Sunday, May 22, 2011


Jars of freshly bottled Kombucha!
Several years ago, in what sometimes feels like my "other life" in southern California, I was introduced to a drink called Kombucha. I'd never hear of it until my good friend PD brought a couple bottles to the office for us to drink after our noon-time run on the beach (see previous comment on "other life"). She said to me "you'll either love it or hate it, but I have a feeling you'll be a lover".  She was right, and I was hooked.

Outside of the great flavor and the fact that it was supposed to be one of those "magic elixir" cure-all drinks, I loved that I could drink half a bottle, cap it, throw it back in the fridge and when I wanted to finish it the next day, it hadn't gone flat! Turns out, that's because even after bottling, the fermentation process continues. The main "mat" of culture is not in the bottles, but there's still enough in the drink to keep producing just a little gas, so  unlike soda, it never really gets old and unpleasant to drink.

The brand that got me hooked was GT's; it's still commercially available, though I think they've gone through some labeling/marketing changes of late. They come in many flavors and my favorites were cranberry and raspberry - the more sour the better! It's not cheap though so despite my love of the drink, I kept it as a special treat. I'd heard from friends that you can brew it yourself (it's a tea of sorts, fermented with kombucha cultures that you can use over and over again, kind of like making yogurt or sourdough), but I'd not heard where you can get the culture (often called a SCOBY, the acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, a mushroom, or a kombucha mother), so never tried it.

Close up of the starter culture / SCOBY, now several
generations old. You can see the multiple layers to it, with
the new "daughter" culture growing beneath the "mother"
with each batch that is brewed..

Fast forward to our "new life" in New York. We now live just outside the town of Ithaca, and I'd not had a kombucha drink in months (years maybe?!). In looking through the free section of Craig's list, I found an advertisement for kombucha starters, ready to go, just come and get them. Leave it to lovely, hippie Ithaca to have such a thing posted on Craig's list! I kept the phone number in my wallet for weeks and finally late last fall managed to meet up with the guy giving away the cultures; I had my ziplock baggie with the wispy looking "daughter" and some vague directions and was on my way.

Several generations later, I'm now pretty comfortable with the whole process and love that I can have as much as I want, whenever I want! I've even gotten my father hooked on the stuff, and gave him a "daughter" SCOBY so he too can make his own! My friend PD was right though - people either love it or hate it. My mom and Doug can't stand the stuff, though both tolerate the brewing jugs on their kitchen counters since they know it keeps their respective partners so happy!

From what I can tell, it's of Russian (or maybe Chinese?) origin, but versions of it are found in other cultures too, including Japan and Korea. You start with a sweetened tea (black or green), add the kombucha culture and allow it to work for several weeks at room temperature. It can then be bottled and again left at room temperature to allow the carbonation to build up. When it's how you like it, just refrigerate to store and enjoy (filtered, or not!). You can add flavoring (I tried cranberry and raspberry), but I found that one of the best parts about the home-made kombucha is that the flavor of the pure tea is so good on its own, that the added flavors are totally unnecessary. It's tart (some would say vinegar-ey) and light and refreshing, and now for me, an affordable pleasure!

How I make my kombucha batches:

     1.  Pull mother culture / SCOBY out of my currently batch of kombucha (nope, there's no picture of this - I forgot to take it!) and set it aside. Also measure out and set aside about 2 cups of the running batch.
Main culture (SCOBY) and an aliquot of the
old batch set aside to use in the new batch
     2.  Bottle the rest of my batch, and wash out the container. Set it aside to use again.
     3.  Brew some strong tea, using filtered (I use a Brita) water. I use black tea. Supposedly green is also OK but will require more sugar, and I've read to avoid herbals. Right now, I'm just keeping it simple with Salada. I brew it strong - five bags in about four to six cups of water, steeped for ten to fifteen minutes.
     4.  While the tea is still hot, mix in 1 1/2 to 2 cups of sugar. Pour this hot tea into my now empty, clean brewing container.
     5.  Dilute that sweetened tea with cold, filtered water. This makes my one gallon jar full to just before the glass turns for the shoulder. Let this sit until it's at room temperature.

Left side is the hot sweetened tea, undiluted. On the right
is the jar (one gallon) after I diluted the tea with cold water.
Note the color difference between the new batch and the
Kombucha in the jars I just bottled in the photo at the
start of the post!
     6.  Put SCOBY gently on top of new tea batch, same side up as I took it out on.

Adding the kombucha culture. If you're
wondering, it's something like the consistency
of raw calamari to the touch. Maybe just a
little slimier!
The mother culture will float right on top, and take the shape
of whatever container you use. Even if it sinks, that's OK too -
it will come back up to the top eventually!
      7.  Pour the two cups of the old brew that I'd set aside gently on top of the jar.

New batch after adding the innoculant. The
purpose of adding some of the old culture to
the new is to give the new batch the right
pH to start with. Part of why it is so easy to
maintain the culture is that not much else will
grow in something so acidic, so we want to
keep it that way, right from the start!

     8.  Cover with cloth / rubber band and set aside. I let mine brew about a month; I've read that it can be "finished" much sooner than that, but I like mine sour!

Covered this way, I don't even have to explain
to visitor what's in the strange jar on the counter!
I keep it in a dark spot, out of the way so I don't
disturb it much. You do want air exchange though,
so be sure not to seal the top down with a lid!
I've also read that fruit flies love this stuff, so a
cotton cover like this should work to keep them out.

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