedly excessive. If you look up a recipe it might say like half of that, but do whatever you want. I’ve even seen recipes calling for 4 tea bags and that is just cruel to your SCOBY. If you use looseleaf, you’ll want to weigh around 16 oz out (I never do and I just pour however much in I feel like, again, it’s hard to mess this up)
They say to leave the tea in for 2 minutes. I leave it in for however long it takes me to do whatever it is I’m doing and then remember to get back to the tea. It will be fine. Take it off the heat and let it cool to body temperature, probably with a lid on it so no stray dog hairs, oil splatters or dust bunnies get in it.
Pour in a cup or so of honey once the tea has cooled. You want it warm enough to melt the honey but not so warm it kills the good stuff in it. Stir in the honey and let the mixture cool to room temperature. If this isn’t your first batch, this would be the time you would bottle the jug you currently have going.
Once it’s totally cool, pour it into the gallon jug along with your SCOBY and any liquid that came with it. Put your cover on it and place it carefully in your dark cupboard.
Now wait. How long? Try three weeks. If it is over 90 degrees every day in your kitchen, you could check it after 2. If it is under 70, you could probably wait a month. Taste a little bit and see if it has your desired tanginess. If it just tastes like sweet green tea, it isn’t ready. If it tastes like vinegar, it is. There are uses for that and next time, check it sooner.
If you like it’s taste, it’s time to bottle and rebrew. You don’t want your SCOBY to sit in a dry jug, so don’t bottle until you’ve made a new batch of tea. You will notice your SCOBY will have made a new layer. Peel off the old one (the mother) and give it to a friend. If you are cold and heartless, you can throw it away. If you are really into it, you can eat it or dry it to make bacteria leather. I put them in a SCOBY hotel/prison because I can’t bring myself to throw them away and I’m not that good at convincing people to take them. Except you. I got you. Your SCOBY thanks you for rescuing it.
This is when you need your flavory stuff. If you forgot to get juice, you can just use sugar. Shh don’t tell anyone. What you’re doing now is the second ferment, which will introduce the bubbliness to the brew because you will put it in sealed, rather than open, bottles. Put your brew (minus enough liquid to keep the SCOBY covered) into the pitcher and mix in your juice or a quarter cup of sugar (which will ferment off into those tasty bubbles). Using your funnel fill up your bottles and snap on the tops. Put them back in the cupboard for 5–7 days, depending on the temperature in your kitchen. Try one bottle, see if it’s bubbly. If not, leave them in the cupboard. If so, put them in the fridge. Let them cool. You did it. I’m so proud of you!
*Don’t drink the whole gallon at one time. No guarantees if you drink a ton of it in a sitting. Moderation is key with all good things, my friends.