With so much uncertainty going on in the world right now, I am finding it strangely comforting to have a steady flow of kombucha fermenting in the background of my life. If anything, it helps me keep track of the days.
For the uninitiated, kombucha is sweetened tea that is fermented over the course of a couple of weeks with the help of a SCOBY – Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria (and) Yeast. As yeasty cultures form on the top and inform the brew, they feast on the sugars until it’s all gone and what you’re left with is a delicious, healthy, probiotic-rich beverage that tastes very similar to apple cider vinegar.
Although this refreshingly tangy drink seems to only have shot to fame in the last decade, it has actually been consumed for centuries in Japan, Korea, Russia, and China where it is thought to have originated around 220 BC. Known as “The Elixir of Immortality” in China during the Tsin dynasty, today kombucha is believed to stimulate metabolism, maintain a healthy immune system, aid the body’s natural detoxification processes, and replenish vital organic acids and enzymes required by the body for optimal health.
Store-bought kombucha is great, but can get rather expensive – particularly if you’re drinking it regularly – at $6-12 a pop. The good news is, kombucha is extremely easy to make at home! Home-brewing is not as laborious as it sounds and all you need is a few supplies and about 30 minutes every week or two.
What you need
SCOBY and starter culture
The leathery, pancake-like blob that doesn’t look very pretty is the SCOBY and the liquid it sits in is the starter culture. Try to use starter liquid from the top of your brew where it is bacteria rich. Only using starter from the bottom of your vessel may result in “beery” kombucha.
You can either obtain a “baby” SCOBY from a friend who brews, buy one from a reputable source, or attempt to grow your own. I’ve never tried growing it from scratch because it sounds tricky AF. And besides, people who brew their own kombucha always end up with more SCOBYs than they know what to do with because a new SCOBY forms with each brew, so they aren’t difficult to obtain if you know who to ask. My sister gave us our original “mother” SCOBY four years ago and it’s kept us going since.
A brewing vessel
Material: Glass is the best option as it is inert and doesn’t scratch easily or contain chemicals such as BPA. Try to avoid plastic or metal containers as they may react to the acidity of the brew. If you intend to brew continuously like we do, choose a vessel that has a spigot. (Be sure the spigot in your jar is plastic, NOT metal.)
Size: It is best to start your first batch using only one gallon of sweetened tea as a new “baby” SCOBY can’t handle fermenting much more in the beginning. Once your SCOBY is strong and developed, you can upgrade to a bigger container if you wish – it all depends on how much kombucha you intend to drink!
Tight-knit cloth: Kombucha needs to breathe, so don’t close the lid of your brewing vessel fully. Instead, cover it with a tea towel or old clean pillowcase and secure it with a rubber band or similar.
Tea (4 teabags)
To keep things simple, we use black tea because fully oxidized tea leaves provide all the nutrients for the SCOBY. Try using organic as the very first time tea leaves are washed is when they get brewed in hot water (ie: when we make tea), so if leaves are coated in pesticides, we’ll end up ingesting them.
For a lighter, milder kombucha, you can use green tea, white tea, oolong tea, or even a mix of these. Just avoid using flavoured or herbal tea as they have compounds and oils which can harm your SCOBY.
Sugar (4 tablespoons)
Regular white cane sugar is our go-to because it is pure and free of minerals. Also, it is affordable and readily available in supermarkets. For folks who prefer organic sugars, organic cane juice crystals get the job done while also having trace amounts of minerals. Raw or whole cane sugars are not recommended because they are less refined and can be hard on your SCOBY.
Use filtered, de-chlorinated water as we don’t want nasties slowing down the good bacteria. In Singapore, I just use boiled tap water.
1. Clean your supplies
Things don’t need to be sterile but they need to be clean! We try not to use any soaps and just rinse our supplies using hot water.
2. Prepare the sweetened tea
Boil the water and then steep the teabags of your choice. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.
3. Assemble the brew
Pour sweetened tea into your brewing vessel and then pour in your starter culture. Last but certainly not least, plop that SCOBY in there! It is perfectly ok (and normal) if it sinks or floats sideways. Cover with cloth and store away from direct sunlight.
The time it takes your brew to convert from sweetened tea to spunky kombucha depends on personal preference and a variety of factors, such as temperature and SCOBY size.
