Not long after I began drinking it, I decided I needed to learn how to make kombucha. If you buy it in the store, you will pay $3 to $5 for a single-serving bottle depending on the brand. That becomes an expensive habit quickly!
I have recently gotten into fermentation big time, trying everything from fermentation food preservation (making pickles in my great-great grandmother’s crock) to fermenting deliciousdandelion wine recipe. Fermenting brings so many health rewards; we have even begun to make fermented chicken feed so that our hens can benefit from the added probiotics it creates. My neighbor has nicknamed me the queen of fermentation since every time she comes over I have something new bubbling away in my kitchen.
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As I began to read about kombucha benefits, I was intrigued. It has been made and consumed for probably thousands of years and has always been recognized as an elixir for good health. It seems to be the generally accepted truth among kombucha enthusiasts that, although there are many claims that it heals specific conditions like acid reflux, its real power is in helping to normalize the body in order to promote wellness. And it tastes good!
So if you’ve never had it, you’re probably wondering: what is kombucha? Simply put, it’s fermented tea. If you can make a pot of tea, you are not far off from learning how to make kombucha. Follow this easy recipe to learn how to make kombucha for yourself, and keep loads of money in your pocket and make your gut happy too.
How to Make Kombucha
There are lots of recipes out there with quite complex instructions as to steeping times and temperatures, but I have found that you don’t really need to be that precise in order to make a successful batch. Most of the steps for how to make kombucha can be done by visual cues or by testing temperatures with your own bodily gauge (a.k.a. dipping your finger in).
First thing’s first, just like when you start yogurt, kefir, or sourdough bread, you need a culture. For kombucha, the culture is called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The SCOBY looks like a sort of slimy pancake and is teaming with good bacteria and yeast, which together, will cause your tea to ferment and become kombucha. With each new batch of kombucha you make, a new layer is formed on the SCOBY so if you can find someone who has been making kombucha near you, you can simply ask them to peel off a few layers to get you started. Your other option is to order a SCOBY from a large-scale supplier. This is how I started. Either way, make sure your SCOBY comes with at least a cup of starter tea, which is a good strong unflavored kombucha to lower the pH and get your new tea started off on a good foot.
I start with a small pot, in which I bring four cups of filtered water to a simmer. It’s important to use good water; you will notice a difference in the taste and clarity of your final product and too many minerals in your water may negatively affect your culture. Once the water is good and hot (but preferably not boiling), add three to four tablespoons of loose-leaf tea. There is lots of literature on variations of kombucha made with different kinds of tea. The classic drink was made with black tea, which is what I prefer. Whichever type you choose, make sure it is actually made from tea leaves (vs. herbal tea which is often made from other flowers or herbs). Let the tea steep for about five minutes, stirring once or twice. Then strain out the solids. Tea leaves are a wonderful addition to your compost.
Pour your strong tea into a larger pot and stir in one cup of sugar. Here again, you have some choice in what type of sweetener you prefer. Your best options are unprocessed sugar-cane-based sugars. I like to use a pale brown, finely ground pure cane sugar. It dissolves nicely.
Once your sugar is completely dissolved, stir in an additional twelve cups of cool filtered water. Dip your finger into the tea and make sure it doesn’t feel hot. You want it to be about room temperature so that your SCOBY can be placed in it without being harmed. If in doubt, let it sit a bit to cool.
When your tea reaches room temperature, you can pour it into the vessel that you’ll be using for fermentation. Glass seems to be the most common material used. I had a large glass flower vase that was sitting unused on my shelf so that became my fermentation vessel. Whatever you choose, make sure it is clean. If you wash it with antibacterial soap, pour a little vinegar in and swish it around before adding your tea. Think about it – you are adding a SCOBY, teaming with good bacteria to help with fermentation so you don’t want any residue of antibacterial anything inside the vessel or on your hands when you handle the SCOBY. You are going to have to be able to reach inside to place and remove your SCOBY as well, so avoid containers that narrow significantly at the top.
On top of your tea, carefully place your SCOBY. It may sink or it may float, either is fine. Don’t worry too much about that. After you have added your culture, pour the starter tea in on top. The more starter tea you have the better. Aim for two cups if you can. The starter tea helps to immediately lower the pH of your new batch of kombucha and get the fermentation process going.
