Kombucha is a bit of an enigma in the health world. It seems every health-minded group appreciates the benefits of this fermented, effervescent, and probiotic drink – from Vegans to Paleos alike. One unfortunate side effect of being a kombucha drinker is that if enjoyed regularly, you could basically end up completely broke; bottles range from $3 to $5 each at most grocery stores. Luckily, making it at home is fun, economical, and takes only a little foresight.
Kombucha is a fermented black tea drink, originating somewhere in Northern China or Central Asia at least 2,000 years ago. It reached Russia sometime in the 19th century, and quickly gained popularity as a health drink; at one point, most Soviet-era homes were growing their own kombucha culture. It spread to Europe and beyond through Russia. The Russians have several names for the drink, the most popular being чайный гриб (“tea mushroom”) and медуза (“medusa”, their word for jellyfish). The drink is made by fermenting a batch of sweet tea with a culture known as SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), which eats the caffeine and sugar, leaving you with a sour, slightly vinegary drink that’s not unlike apple cider vinegar.
The drink has some notable links to health, especially in regards to cancer. Author Alexander Soltzhenitsyn claims it cured his stomach cancer while imprisoned in a Soviet gulag. Ronald Reagan purportedly treated his colon cancer by drinking kombucha daily in the 1980s. While proven results have varied, it goes without saying that the fermented, probiotic profile of the drink carries benefits. In this age of antibiotics and antibacterial products, it’s good to see helpful bugs making a bit of a comeback.
With every batch of kombucha, a new SCOBY forms; I tend to leave three SCOBYs in the jar at once, and give the extras away.
There is no one way to make kombucha, but I’ve been making mine using the same method for about three years now, and it works well with our family’s drinking schedule. I brew (and bottle) three gallons every 3-4 weeks, and takes me about an hour every time I brew a new batch. Not a bad time investment in order to have constant kombucha. This recipe can be scaled up and down depending on how much you drink.
Many homebrewers prefer “continuous brew” setups, where you pour out kombucha as you drink it and periodically add new sweet tea to your fermentation pot. This method hasn’t been very helpful for me, because it forces me to either a) brew sweet tea often, which can become a chore, or b) brew a concentrated sweet tea and keep it in my fridge, which takes up precious space. So in the end I prefer my brew-every-3-weeks schedule.
1 SCOBY (starter culture)
2 gallons water
2 cups organic cane sugar
8 black tea bags (or 8 tsp loose tea) (see note below)
1-2 cups kombucha (starter liquid)
for second fermentation:
fruit juice (cherry, apple, strawberry, or grapefruit preferred)
or dried fruit (strawberries, mango preferred)
or fresh fruit (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries preferred)
fresh ginger (optional)
1. Your first order of business is to get a starter culture (SCOBY). You have several options: you can buy one online (Kombucha Kamp is an excellent source for cultures, equipment, and tutorials), get one from a friend, or grow your own. To grow your own, add 1-2 cups of store-bought, unflavored kombucha to a large jar of about 1/2 gallon sweet tea (brewed with 1/2 cup sugar and 4 tea bags) and let it sit for about 3-5 weeks (cover it with a cloth or coffee filter). A culture will form at the top, which you can use indefinitely for future kombucha batches. Here is a more in-depth tutorial on how to make a SCOBY from scratch.
2. Once you have a SCOBY, it’s time to brew. Boil 2 gallons of water (some people prefer purified water, I just use filtered tap water) and stir in the 2 cups of sugar and add the tea bags. Remove from heat and allow to steep and cool until the tea is at room temperature, which will take an hour or two. Alternatively, you can boil 1/2 gallon of water and add the sugar/tea to it to steep for about 20 minutes, then add the remaining 1 1/2 gallons cold water to it to cool it down to room temperature.
3. Add the sweet tea, SCOBY, and starter liquid to a large glass or porcelain jar. I use a large iced tea jar that has a spigot at the bottom; the spigot is made of metal, which can be affected by the acidic drink, so I clean it thoroughly every few months. If buying a jar with a spigot, look for one with a plastic spigot (but it’s not a deal breaker). Something like a large glass cookie jar will work as well.
4. Cover the jar with a thin cloth (like cheesecloth) and secure it with a rubber band. This will prevent insects or debris from getting in. Store it away from direct sunlight and somewhere moderately warm (70F-80F is ideal). Allow to ferment for 2-4 weeks depending on how sour/strong you like your kombucha – I recommend smelling or tasting it every few days after the two-week point. I generally brew mine for 3 weeks, but that can vary based on season and how warm it is in our house.
5. Once it has fermented, I distribute all but 2-3 cups of the kombucha into smaller bottles and flavor it. This step is called second fermentation, which gives the drink its effervescence (fizziness). Pour the kombucha into jars with tight-fitting lids (growlers or old store-bought kombucha bottles work fine, lately I’ve been using leftover Gerolsteiner bottles which are very easy to store). Fill the bottles only 3/4 of the way with kombucha. Fill the rest of the bottle up with fruit juice or chopped dried/fresh fruit. Throw in some fresh peeled ginger if you’re up for it (about 1/2″ per liter). If using a juice that isn’t very sweet (like cherry or cranberry), add in a little honey or sugar, about 1 tsp per liter. Fill up the jar until it’s nearly full – the less air you leave inside the bottle, the more fizzy it will get.
6. Seal the bottles and leave them out to ferment for 1-5 days, depending on how fizzy you like it. There is some danger of the bottles exploding but that’s never happened to me. I would start with a 2-day second fermentation for your first batch and lengthen the second fermentation the next time around. Once the second fermentation is complete, put the bottles in the fridge and enjoy at your leisure. I would recommend not opening the bottles until they have been in the fridge for a few hours, to minimize any fizzy explosions.
7. Finally, brew your next batch of kombucha. Go back to step #2 and use your remaining 2-3 cups of kombucha to do it all over again!
** Different teas provide for different flavors. When using tea bags, I would usually use 2 plain black tea bags, 1 green tea bag, and 2 Sadaf tea bags. For the past year I’ve been using the loose leaf tea blend from Kombucha Kamp. Be sure to avoid caffeine-free herbal teas (the SCOBY needs caffeine to grow) and flavored teas that contain essential oils.
** I’m all for natural sweeteners like honey instead of sugar, but in the case of kombucha, you’re going to want to brew it with sugar – honey just doesn’t cut it. Luckily, the SCOBY eats almost all of the sugar during fermentation so the final product is very low sugar.
** I prefer using juice over fresh or dried fruit. No matter how small you cut the fruit up, it will grow a bunch during the second fermentation and can be a pain to pour out. Blending the fruit will result in a bunch of pulp, which isn’t bad.
** If your kombucha ends up too strong-tasting for your liking, cutting it with water or a little juice can really help. If it isn’t fizzy enough for your tastes, consider adding a little sparkling mineral water. Adding more sugar or juice to the bottles during second fermentation will help add fizziness – it’s something that will likely take several batches to get just right.
** My favorite flavor, by far, is grapefruit. Kombucha mixes well with gin.