Temperature is the biggest dictator: The ideal range for fermentation is 23-30 C. Warmer temperatures accelerate fermentation, and cooler temperatures slow it down.
SCOBY size: The fatter the SCOBY, the quicker the fermentation process. Sometimes ours get as thick as 5-8cm before we eventually peel away a few layers. Extra SCOBYs can be homed in a SCOBY hotel and then stored in the fridge, chopped up and eaten in salads, composted, or even used as face masks.
After we go past the 10-day mark, we do a taste test every other day. Once our kombucha has fermented to our ideal tartness, it is time to get bottling. If you follow the continuous brew method, you can pull off as much as you want to bottle – just be sure to leave at least a few cups of finished booch in the brewing vessel with SCOBY in place.
The topic of secondary fermentation, flavouring, and carbonation is so vast, I’d rather not go into it here. In short, we transfer our finished kombucha to air-tight bottles. If you wish, you can also add some fruit puree or juice, but majority of the volume should be kombucha. The bottles sit at room temperature for anywhere between 2-10 more days, before they find their place in the refrigerator. Once chilled, they are ready for drinking.
6. Add fresh sweetened tea
After bottling a batch of kombucha, you’ll need to replenish your brewing crock with fresh sweetened tea so that the whole cycle can repeat itself; ensuring you have a constant supply of booch at home.
Q. What signs should I look out for to determine if my kombucha is fermenting properly?
A. Visible signs of culturing include the liquid lightening in colour and turning cloudy; and a layer of haze or baby SCOBY forming on the surface of the liquid. However, the best way to check on the progress of your brew is to test that its aroma and flavour has become more vinegary and less sweet.
Q. My SCOBY looks ugly. It has lumps and white spots that look alarmingly like mold. Also, it has brown stringy particles hanging from it. YIKES! Is this normal??!?!
A. Unless the spots are fuzzy, it is very unlikely that they are mold. The stringy particles are yeast particles and are harmless. They are a natural by-product of the fermentation process. You can strain them out of the finished kombucha if desired.
Q. My SCOBY has turned black. What should I do?
A. A black SCOBY is a sign of a kombucha culture that has been contaminated or is worn out. A black SCOBY should be discarded or composted. It takes a long time and many, many batches of brewing before a SCOBY is worn out. Turning black is not to be confused with developing brown or slightly discoloured patches.
Q. Is there alcohol in kombucha?
A. The short answer is yes – just a tiny bit. The chemical reactions between bacteria, yeast, and sugar result in the formation of a small amount of alcohol during the fermentation processs. For commercial kombucha to be marketed as "non-alcoholic," it must contain less than 0.5% alcohol. In contrast, home-brewed kombucha may contain slightly higher amounts. Various sources say that the alcohol content in homemade booch can range from 0.5-3% alcohol.
Treat yo’ face
Just like in life and in the garden, our approach to kombucha is very “whole-hog/tail-to-snout” – the idea is to reduce waste and use everything for as many healthful benefits as possible. It is a sin to throw out a perfectly vibrant SCOBY! Sometimes I cut it up into small pieces and use it as fertilizer in the garden, other times I put this probiotic blob on my face.
The first few times I did it, I simply lifted my SCOBY straight out of its container and then lied down on the floor before placing the cold and slimy pancake on my face. It was super messy and I definitely needed to have a towel close at hand – but did not. These days, I take my SCOBY out of its container and leave it to drip excess liquid off on a colander for about half an hour before placing it on my face while it is still damp. (An elementary step, but a life changing one at that.) After 20-30 minutes, the SCOBY dries out on my face and I peel it off and throw it into the garden.
It’s no SK-II or Estée Lauder, and there’s not enough science out there to prove that kombucha is actually beneficial to your skin when applied topically. However, according to the wisdom of the internet, it is great for enlarged pores, acne, and aging skin because it contains a variety of organic acids such as benzoic acid (commonly used to treat skin conditions) and hyaluronic acid (common ingredient in anti-aging and beauty products.) The acids naturally kill bacteria that clog pores, draw toxins out from the skin, and then tighten the pores.
I’m not sure if I’d go as far as to vouch for the abovementioned benefits, but my skin does seem to appear more glow-y and renewed after a kombucha facial. If anything, I appreciate it for the non-toxic, gentle cleanser that it is.