By S. Coby
Making kombucha at home is easier than you might think. It requires only a few inexpensive materials to get started, and as long as you maintain basic standards of cleanliness and hygiene, you have little to worry about as you create your own unique brew. There are plenty of brewing instructions floating around on the Internet, but I've found many to be inefficient and fussy.
My method requires very little hands-on time. Kombucha cultures prefer temperatures between 72 and 85 degrees, but many instructions suggest boiling the entire gallon of water to start the tea, which requires a long cooling period before the starter can be added. Preparing a tea concentrate instead eliminates the wait time and is a much better way to go.
You can start kombucha with a scoby (an acronym for "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast") and 1 to 2 cups of starter liquid from a trusted source. If you don't have a good source for a scoby, you can grow one with a bottle of raw commercial kombucha, sweet tea and a little bit of patience.
Once you get started, it is very easy to continue to produce kombucha with minimal effort and to experiment with seasonal flavors. My personal favorite is rose, which I make when roses are at their fresh, fragrant peak in June and July. However, frozen berries and dried herbs work well, too.
What you'll need:
• 1 clean 1-gallon glass jar or pitcher
• 1 clean muslin cloth or dish towel
• 1 hefty rubber band
• 1 bottle of commercial raw unflavored kombucha
• 1 cup of sugar (ideally organic and unbleached)
• 1 gallon of filtered or spring water
• 6 black tea bags of your choice (I personally have a nostalgic affection for Red Rose tea, which happens to be fairly cheap and brews an exceptional kombucha with rich honey notes.)
• 6-8 clean bale-top or hefty screw-top bottles for the final product.
How to get started without a scoby:
1. Heat about 3 cups of the filtered water in a saucepan until boiling. Turn off the heat, drop in the tea bags for a few minutes, then squeeze and remove them from the pan. Stir in 1 cup of sugar until dissolved. This makes a sweet tea concentrate. Pour the concentrate into a 1-gallon jar, then fill the jar to 1 inch below its shoulders with filtered water. This brings the tea to the ideal temperature for the kombucha starter culture.
2. Add the kombucha starter culture (I use a whole bottle of GT's Raw Original) to the sweet tea, cover the jar with a clean cloth and rubber band, and store in a warm, draft-free place away from direct sunlight. I prefer on top of the refrigerator.
3. In about a week, you will start to see a film form on the surface of the liquid. It might look like a bunch of white dots on the surface. Don't freak out—it's not mold. It's actually the scoby forming, and it means you should just ignore the culture for a few more days. After 7 to 10 days, a distinct whitish, gel-like substance will have formed on the surface of the tea. It might have brown or white spots, it might have bubbles, and there might be brownish, stringy things underneath it. It might look really weird, but as long as you don't see furry bits or mold-colored spots (black, green, blue, red) it's doing just fine. The internet is full of pictures of healthy scobys to put your mind at ease.
4. Once the scoby has formed, you can taste the tea. Draw up a bit of the liquid from under the scoby using a straw or pipette and taste it. If you like the balance of tartness and sweetness, then it's ready. This is the point when you can flavor and bottle the kombucha and get ready for the next batch.
5. Wearing gloves or using a non-metal utensil, gently transfer the scoby from the top of the gallon jar to a quart jar. Many people use their bare hands to handle the scoby, but I mean, c'mon, that's gross. Pour enough kombucha over the scoby to fill the jar, and cover it with a cloth or paper towel and a rubber band. This will be the starter for your next batch.
6. The gallon jar now contains your kombucha. You have a decision to make: flavored or unflavored? To flavor my kombucha, I simply float whole fruits, berries, herbs or flowers in the gallon jar, and let it sit, covered with a cloth and rubber band, for about a day before straining and bottling. If you want your kombucha to be unflavored, just proceed to the next step.
7. Funnel the finished kombucha into bottles that can withstand pressure. I prefer bale-top beer bottles or commercial kombucha bottles with screw tops. Let the filled and capped bottles sit at room temperature for about three days at 70 degrees, or for less time if the weather is warmer. Gently test one bottle by twisting or unhinging the cap. If you hear a healthy "pfffft!" then they are well-carbonated and ready to refrigerate. Be careful not to let the bottles stay out too long at room temperature, or they can become over-pressurized and explosive. Use caution, as overly pressurized bottles can be dangerous.
8. Now, it's time to start your next batch. Follow steps 1 and 2 as above, but this time, add your reserved kombucha liquid as the starter instead of the store-bought stuff, and gently lay your reserved scoby on the surface of the tea using a gloved hand or a non-metal utensil. Proceed with steps 3 through 7.
S. Coby is a fermentation enthusiast based in Portland. She specializes in making kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, hot pepper sauces and all kinds of beer.