Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Bravest Adventure Yet: Kombucha

GT's brand was my first experience with kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, probably about a year ago. Now through the wonders of friendship and Internet, I can say I will probably be GT's free indefinitely. Starter teas and finishing flavors including different juices, can vary, but the hallmark vinegar bite generally does not, and home brewing of kombucha allows the brewer a hand in controlling the amount of tang in the finished drink. This was certainly one thing that a year ago I would never have envisioned myself making in my home kitchen.

Kombucha is another item in the list of "love it or hate it" type things, due to it's unique flavor profile. I think, for me anyway, kombucha could be likened to cilantro; when I first tried cilantro - sometime in the 1990's I think - I hated it. Really, really hated it. Then, a few days later at work, an indescribable craving for cilantro came over me. I had to have cilantro, and from then on I couldn't get enough. That is how kombucha was, one sip and I was kind of amazed, a day or two later, I was full out obsessed.

Prior to my first sip, I had only generally overheard people talking about kombucha, and had seen it sold for exorbitant prices in the co-op, when I decided to purchase a 16 oz. bottle for about $4.50. I didn't know what to expect, so I didn't know that opening a freshly shaken bottle, in the car mind you, was going to be a really bad idea. About a third of my expensive trial run ended up stickily coating the interior of the Olds, and I learned firsthand about the natural effervescence of kombucha.

While the price of bottled kombucha appears to be going down (I assume in part due to increased competition from other brands), it is by far less expensive to make it yourself. And if you have a need for kitchen projects, as I do, the attraction to this one is purely irresistible. For some reason, I used to think that this was something best left to the controlled environment of a commercial kitchen laboratory, but now that I have been living with a SCOBY for a bit more than a week, any fears I had about home brewing tea from a living organism have evaporated. It is interesting to cohabitate with a culture of this nature, who goes through daily changes, and can perpetuate many generations. It could be the stuff of science fiction, or it could be age old wisdom in the new-fangled guise of popularity. Whatever it is, it is delicious, and it's worth giving a try!

Ok. If you are squeamish, this may be where you want to depart for the day. The kombucha brewing process begins with a SCOBY:

SCOBY, circa day 3 of first batch brewing.

SCOBY stands for Symbotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. So this little guy above, a baby SCOBY given to me by my friends Peef and Lo at the Burp! Blog, is an actual living organism. He feeds off sugar, growing and fermenting the liquid he is in until the tea is ready and full of healthful strains of vitamins, enzymes and acids, usually 7-10 days but as long as 30 days depending on your fondness for vinegar and your sensitivity to sugar. The longer the SCOBY resides in the tea, the more sugar it eats. The final elixir is slightly alcoholic, but contains far less than 1% alcohol, and the SCOBY produces multiple beneficial organic acids during the process.

It seems there is no real medical fact to back up any of the health claims, of which there are many. Even the Mayo Clinic notes that there is no human trial on record to back up any such heath claims. Most fascinating to me, however, are the claims by numerous people of the beneficial effect of glucuronic acid produced by the SCOBY.

Glucuronic acid is touted as having superior detoxifying abilities, and cleans the liver. Cancer and other vicious afflictions such as rheumatism appear to have drastic positive reactions to glucuronic acid, and to the host of other beneficial acids contained in kombucha. It appears the glucuronic acid is best produced in tea stored at a constant 74-84 degrees farenheit, and not as well at cooler temperatures. I'd say my kitchen has been a little cooler than that, but it seems that I've been doing ok so far. There is no shortage of information to be Googled, if you are interested. I found some great overviews here at the Happy Herbalist and here at Food Renegade for starters.

But more important to me than unsubstantiated health benefits, kombucha is adventurous. The name, obviously, sounds very Japanese, and is thought to originate in the far east. According to Seeds of Health, around 415 AD a Korean physician named "Kombu or Kambu" treated the Japanese Emperor Inyko with "cha"(tea), and the result evidently was positive as the tea then took the name Kombucha. Kombucha then migrated to Russia and on to Eastern Europe. (The Seeds of Health link above also outlines the numerous beneficial acids contained in kombucha.) Traveling tea, made from living organisms that, I'm guessing substantiated or not, are pretty darn healthy? Sign me up!

In our food geekery talks, Lo told me of her aunt who had multiple SCOBY's and kombucha batches going. Different teas, green or black, lead to different flavors, and Lo's aunt sounds like she has an awesome "laboratory" to choose from. The culture that Lo chose was from an Earl Grey tea, a tea that generally is considered a poor choice for growing a SCOBY. We both have had good luck so far, Lo in her 3rd or greater batch, and me in my 2nd, using a high-grade Earl Grey tea from Rishi. Burp! Blog will no doubt also be posting on their kombucha adventures, so be sure to check in on their site! Peef and Lo graciously gave me my SCOBY, and a nicely typed and articulated way of brewing my first batch of kombucha. I started a week ago Sunday, and in 7 days, had a batch of tea ready to be bottled.

In the interim, I read (and still am reading) tons of information on kombucha, SCOBY's, and the health benefits of both, and also more than once have been sucked into reading disaster stories of how natural things can be bad for you. It does appear, however, that "bad kombucha" will only lead to nausea and vomiting, so it's a risk I'm willing to take. It also serves any adventurous kitchen warrior to take extra precautions when handling a SCOBY: clean, non-latex gloved hands, and a clean environment just make good sense. Another rule of thumb for kitchen experimenters is if it looks funny, smells funny or grows fuzzy mold, best not to chance it and throw it away. Also, I went a step further and after reading about PH levels, decided that I should test for my acid content prior to bottling.

