Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to Brew Kombucha (Part 1 of 4) - Overview / Starting Your First Batch

Brewing Kombucha
Kombucha with a "young" SCOBY

The Complete 4-Part Series:
Part 2: Fermentation
Part 3: Bottling
Part 4: Every Kind of Fruit I've Bottled Kombucha With

Beer isn't the only thing to benefit from a revival movement in the last twenty/thirty years — really, I'd argue that it's just the most successful, most interesting Poster Child of a much larger "craft" movement. (Probably a topic for a whole essay of its own, that.) In case you've been living under not just a rock, but several dozen massive boulders, America has seen a cultural shift toward local, natural, hand-crafted foods and goods, and a slow but mounting rejection of factory-made "food" products.

Awareness and consumption of kombucha has jumped hugely during this movement, catapulting from something that a few of your hippie friends may have heard of, to something that a few of your hipster friends sometimes drink. What is it? Basically, kombucha is fermented tea. You make tea, add some sugar to it, and then let it sit for a week or two fermenting. That's it! But! Kombucha has one of the most unique (and kind of disgusting, honestly) fermentation processes that I have seen. One look at a kombucha SCOBY and you'll know what I mean.

I bet your next question is: "Why drink it, then?" Yes, a rather obvious follow-up question — don't looked so shocked that I was able to guess it. One of the first reasons for drinking kombucha you'll hear is that kombucha has all sorts of health benefits. You may even hear that it'll cure a bunch of diseases and give you perfect vision and occasionally even the power to kill a yak from 200 yards away with Mind Bullets (that's telekinesis, Kyle). I don't personally buy into all of that (except the telekinesis, which I've experienced personally), but on the other hand, kombucha is undoubtedly not not-healthy. Like, it's not going to brush your teeth for you, but it's as good or probably better than drinking fruit juice for breakfast, plus it's packed with extra nutrients and stuff.

Kombucha is certainly an acquired taste, but once you acquire that taste, is incredibly delicious. It can taste much like vinegar, depending, or it can taste like a fizzy effervescent soda-juice drink, or somewhere in between (ideally). The first time I tried it, I hated it. Now, of course, I'm churning out a couple gallons of kombucha each month. Even if the taste of straight-up kombucha doesn't interest you, it blends well with all sorts of flavors, making it a great replacement for soda or juice, or even coffee.

And, if you're a fan of sour beer, kombucha will probably taste great to you right away. So if you wish you could drink sour beer for breakfast but aren't an alcoholic (or rich) enough to do so, kombucha is an acceptable temporary substitute.

So, I've now convinced you to try kombucha, and you liked it so much that you want to make your own. That's just swell. I have more good news: kombucha is very easy to make. If you're already brewing beer, it will probably seem too easy. In fact, I'd say it's easier to consistently brew good kombucha than it is to brew good beer. Kombucha is just easier, has fewer variables, and is more forgiving — once you've got a healthy culture going, it's pretty hard to produce an infected or off-batch (in my experience). Compared to beer, kombucha is very consistent even when you don't really know what you're doing. The other nice perk: store-bought kombucha is getting super expensive, but making it at home costs cents per gallon.

SCOBY-SCOBY-Doo, what are you? We've got some work to do now.

Step One: Grow / Buy / Steal a SCOBY
As mentioned above, kombucha has a weird, gross-looking fermentation process unlike that of beer, wine or cider. Kombucha is fermented by a SCOBY: Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. The SCOBY forms a "pancake" on the top of the kombucha, which regulates its oxygen intake (much like a pellicle), and of course, ferments the sugars in the tea.

You don't make kombucha: the SCOBY does. You just make tea, my friend, and making tea is stupid easy. But to start, you need to acquire a SCOBY. If you have a friend that already makes kombucha, great, just ask them to hook you up. If you don't have access to a full-grown SCOBY, you can also grow one up yourself from commercial bottles of kombucha. (Which I did). However, I do want to note here that commercial kombucha brewers were apparently required by the government to reformulate their kombucha a few years ago, or pull certain varieties off the shelf, due to their "alcohol content." Now, the alcohol content of any kombucha is laughably low, like 1% ABV or less, but I guess something in the reformulation process altered the viability of the dregs remaining in most bottles. So from what I've heard, it's now risky to grow up a culture from a commercial bottle (in that it might not work), so your best bet is likely a small, local brand... like someone at a farmer's market that's only a step or two above a homebrewer themselves. (Or, again, just buy or steal a SCOBY from someone you know). Of course, it should also go without saying that any kombucha that is pasteurized or filtered will not be culturable.

