You guys might know by now that I love to ferment stuff around here. While I’ve only really tackled pickles and kefir on my own, you’ve probably heard me wax poetic a time or two about the awesome pickle guy we had up in DC. I swear he makes the kind of sauerkraut that has even the most avid ‘kraut hater (ahem, me) standing in line around the block just to get some.
But with the pickled veggie scene here in Richmond leaving something to be desired, I knew the only way I’d be able to get my hands on any fermented goodness is if I started doing it myself.
Soooo imagine my giddy squeal of excitement when I found a kombucha SCOBY at a health food store here in town! It was real. And it was weird.
What Is Kombucha?
In case you’ve never heard of it, kombucha is a lightly sweetened, sour drink made by fermenting black or green tea and adding a dash of juice at the end to give it extra fizz and flavor.
And because it contains all the good bacteria, vitamins, and minerals leftover from the fermentation process, it’s incredibly healing. In fact, the ancient Chinese used to call it the “Immortal Health Elixir” because of its rumored health benefits such as preventing cancer, reducing inflammatory diseases, and healing the gut.
While it’s kind of an acquired taste (think lightly vinegary with a hint of sour apple and fruit juice), the husband and I can’t get enough of it. It’s even safe to say that we’re freakishly obsessed.
What’s a SCOBY?
Here’s where things get interesting. SCOBY stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (I know, it sounds so gross when you put it like that) and it’s a gelatinous mixture of various cultures of bacteria and yeast. When left floating in the tea/sugar mixture, the bacteria and yeast feed off the sugar and vitamins from the tea, giving you kombucha.
Basically, a SCOBY is what does the fermenting.
And not only does it get the fermentation process rolling but it also acts as a protective barrier, sealing the top of your container and keeping bad bacteria out of your kombucha while the good bacteria gets to work.
In case you were wondering, here's what one looks like...
Where to Buy Your SCOBY
There are lots of great places to buy or barter your way to a SCOBY, but here are my favorites.
- Cultures for Health ($21.99 + shipping) – This is my favorite online shop for all things fermentation and it’s where I got my kefir starter back in the day. Their starters typically come dehydrated and require you to soak them for a few days before they'll really start working. While this isn’t as easy as buying a fresh, already hydrated SCOBY, it’s a great choice if you just want to order a SCOBY off the internet and be done with it. Their kits also come with everything you need to get started right away such as black tea, pH strips and a plastic strainer, which is a plus.
- Your local health foods store ($15.99) – I found my SCOBY at a store here in Richmond called Good Foods Grocery (and they get theirs from another local place called Farmstead Ferments). Their SCOBYs come completely hydrated and ready for use immediately. By keeping it local you get to skip out on shipping costs and give back to the community a bit. Plus, you know where your SCOBY comes from and can vouch for the quality.
- Grow your own ($4.99) – This is the cheap-o way to start brewing Kombucha, but for obvious reasons, isn’t the fastest. I’ve never tried this but it seems simple enough if you’ve got the patience and desperately want to save a few bucks. Here’s a great tutorial to get your started.
- A friend (free!) – Another good choice is to just ask a fermentation-loving friend. SCOBYs grow quickly and anyone who likes to make kombucha probably has more SCOBYs than they know what to do with. However, this is easier said than done because I have yet to meet anyone else who thinks SCOBYs are as cool (or at least as un-gross) as I do. But if you’re lucky and know someone who does, good for you! Save yourself the time and money and ask away!
Picking a Tea
Traditionally, kombucha is brewed using plain green or black tea due to its high vitamin and mineral content. Teas such as Ceylon, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Jasmine are great for activating and maintaining a healthy SCOBY.
While a lot of commercial brands use herbal teas such as yerba mate or rooibos as their base, doing this all the time isn’t recommended for several reasons. First, herbal teas contain oils that could cause your SCOBY to grow mold. And a moldy batch of kombucha isn’t just disgusting, it also wreaks havoc on your body. Second, a healthy SCOBY feeds off vitamins and minerals only found in those traditional leafy teas I mentioned earlier. Therefore if you want your SCOBY to grow and continue making kombucha, you need to feed it the right stuff.
That being said, if you still really want to make kombucha using herbal tea, try Yerba Mate, white, or Rooibos teas. And to prevent any unwanted action in the mold department, a good rule of thumb is to mix in at least 25% black or green tea and to avoid all teas containing oils or added flavors (always read the ingredients list!).
What You Need to Start Fermenting
Ok so now that you have your SCOBY, here’s what else you need:
10 organic, plain green or black tea bags (hello, Mr Newman)
1 cup raw demerara sugar
1 gallon spring water
2 cups starter tea from a previous batch of kombucha or ½ cup store bought kombucha
Fruit juice (optional)
2-gallon glass or ceramic jug with plastic spigot (this one is awesome)
Plastic mesh strainer (I like this one)
Cheese cloth and rubber band
Wooden stirring utensil
An iron stomach (just kidding)
The How To
- Thoroughly wash and dry your glass jug, strainer, and stirring utensil. Because bad bacteria can ruin a perfectly good batch of kombucha, it’s important to keep your tools (and your hands!) as clean as possible.
- Prepare the sweet tea. I fill a large porcelain bowl half way with water and pop it in the microwave for a few minutes to get it hot. Then I add the sugar, stirring completely with a wooden spoon to dissolve. Next I add the tea bags and let steep until the water has cooled to room temperature. Make sure your water is really, really cool because if it’s too hot it can kill your SCOBY.
- Next, pour the sweet tea mixture into your glass jug. Add the remaining water (whatever you have left from your 1 gallon of spring water). Pour in your starter tea and stir.
- With clean hands, gently place your SCOBY in the jar of tea. Some folks say you should never let your hands touch the tea mixture (probably for hygiene purposes), but I completely submerged my hands a time or two nothing bad happened. Take that as you will.
- Cover the jug with cheese cloth and secure with a rubber band to prevent bugs, dust, and other things from getting in your brew.
- Leave the jug out on the counter in a warmish spot (about 70 degrees) and let ferment for 7 days. At this point you can taste test the kombucha – it should be slightly vinegary with a hint of sugar, but not yet fizzy.
- Once it reaches this stage, it’s ready for a secondary ferment. Just pour ¾ of your kombucha into another clean glass jar(s) and seal tightly with a plastic lid (I like to use glass beer growlers with the plastic hinge top). If you want a slightly sweeter, fruitier ferment, simply add ½ cup fruit juice prior to sealing the lid. Let sit for 2-3 days at room temperature to carbonate, but be sure to check it every day or so as too much pressure can build causing your jar to explode if left unchecked. Store in fridge until ready to drink.
- Finally, replenish your sweet tea mixture and start the whole process over again.
So what do you think? Is this something you'd be willing to try or are you thoroughly happy riding on the store-bought fan bus? Let me know in the comments!