To purchase snazzy swing-top bottles, I visited Northen Brewer. I had never heard of Northern Brewer, and was glad I could not (even with iPhone's help) locate my original destination and had to call my home-brewing friend, Mr. Mork - R1's husband. I have never considered brewing beer myself or even getting that excited about brewing/fermenting, but I guess in the course of culturing buttermilk, yogurt, vegan cashew cheese and sour creams the seeds were planted. This shop was so infinitely inspiring. They had a whole "Grain Room" and refrigerated liquid yeasts from Europe! I got a class sheet, and their catalog to peruse wort chillers and glass lab equipment like a crazy person over my breakfast.

Beer is just fine, but I don't go out of my way to drink it most of the time, and here I am daydreaming over descriptions of hops! I called up Mr. Mork, and asked when his next brewing session would be since now I just have to learn more (without becoming totally committed to home-brew craft all by myself). We set a date for next week, and I am going in like a sponge to soak up all the hands-on information I can on beer brewing, and I hope to have a series of posts on my observations!

The Northern Brewer employee that helped me was completely knowledgeable and the perfect person to continue inspiring me. He was interested not only in fermenting beer, but in lacto-fermentation of pickles and ginger beer plant. I didn't realize at the time we were talking that the Ginger Beer uses the exact same process to ferment as kombucha! He convinced me, easily by the way, to invest in a product called StarSan to sterilize my jars. I did the math, and for a half gallon of water, I only need a single teaspoon of this sanitizer as a rinse for my bottles. I went ahead and sterilized everything I used in a half gallon bowl of sanitizing rinse: funnel, ladle and finally my clean and ready to be refilled 1 gallon glass tea jar.

The next day, I returned to purchase PH testing strips and while waiting to consult with him, overheard him assisting a new home-brewer. He told him it isn't the end result that home-brewing exists for, that it is the whole process of brewing that leads up to the end result. "A Machiavellian approach to life" is how he put it, which put a smile on my face to know that I am not alone in my gusto for reading more into the culinary world than meets the common eye.

He also said that testing my acid levels probably wasn't "necessary", but would be fun to know - exactly what I thought. An article I read said to prohibit the growth of bad bacterias, the acid levels should be between 2.5 and 4.6, mine checked in at 3.2 on day 7, and tasted fizzy and light without being overwhelmingly vinegary, so I decided to bottle. In two of the bottles, I added a little bit of pure ginger juice, since I read that the inclusion of juices can improve the natural carbonation. In the back of my mind, I wonder what the American Dental Association would think of my consumption of kombucha given it's rather high acid levels, but since I am not a soda drinker, I'm not going to let a daily glass of tea worry me.

I even dipped the bowl that temporarily held my SCOBY in sanitizer...

I got 4 16 oz. bottles, and about 3/4 of a quart jar of bottled tea, saving out at least 1/2 c. of tea and the SCOBY for the next batch. I was impressed at how thick the SCOBY got in just 7 days. I had almost no trouble separating it, but it did tear just a little. Aready, it appears to be mending itself.

Second batch, day 2: the baby SCOBY.

I was also reading that if you want to start your own kombucha and are not fortunate as I was to know someone with an extra SCOBY to get you started, you can take a bottle of purchased kombucha and let a culture begin on it's own. I was a little skeptical that this could work, until I did my own bottling. My quart jar has been out on the counter for two days (I moved it to the refrigerator today), and you can begin to see the growth of a new SCOBY near the top of the photo:

I imagine if you take a bottle of purchased kombucha, pour it into a sterilized glass bottle, and leave it at room temperature, you may discover that it can produce a baby SCOBY. If not, do a bit of research and I'm sure you will be able to find someone willing to share. The keys to any successful project of this sort are research, first person "wisdom of the ages", as the Northern Brewer employee put it, Internet/book knowledge, and old-fashioned common sense.

It's always a pleasure to run into other curious minds, and ones that are gonzo experimenters. For that and so many other reasons, blogging has enriched my life. I am lucky to be able to compare notes on this fascinating process with Lo, and as we both continue to gain knowledge and understanding of our little science projects, I'm sure there will be many posts to come. I will leave it to Lo to come up with some killer flavors, since she towers over me in that department... so you can be sure I'll be checking out the Burp! Blog anxiously to see what experimenting they are up to.

I'm also excited to see where my own blog takes me, now that my culturing obsession is moving forward slowly into fermentation. I have a copy of Wild Fermentation on hold from my library, and I'm sure that will only serve to add fuel to the fire. Just when I think there is nothing new on the food horizon for me, something steps in, confirming to me all the more that I am doing exactly what I should be doing at this point in my life... experimenting, reading, testing and writing about food from the standpoint of my small kitchen.


  1. I'm so excited that you took the time to post all about your kombucha brewing adventures! I'm still impressed at the level of detail to which you're taking your scoby education -- including those PH strips, which I'm now eager to obtain myself.

    While I doubt that my palate surpasses yours in any way, shape, or form, I'm definitely excited to put together some future kombucha experiments. And it's so fun to know someone else is on board with me!

  2. wow. great job. Kombucha has grown on me. And my kids hate it so I get it all to myself!

  3. Wow. I can't believe you made this. It does look like quite the challenge. I had no idea Kombucha was so nutritious. I'm not sure if I have the willpower to make it myself, but I will definitely consider buying it more often. :)

  4. Hi:) How do you know ih kombucha is sick ?


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