Homemade kombucha has been on my kitchen wishlist for over a year now. For one reason or another, every opportunity I’d had to learn the process fell through, until recently when I reconnected with a good friend from herb school.
Kombucha is a wonderful, cleansing, probiotic-rich fermented tea long celebrated in China for its many healthful and healing properties. It may be a bit of an acquired taste for the typical American palate; tart, fizzy, a little funky. But it is so refreshing and delicious, and can be flavored any number of tasty ways.
My favorite thing about making kombucha is that it’s impossible to do it totally on your own. It requires community and cooperation. As I’d spent much of the past year semi-retreated into myself, I guess you could say I just wasn’t ready for kombucha and the gifts it brings until now.
Much in the way that sourdough requires a living, reproducing “starter” culture, making kombucha requires and produces a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (or “scoby”). The name “scoby” (or sometimes “mother”) could technically be used to be describe many other cultures, such as those used to make kefir, yogurt, vinegar and ginger beer. But I’ve always heard the kombucha culture in particular referred to as simply “scoby.”
So the true first step (and the most important) in brewing homemade kombucha is finding a friend who can get you started (pun intended!). Reach out, ask around, find someone who can gift you one of their scobys and a couple cups of their own fermented brew. You’ve also got to have a couple of non-common tools: a gallon-sized glass jar and about 8 clamp-stop hermetic bottles (these can be found online or at beer-brewing suppliers).
Then, you can make your own delicious homemade kombucha in three simple steps (thanks to Emma at The Kitchn for the great tutorial I learned from!):
Step 1: Brew the tea.
Boil 3 1/2 quarts (or 14 cups) of distilled water in a large stock pot. Remove from heat, then stir in about 1 cup of raw, organic sugar. Add about 8 bags or 2 tablespoons loose organic tea.
You can use many different varieties; good to start with black, green, or a blend. Do not use Earl Grey or anything else flavored with essential oil (it interferes with the fermentation process and can kill the scoby or cause molding).
Allow the tea to steep until it has cooled, a few hours, then remove the tea bags or strain. You may speed up the process with an ice bath if need be. If you’re using green tea, you many need to remove the tea before it has cooled completely to prevent bitterness.
Step 2: Ferment.
Once the tea has cooled, stir in about 2 cups “starter” tea, kombucha that has already been fermented. Pour the mixture into a sterilized, gallon-sized glass jar and carefully slide in the scoby. Cover the top with a clean, porous rag or cheesecloth and a rubber band and store in a dark, room temperature space where it can sit undisturbed. Mark the date.
Ferment for 7 to 10 days. In this time, a new scoby will begin forming as the top layer of the tea. After 7 days, taste a bit of the tea—younger kombucha is sweeter; as it ages, more of the sugar is metabolized by the culture and it will become more tart. Ferment until it reaches your desired taste.
Before you remove the scoby from the jar, begin the process again—brew another batch of tea. Then, lift it carefully from the jar with clean hands and set aside on a clean plate. Reserve 2 cups of the fermented kombucha to act as the “starter” for the batch you’ve just brewed.
Step 3: Bottle.
At this point, you can either pour your kombucha into a fresh jar and infuse it with other herbs, juices, fruits or flavors for a day or two (favorites seem to be ginger and blueberry; I can’t wait to play with herbs!) or go straight to the bottling process.
Pour the kombucha into clean bottles, leaving about a half inch of headspace. Store the bottles in a dark, room temperature space where they can sit undisturbed for 1-3 days, during which time the kombucha will carbonate. The longer the bottles sit, the more fizzy the drink will be (don’t overdo it, 3 days should be plenty).
After that, store kombucha bottles in the fridge, where they’ll be delicious and ready to drink for about a month. Then, start the process all over again—using the newly-steeped tea and the reserved starter to ferment a new batch. That’s it!
My friend and his wife have what they call a “hotel,” a separate gallon jug where they keep all of the new scobys created with each batch in a bath of kombucha. It was from this hotel that they pulled the lovely specimens they gifted me.
As making kombucha is a continual, regenerative process, it requires a bit of a commitment. But once you get into the groove, it’s actually very simple. There’s a lot of in-between time with each step, but the hands-on time is pretty minimal. If you find that you can’t keep the culture going, you can keep your newest batch in the refrigerator for up to six weeks.