Feb 26, 2012

Have you noticed that your health food markets have stocked fridges full of kombucha tea? In only a few years, kombucha has become king of the healthy beverage craze. Loved for its fizziness and signature sweet and sour flavor, fans of kombucha also love its probiotics, B vitamins, and beneficial acids — kombucha is practically liquid gold with the cost of a 16-ounce bottle averaging $4. It should be noted, however, that this traditional Eastern-originating brew has not undergone Western scientific research to support all of its health claims.

We met up with brewmaster Otto Thorsen of Three Stone Hearth, a community cooperative kitchen in Berkeley, CA, to learn the basics of brewing a delicious kombucha tea. Stay tuned for a detailed recipe for black tea kombucha and my experience making a home brew.

Essential Ingredient

A scoby, the first and most important ingredient of kombucha, creates the fermentation process of the tea. Scoby is an acronym for "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast," and it looks like a multilayered pancake. Otto explains, "We don't know specifically how the scoby began. In order to start a batch of kombucha, you need one of these. Similar to a sourdough starter, the scobys get passed down. You can't just buy tea and make Kombucha. I think it's an incredible connection to community."

The scoby feeds off of the sugar and the nutrients in the tea and releases carbon dioxide gas, beneficial bacteria, organic acids, and active enzymes, forming kombucha. The scoby is often referred to as the mother, and each week, the scoby grows a new layer on the top called the baby. The growth of a baby is a sign that the scoby is healthy, alive, and active. Eventually the layers can be pulled apart to create new scobys.

Scoby in the Starter Liquid

The scoby is stored in a starter liquid, which is the leftover kombucha from the previous brew. Scobys can be purchased at a community co-op kitchen, online, or from locals in your area. When you aren't making kombucha, you should refrigerate the scoby in its starter liquid. In terms of storage time, Otto recommends, "The scoby is fine to sit in starter for two to six weeks. It's easy to slip people's minds and have the intention but lose the motivation. As long as it's refrigerated and in the starter, the microorganisms are in a dormant state. Even after a month, it's OK to start it up again. If it develops a new baby, then it's good to go."

Brew Your Tea

In terms of black, green, or white tea brews, Otto suggests, "Anyone who's beginning a home brew should start with a black tea. Scoby microorganisms really love black tea, and the nutrients from it will infuse a lot of life into your scoby. The babies from black tea scobys are twice the thickness as the babies from white tea scobys." There are endless ratios of water, tea, brewing time, and sugar. It all depends on how strong and sweet you prefer your beverage.

Brewmaster Otto suggests this basic tea recipe for beginner kombucha makers:

In a sterilized, glass one-gallon jar, brew two or three teaspoons of black tea in three quarts of filtered water.

After removing the tea bags, stir in one cup of sugar until dissolved.

Cover top tightly with muslin or several layers of cheesecloth to keep bugs and other contaminates from entering. Cool to room temperature.

Primary and Secondary Fermentation

Once the tea has cooled to room temperature, remove the cloth, add the scoby and two cups of the starter liquid to the gallon jar, then reapply the muslin or cheesecloth. For the primary fermentation, let the kombucha sit out for seven to 10 days, depending on how hot or cold your house is. During very hot days, i.e. 80 degrees, the tea might be ready for bottling by the sixth day.

Strain the liquid. Refrigerate the scoby and about two cups of the brew (the starter for the scoby) or make more tea to start the process again. Bottle the remaining strained liquid in screw-cap glass containers. Otto says, "For black and green tea, leave out on your counter for three to five days to get the secondary fermentation. The more sugar content in the brew, the faster the secondary fermentation will occur. Sometimes, it can be as soon as one day. To test carbonation, twist the top open and listen for the fizzy noise you hear when opening a soda bottle. When you hear that sound, refrigerate the bottles."

Spice Up the Flavor

At Three Stone Hearth, flavors include the original black tea kombucha, hibiscus, lemon ginger, and grape. After you feel confident creating a standard brew, try fermenting different white and green teas. For different flavors, add two to three ounces of fresh squeezed juice to each bottle when pouring the brew into the bottles for the second fermentation.

In terms of serving size, Otto notes, "Kombucha is a concentrated food sources of probiotics. We recommend starting with four ounces. See how your body responds to it. Different people have different reactions. Ultimately anything, even yogurt, can be harmful. It just depends on your system and what certain amount is functional for your system."

Trial and Error

Here are some things Otto has warned us about so that you have a great kombucha brew:

Taste the brew and make sure the sweetness is to your liking. The brew moves toward a vinegar the longer it sits.

If you refrigerate too soon after the secondary fermentation, your kombucha won't have time to release the carbon dioxide bubbles, which make it a fizzy drink.

If you let it sit out too long, there will be too much carbonation, which can cause an explosion.
Engage in the process. Be inspired by the growth and evolution of your kombucha and check it every day.

Homemade kombucha shouldn't contain a significant source of alcohol, if any. While there are kombucha companies that require an ID to purchase their beverages, Otto claims his method of brewing is not alcoholic.

When in doubt, toss it out. If it smells or tastes bad, trust your senses. Learn from your mistakes, and try again.


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