What the heck is kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that is created by introducing a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to a combination of black or green tea, sugar, and water. Kombucha is amber-colored and mildly effervescent, with a flavor that is slightly sweet and tangy. Please note that not all people find it so delightful. To quote Neil, “It tastes to me like a cross between drinking vinegar with old flat soda that still has a little carbonation and dirty water.”
Kombucha tea is believed to have originated in China around 200 BC, during the Tsin-Dynasty. It grew in popularity and with the evolution of the trade routes, it spread to Russia, India, and other parts of Asia. Only in recent years has the kombucha craze caught on in the US. Apparently kombucha beers are now being brewed (e.g., Blootvoeste Bruin by the Walking Man Brewery in Washington; yet another reason to love this state), and kombucha martinis are now being peddled in fancy-pants cocktail bars.
Kombucha contains various antioxidants and probiotics, which are believed to yield health benefits. It has been referred to as the remedy for immortality, the immortality elixir, and the magical fungus. Until recently, the stories of its miracle-yielding powers were almost exclusively anecdotal…
This sounds like witchcraft
I agree – kombucha sounds like a marriage between ancient sorcery and hemp-loving hippie moonshine. A part of me finds that union really sexy, but because I consider myself to be a bit of a scientist, I turned to the research literature on the topic. I would be remiss to say that there is consensus and certainly further study is warranted before any firm conclusions can be drawn, but there is increasing evidence that kombucha is indeed associated with health benefits. In animal models (e.g., rats, mice, ducks), it has evidenced potential for reducing symptoms of diabetes (Aloulou et al., 2012) and liver disease (Bhattacharya, Gachhui, & Sil, 2011). A recent review of the literature described a mounting body of research indicating that kombucha may aid in treating a variety of metabolic and infectious disorders (Vino et al., 2014). Those researchers purported that “detoxification, antioxidation, energizing potencies, and promotion of depressed immunity” (p. 179) are to thank for kombucha’s health-promoting capabilities and potential illness prophylaxis. Antioxidants and probiotics (i.e., good bacteria) are all the rage these days, eh?! In summary, there is a small but increasing body of research that suggests kombucha may have positive benefits for multiple organ systems. I emphasize that kombucha has yet to be heralded as a miracle cure-all by the scientific community, but this ancient swill is garnering increasing research-based support.
My kombucha story
I’ve been interested in starting to brew my own kombucha for several years, having first tried my friend Trina’s home brew. I’ve purchased kombucha from stores, but it’s rather expensive (approximately $3.50 per bottle). Recently, our friend Olga shared some of kombucha at a social get-together, and I was hooked. When she offered to give me a SCOBY baby of my own, I all but jumped over the moon. When the time came for me to pick up my SCOBY, I was excited. I was, however, not prepared to actually see my SCOBY. I was expecting a tiny (i.e., bottle cap-sized) and adorable little SCOBY coin that would brew like a little champion. Well, the latter was spot on – I’m brewing, that’s for sure. The appearance, however, was sort of creepy. Imagine an inch-thick cellulose disc that has a moist rubbery texture and is covered in sporadic lumpy bubbles and has dark stringy bits dangling from its underside. These qualities are all very normal, but I was intimidated…intimidated, intrigued, and mildly grossed out. I put on my game face and got down to business.
- Sterilize gallon-size glass jar.
- Fill jar a little over half full with boiling water.
- Add ¾ cup of white sugar and 8 plain black tea bags.
- Allow tea bags to steep for roughly 10 minutes and then discard them.
- Cover jar with cloth and secure using a rubber band to protect from bacteria and potential creepy crawlies that sometimes find their way onto boats.
- Allow mixture to cool overnight.
PART II: Add the SCOBY
- With clean hands, gently transfer SCOBY into its new home
- Add 1-2 cups of the prior batch of kombucha to promote fermentation.
PART III: Brew and bottle
- Allow to sit unperturbed for 7 or 8 days (it brews faster in hotter temperatures). Unperturbed is a relative term, I suppose. We did go sailing for 4 days while the first batch was brewing…the jar fits nicely in our galley sink.
- Drain kombucha through a cheese cloth to remove the harmless but unappetizing brown dangly slimes (optional).
- Bottle the elixir. I used a handy dandy collapsible funnel I found for $1.99 and glass bottles with rubber seals.
- Refrigerate or leave at room temperature, your choice! The latter will allow the carbonation to continue to increase.
- ENJOY!! Mmmm….TASTY!
Other thoughts and reflections
- I didn’t fill the jar all the way up primarily because we live on a boat, and I wanted the jar to be able to heel without overflowing. I’ve also heard rumors of SCOBYs crawling out of their jar if fermentation goes a little too well…yikes!
- I used the cheapest tea bags I could find, and they worked fabulously!
- Neil helped with bottling, even though he finds the whole thing rather disgusting (i.e., good husband).
- Kombucha can be flavored with ginger, raspberries, etc. I have not tried this yet, but apparently flavors are to be added after the kombucha is bottled and prior to a second round of fermentation for the purpose of amalgamating the flavor.
- Mama SCOBYs grow baby SCOBYs, so after a few batches, you can actually give them away to your friends. Best white elephant gift idea ever.
I’m now busy brewing my fourth batch, and so far, all is well. I did forget to remove the tea bags for the first five days this time around…we’ll see what kind of trouble that stirs up. I’ll keep you posted if anything goes haywire. I’m also going to name my SCOBY monster and am currently entertaining suggestions. This thing seriously feels like it has a personality. Any ideas?
As a disclaimer, I wish to make clear that I am only sharing the process that I have been using for brewing my own kombucha and cannot assume any responsibility for what you do with this information. I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert, and I encourage any interested readers to seek out reputable sources of information, should you choose to start brewing independently.
Now, bottoms up!
Aloulou, A., Hamden, K., Elloumi, D., Ali, M. B., Hargafi, K., Jaouadi, B,… & Ammar, E. (2012). Hypoglycemic and antilipidemic properties of kombucha tea in alloxan-induced diabetic rats. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 12(1), 63.
Bhattacharya, S., Gachhui, R., & Sil, P. C. (2011). Hepatoprotective properties of kombucha tea against TBHP-induced oxidative stress via suppression of mitochondria dependent apoptosis. Pathophysiology, 18(3), 221-234.
Vīna, I., Semjonovs, P., Linde, R., & Deniņa, I. (2014). Current evidence on physiological activity and expected health effects of kombucha fermented beverage. Journal of medicinal food, 17(2), 179-188.