I’ve never been a coffee drinker but always enjoyed tea. Several years ago, I received a tea-of-the-month club as a gift. The subscription was so generous that I started to have more tea than I could drink.
As my tea drawer filled up, I thought making my own Kombucha would be a great way to use it up. I received a small kit and soon became hooked on the process, a true combination of art and science. There weren’t many options in the stores at that time and only a few flavors that I liked.
So making my own kombucha checks off several boxes: It allows me to be creative in experimenting with new flavors, and, I get to brew a healthy beverage I enjoy.
Essentially, it’s fermented tea. Fermentation—the same process that turns grapes into wine and hops into beer—gives tea a wonderful tang, as well as produce many of its health benefits.
Many regard kombucha as the superfood of beverages—it’s a probiotic and it’s loaded with antioxidants. I consider it a great alternative to beverages loaded with sugar or other artificial sweeteners. The process begins with a strong sweet tea, to which probiotics—live bacteria—are added to kickstart the fermentation process. Just like any probiotic supplement you buy in the vitamin section, kombucha helps balance the bacteria in your gut. This can support your immune system, help with digestion, boost energy and decrease muscle inflammation.
What’s great is that you don’t need specialized equipment to start brewing kombucha at home. If you can make a cup of tea, you are well on your way. A basic brewers’ check list includes a kettle for heating water, measuring cup, mixing pot, wide-mouth fermenting vessel (think of an extra large pickle jar), thermometer, wooden spoon, and a cotton cloth. The ingredients include tea, sugar, water, and a SCOBY.
SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, and formed every time a new batch of Kombucha is made. Think of it as sourdough starter but for kombucha, and it looks a bit like jellyfish or a wet mushroom. Anyway, the SCOBY is responsible for turning the sweet tea into a fermented drink rich in nutrients. If you don’t have a SCOBY, make friends with someone who brews kombucha. Brewers usually have an extra SCOBY around and love to share.
I recommend starting with a one-gallon jar. Begin with a really strong tea that is almost too strong to drink alone. It’s best to use a black or green tea versus herbal or fruity teas. (You will have the opportunity later in the process to create different flavors.) Sugar is added to the tea to create a very sweet tea for the SCOBY to feed off. The last step is to add the SCOBY and sit back. The SCOBY will feed off the sugar and caffeine to transform the tea during one to two weeks of fermentation. Now it’s time to remove the SCOBY and a little bit of the raw kombucha to use on your next batch. Once the SCOBY is removed you can add your flavors and bottle the Kombucha. Let it set for another week in the bottles; then it should be ready to drink.
People often don’t realize how fast a SCOBY can grow. I will get pictures from people asking if things are looking right, and in almost every case, things are normal. I teach a kombucha class here in Chicago, and often tell my students not to get too concerned about the color and growth of the SCOBY as it will darken in color and expand as it begins to grow.
I recommend keeping the kombucha at room temperature and out of direct sunlight during fermentation. I suggest monitoring the temperature during this period—many starter kits will include temperature strips.
Use a full/loose-leaf tea, such as pu’erh or gunpowder green, to extract the most flavor and antioxidants. Stay away from Lipton or a generic black tea. Avoid herbal teas or black teas that contain fruity flavors, such as earl grey, which contains bergamot, vanilla, and other citrus flavors. If you have a local teashop in your area, it can be a great way to smell and learn about all of the possibilities.
If you’re still unsure about kombucha, you should watch a group of Southern grandmas taste-test the drink for the first time. It adds the right amount of levity to the process; it’s supposed to be fun.
The founders of Brooklyn Kombucha, Eric and Jessica Childs, has published a book, Kombucaha! The Amazing Probiotic Tea that Cleanses, Heals, Energizes and Detoxifies. It’s a great resource. The book goes over everything you need to start out and even has recipes for cooking with your SCOBY. Brooklyn Kombucha’s site is also a great online resource for kombucha kits and supplies.
The Tea Spot is a great online store for purchasing tea. They offer a great selection of green and black teas for making kombucha, or by its lonesome If exotic or specialty teas are more your type, check out Rare Tea Cellar. The Emperor’s Dragonwell organic tea is one of my favorites to use.
Fortunately, kombucha is pretty much omnipresent—you can find bottled drinks at most grocery stores in the refrigerated section. That said, there are many labels out on the market, and it can be difficult to choose.
GT’s is the largest bottler of kombucha and a good option if you are new to the drink. Others, such as Townshend’s Brew Dr. Kombucha, offer exotic flavors like Citrus Hops, Ginger Tumeric and Love. Check out local brewers, too—here in Chicago I enjoy Arize Imperial Kombucha, which offer small batch organic kombucha crafted with premium ingredients. And you’ll be surprise by how many places now offer kombucha on tap.
Eric Lomonaco teaches a kombucha class, 1800 Kombucha, in Chicago. His next class is April 21.