Now, cover the vessel with a finely woven cloth. I use a tea towel and then tie a string around to hold it in place. This will help keep your kombucha clean and discourage fruit flies that may be drawn to it. Place your kombucha in a warmish place (about 75 degrees is optimal) with good air flow, out of direct sunlight. Initially, I tried to leave mine on the kitchen counter but I found the granite was too cool. When I moved it into our furnace closet and put a towel under it, the fermentation began in earnest.
Let your kombucha sit for about a week. The more starter tea you added, the faster your tea will ferment. I found with my first batch that it took closer to ten to fourteen days for it to reach a taste I liked because my SCOBY was small and I didn’t have a lot of starter tea. As long as you don’t see any mold forming on top, it is safe to test your booch along the way and see how it is doing. This is a good thing to do daily as you learn to brew kombucha, too, because you’ll get a better picture of how the flavors develop if you are tasting your batch often. To taste it, simply stick a straw down under the SCOBY and sip a bit. You’ll also see your SCOBY growing. It will spread out to cover the whole surface of your tea, helping to keep your kombucha safe from harmful bacteria and mold.
If your tea is not fermenting, I highly recommend seeking out a copy of the book The Big Book of Kombucha. It has an entire chapter on troubleshooting if your brew isn’t going as expected.
Bottling and Flavoring Your Brew
Once your brew is done fermenting, you have two options. If you like it still, you can go ahead and refrigerate and drink it. If you prefer yours bubbly, like soda, then you need to do a second fermentation. This is how I prefer it.
I ordered a supply of brewer’s bottles, which are solid and have very strong capping lids. They can withstand the pressure that builds up inside the bottle. Be careful to get containers that won’t burst with pressure.
This is where the creative part begins. You can choose whether to leave it plain or add flavoring to it. I like to add something extra to each bottle, even if it’s just a bit of honey or a few berries. My favorite combinations so far are a cinnamon stick and a tablespoon of honey or sprigs of thyme and mint and teaspoon of honey. Whatever flavoring you like, add it to each bottle. Then, with clean hands, remove your SCOBY to a glass bowl then scoop out two cups of tea and pour that in with the SCOBY.
Now you can pour your kombucha brew into your bottles. I use a funnel lined with a small strainer to catch any bits of yeast that may be floating in the tea as I pour it.
Cap your bottles and put them in a dark, cool-ish spot to ferment some more. I put mine back into the furnace closet. Depending on what you use for flavoring, how much yeast was left in your tea, etc. (there are really too many factors to discuss here), your tea may take more or less time in this second fermentation. After a couple days, put a bottle in the fridge for six hours to cool and stop the fermentation. Taste it and see what you think. If it’s perfect, put all the rest of the bottles in the fridge. If it needs more time, then let them sit longer. Take notes of your variations so as you move forward, you’ll remember the approximate time for each flavor combination you make.
And that’s it. So simple. You can either immediately begin a new batch or store your SCOBY in the starter tea, at room temperature and covered with a towel, until you’re ready to make kombucha again. Remember that the SCOBY is a living thing, however, and will need some new sweet tea (think of this like food for the yeast and bacteria) from time to time.
Once you have learned how to make kombucha and have a regular supply available at home, you may find yourself drinking more and more of it. This is what happened to me so I quickly shifted from the batch method described above to continuous brew. In this method, you use a two gallon to a five-gallon container with a spigot on the bottom. Your first batch in this large container may take longer to ferment; mine took about two weeks. Once it is established, however, you can draw off a third to half of your tea every three to five days, depending on how much starter tea is in it.
I prefer this method both because it ferments more quickly and because it is easier. I have developed a Saturday routine where I start a batch of sweet tea, same as I did for the batch method. While it is steeping, I draw off kombucha from the spigot to fill six to nine bottles. I flavor and cap them. By the time I’m done with this, my new tea is ready to add. I take the towel off the top, pour in the new sweet tea and cover it again. You don’t have to handle the SCOBY at all; there’s no cleaning of the vessel and the spigot makes filling the bottles super easy.
Your SCOBY will grow and grow – remember each new brew adds a layer to the “pancake” – so about twice a year you’ll need to take the continuous brew apart, trim your SCOBY and clean everything.
Again, The Big Book of Kombucha has a lot more information on setting up and maintaining a continuous brew.
Leave a comment to tell us all what your favorite flavoring combinations are.