Over the past several years, I have grown to enjoy home fermentation projects, from yogurt to sourdough, and of course kombucha. Kombucha is one of those weird, hippie-esque beverages originating in Asia somewhere a few thousand years ago that gets really, really mixed reviews. It is pretty simple, honestly, just a fermented sweet tea with or without the addition of fruit or fruit juice. It is touted for many health benefits, boasting healthy probiotics similar to yogurt or other naturally fermented foods and beverages. Good kombucha is pleasantly effervescent and has an appeal reminiscent of wine, if it is a lighter kombucha, or even beer, if it is a stouter one. As a product of fermentation, there is alcohol in it, but very little. I specify “good kombucha,” because some of what you can purchase at stores has strange things added to it or has fermented too long and has turned vinegary, both of which can affect how palatable it might be.
I am far from being an expert on making kombucha. If you want expert advice, I suggest any number of books that exist on the subject, or websites or Facebook groups dedicated to “home brewing.” I have a very simple recipe that a friend gave my sister several years ago, and I’ve just tweaked it here and there to suit my preferences. All I’m sharing is a recipe and method that I have found to work reliably.
To make your own kombucha, you need the following:
A half gallon jar
A scoby (what? See below)
2 cups of mature kombucha
4 cups of brewed green tea (with 1/2 cup sugar dissolved)
Brew tea, either green or black or a combination, though my preference is green tea – I like to do 4 green tea bags in 4 cups of hot water, add the 1/2 cup sugar while it is hot, and let it cool before removing the tea bags. This will take a few hours, so plan accordingly.
Place your scoby and the 2 cups of mature kombucha in your brewing jar, and gently pour the cooled sweet tea in with the scoby. The scoby may or may not float, which doesn’t matter. It will form a new layer on the top of the tea, regardless. Cover the jar with a coffee filter (or square of muslin or paper towel), secure with a rubber band, and place in a warmish location. And wait.
Depending on how warm your house is, your kombucha might brew as quickly as 1 week, or might take closer to two. If you’re doing this in the summer and your house is very warm, it might be done even quicker than a week! Taste it after five days or a week and see how the flavor is. If it is lightly carbonated and not too sweet, then proceed to the second fermentation (described below). If it is pretty flat and very sweet, let it sit another few days. Err on the side of checking too soon, since once it has gone to vinegar it isn’t very salvageable, except to save 2 cups back for a new batch.
If you like the taste of the kombucha after the first fermentation, you sure don’t need to proceed to a second! If you want a fizzier tea, proceed with the second fermentation.
Leaving 2 cups of kombucha and the scoby in the jar (to be used as the starter for a new batch just like above), pour off everything else into a smaller Mason jar or a bottle with a swing-top, such as these by the brand Otis. Add a half a cup or so of fruit juice (I use homemade cranberry juice), close the lid, and let it sit for two days or so. This is called the second fermentation. The remaining sugar or any added sugar from juice or fruit added at this phase feeds the scoby and the fermentation continues, but with the sealed lid, the carbon dioxide formed during fermentation is contained resulting in natural carbonation. This part of the process is probably the least predictable and takes some trial and error, and honestly I rarely get the perfect second fermentation. Too long of a first fermentation and not enough sugar remaining (and not enough added for the second ferment) and there isn’t enough sugar to get the carbonation. The temperature in your house will affect this as well, with how quickly the fermentations take place. If you get a good first fermentation, though, the kombucha is still delicious.
After a few days, taste the bottled kombucha and see if it is to your liking! If it is, congratulations! Keep in the fridge to prevent it over-fermenting and getting vinegary. It will continue to ferment a little in the fridge.
If it isn’t quite to your liking, seal it up for another few days, or even add a little more fruit juice for some sugar. Depending on how good the lids are on the jars or bottles you’re using, you might want to crack the lid after a couple of days to prevent the pressure from building with the carbonation and exploding the jar. I have heard reports of this happening, though I haven’t had it happen to me…yet. Some people put their bottles in cardboard boxes, or you could also wrap the bottles if you’re concerned about them exploding.
A couple of notes:
What in the world is a scoby? Actually, “scoby” should be spelled “SCOBY,” since it is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Basically, it is a bacteria and yeast mushroom that grows on the top of the brewing kombucha, and is what metabolizes the sugar to produce the fermentation that makes kombucha so nutritious and delicious. It is also called “the mother.” With each successive fermentation, the scoby will add a new layer on the top and eventually you’ll be able to separate or divide the layers into separate “mothers.” People who have been brewing kombucha forever often keep scobies in “scoby hotels,” for future use. This is the easiest way to obtain a scoby, from a person with extra to share – just be sure to get 2 cups of mature kombucha from them as well. There are places online where you can purchase scobies, or you can make your own, which I will explain in a future article. Scobies are perfectly safe to handle, with a weird rubbery texture, just handle them with good hand hygiene since they are a colony of bacteria and we want to keep the scoby clean of bad bacteria.
Black or green tea: Generally kombucha recipes call for black tea. I prefer green. Most store-bought kombucha is a mix of the two. Take your pick! I think the green has a lighter, more delicate taste.
The amount and kind of sugar: My original recipe called for 1 cup of sugar to 4 cups of tea. After trial and error, I found that less sugar produced a better kombucha and I’ve settled on 1/2 cup of sugar. I tried 1/3 of a cup, but the kombucha wasn’t as fizzy. I have heard of people using other kinds of sugar, even coconut sugar, but I just use plain white sugar. I found coconut sugar to have a weird aftertaste.
Juice or fruit: As I stated in the recipe, I use homemade cranberry juice for the second ferment. There is no added sugar in this juice, which I like, especially since I actually want the kombucha to be low in sugar at the end of the process. You can use any juice, though, and if your first fermentation is giving you a low-sweetness tea, maybe you’d want to use juice with more sugar, to give a little punch to the second fermentation. You can also add pieces of fruit during this phase.
Bottles or jars: For the second fermentation, you can use anything that can seal. Just make sure you use a quality bottle that can hold up to the possibility of a lot of pressure building up. The Otis brand swing-top bottles get great reviews on Amazon for kombucha brewing and are what I’m just starting to use. Swing top lids are nice just because you can always unseal them, even if the pressure builds up, unlike with Mason jar lids where the lid can become difficult to get off. There are plastic lids with rubber seals that are made specifically for fermentation.
So there you have it! Again, this isn’t my expert recipe. This is my simple recipe that I use for kombucha that I thoroughly enjoy drinking! Maybe you will, too! Happy brewing!