Here's what you do: buy two or three bottles of kombucha that you like (again, see caveat above). Plain kombucha is best, but if you can only get a flavored kind, that'll work too as long as it's not filtered or pasteurized or bottled with preservatives. (Look for a bit of sediment at the bottom of the bottle; the more the better.)

Make about 8 ounces of tea, add a tablespoon of sugar, and let cool to room temp. (That is important: you don't want to boil the bacteria to death).

Pour out (into a glass to drink) about two thirds of the kombucha, and set it aside. You should be left with a few ounces of kombucha and a healthy swirl of sediment at the bottom. Next, pour your tea mixture into the bottle. If possible, decant another one or two bottles of kombucha, swirl up those dregs, and pour them into the original bottle. For obvious reasons, the more dregs you have, the better your chances of success.  Shake a bit to stir the dregs up, then cover loosely with some aluminum foil and a rubber band.

Let it sit for a week. Then, brew about 1.5 times as much tea as you did before, add two tablespoons of sugar, and pour this into the container. Cover again; let sit another week. At this point, there should be a thin film on top of the liquid — the beginning of a SCOBY. It should smell sour, like kombucha. It should not be moldy. Soon, you'll have your very own lil' baby SCOBY, and you can continue to Bear Flavored's "How to Brew Kombucha, Part 2."


  1. For those of us who can't borrow a SCOBY or even find a commercial Kombucha to culture, can you build up a SCOBY from a sour beer? Or is it just too different for kombucha purposes?

  2. Huh, that's a really great question. I'm not actually sure, since I've long been curious as to what makes kombucha form a SCOBY while sour beer just forms a pellicle (and it's pretty amazing how different those two things are). I'd like to find out what microbes may be in a SCOBY that make the difference.

    But maybe there is no difference in microbes, and the difference is that you ferment kombucha with an open-top jar. The access to oxygen could just transform a mere pellicle into a thick fleshy SCOBY.

    I would give it a go, it could definitely work. And it would certainly be enlightening. I'm working on a few experiments that are basically the reverse — fermenting a sour beer with kombucha.

    1. I think that one of the big differences is acetobactor which is an aerobic bacteria that converts ethanol into acetic acid. Since beer fermentation is an anaerobic process you wouldn't find that kind of bacteria in a sour beer.

  3. Hi there! I was given a load of kokmbucha from someone whom had been growing it in the bath!! Long story, lol. So, he was very generous with it - it is hardly a SCOBY, more like a vac-pac'd football's worth! I have had the whole airtight pack in the fridge until I can pluck up the courage to get going, but I don't know where to start! Do I chop it up, slice it, or what? Can you please help??? lol. Thank you. Alison. x

    1. Wow, that sounds like a SCOBY with quite an interesting history. Since it may not be in the greatest shape (after being vacuum sealed and stored for a while) I would start it out in maybe a half gallon batch of tea/sugar and give it a few weeks to see how it does. If it's a really huge pile of SCOBY, you probably just cut off a hunk of it (or a layer of it, if it happens to be in layers), though it shouldn't hurt to dump the whole thing in either. Either way, as long as it's still alive, it should do its thing.

      Good luck!

  4. is there any difference/preference to cover it with foil over towel? I've never used foil before but I didn't have any clean towels/paper towels...

    1. I think foil should work fine too. The goal is simply to keep pests out but allow a little air through. Foil, even secured with a rubber-band, isn't going to be completely air-tight. But I would still cover with a towel or cheese-cloth eventually for long-term brewing.

  5. I really like your writing style and how you express your ideas. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject! Please keep up the effective work. Thank you!


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