Updated: Apr 30, 2020
As I type, I have a glass of sparkling kombucha over ice with a splash of lime sitting on the table in front of me. I have been a fan of making and drinking Kombucha for about a year.
I was a little slow on the uptake though, as Kombucha has been made for hundreds of years by many different cultures. Kombucha is a fermented tea which contains beneficial gut probiotics. You can buy it by the 500ml bottle for anywhere between $5 and $10 or you can make several litres of it for the price of 4 tea bags, a cup of sugar and some patience.
Komucha is made using a sweet tea which is fermented by a kombucha culture called a SCOBY, the mushroom looking “thing” you can see in the above picture.
SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It can be likened to “the mother” in vinegar production. It is the SCOBY that transforms the sweet tea into a slightly tart (depending on how long it is allowed to ferment) probiotic powerhouse. I have investigated how you can work out what bacteria you are actually growing – but the reality is that every batch, every SCOBY, every environment produces different bacteria. What is known is that during the fermentation process the sugar is digested by the SCOBY and a range of organic acids (glucuronic, lactic, acetic, butyric and malic acids), vitamins (including B and C), amino acids and enzymes as well as probiotics are produced. Kombucha tea has been used medicinally by many cultures for its antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.
So how do you make Kombucha tea?
Firstly you need to acquire a healthy SCOBY. You can either be patient and grow your own from a commercial bottle of kombucha tea, purchase one online or put your feelers out and find someone in your community that makes kombucha and obtain a baby from them. The latter would be the most common way of getting a SCOBY and has the added benefit of being able to get first hand advice from a seasoned kombucha tea maker.
Once you have your SCOBY treat it gently and with care. Remember whatever bacteria you put on the SCOBY is what it is likely to grow. So make sure you have clean hands, clean utensils and a clean vessel to put it in!
Along with the SCOBY you will also need about 1 cup of kombucha as a starter. The starter is added to the fresh brew to ensure that the environment remains acidic and to promote healthy bacteria growth.
Brew a large jug of sweet black tea using filtered or non chlorinated water. Chlorine may harm the SCOBY.
Most recipes call for 4 litres of black tea sweetened with 1 cup of sugar. I find this makes more kombucha than we comfortably consume so I halve the recipe which also slightly shortens the fermentation time.
Once cooled to room temperature transfer the tea into a large non metallic canister (glass or ceramic works well) and add your SCOBY and reserved kombucha liquid (“half a cup for half a batch” or 1 cup for 4 litres).
Cover the canister with some muslin, clean chux cloth or paper towel and secure with a rubber band or piece of string. This will stop any significant contimination during fermentation whilst still allowing air flow. The larger the opening of the canister the faster your kombucha will ferment.
Don’t worry if your SCOBY is small compared to your canister, it will grow!
Put your fresh kombucha brew in a spot out of direct sunlight and leave it undisturbed for 7 days.
Start tasting your kombucha every day or so at this point and when it has reached a tartness that you like you can bottle it.
The longer you leave your kombucha during this first fermentation the more sugar is consumed by the SCOBY and the tarter the liquid will be.
You may notice that there are stringy floaties in your kombucha brew. This is perfectly normal and shows good fermentation.
Your SCOBY should look and smell healthy. It will be opaque and smell like vinegar, it will also have grown a baby SCOBY during this first fermentation stage. Depending on how big your SCOBY was to start with, will determine how thick it will be. Well established SCOBYs can be a centimetre or more thick whereas new SCOBYs may only be a few millimetres. This picture shows my kombucha brew after first fermentation. You can clearly see several layers of SCOBY. By leaving multiple SCOBYs in the brew it ferments faster.
To bottle your kombucha and start the second ferment, you will want several bottles with good seals. The second ferment is used to introduce another flavour to the kombucha if desired and also to get carbonation so you end up with a nice fizzy drink. There is nothing stopping you from drinking the kombucha immediately after the first ferment, the second step is just an added bonus. It does not add any additional health benefit.
Ensure that you start with very clean bottles. Wash in hot, soapy water and rinse well. If you are wanting to flavour the kombucha add your “extras” to the bottle at this point. Think fresh ginger, apple pieces, blueberries, cherries or strawberries… the choices are limitless and only constrained by your own taste. The amount that you add is dependent on the depth of flavour you are trying to achieve. The sweeter the add in, the more carbonation you will achieve as it will kick off faster second fermentation.
Pour the kombucha through a sieve into the bottles leaving a 2-3 cm gap at the top. Seal the bottles and let rest out of direct sunlight for a few days.
Don’t forget to reserve 0.5 - 1 cup of kombucha as starter for your next batch and to handle the SCOBY with clean hands. You can choose to use the baby or the mother (or both) for your next kombucha brew.
You may want to release the carbonation pressure in the bottles once every 24-36 hours if you are worried that the pressure will crack your bottles. Don’t do it more frequently than this or you will loose your fizz.
Once you are happy with the carbonation pop the bottles into the fridge. The coldness will dramatically slow, but not stop, the fermentation. Kombucha will last for days to weeks in the fridge with minimal change in tartness or taste.
You may find that if left undisturbed for a few weeks that a new little baby SCOBY will form in your fridge bottles. This is a sign that your drink is still very much alive and teeming with good bacteria. Simply strain the kombucha when you go to drink it.
I have made many different types of kombucha with whatever fresh or frozen fruit I have to hand.
Of more recent times I have taken to bottling plain kombucha then adding a flavour when I serve it – such as a dash of lemon or lime homemade cordial or a splash of fruit juice. This allows me to adjust the flavour to my mood. I can be finicky like that.
How much kombucha you drink is up to you. Some people choose to ferment the majority of the sugar out of the tea and skull 30ml shots for the probiotic health benefits. Others, like me, prefer to have a slightly shorter fermentation time and as a result a slightly sweeter kombucha brew which I like to drink in larger quantities.
The general recommendation from the multitude of websites that I have researched this topic on is that up to 200ml daily is fine. More than this has the potential to cause stomach upsets. The old adage of ‘too much of a good thing’ applies here.
Be aware also, that due to the fermentation of sugar a very small percentage of alcohol is formed. This is less than 1% in kombucha, which is why it is not required to be declared on commercial kombucha labels. It is up to user discretion as to whether they give kombucha to children or if they are concerned about alcohol for themselves. You will not get intoxicated drinking kombucha. Personally, my children and I all enjoy a daily glass of kombucha.
This is a long blog post but please don’t think that making kombucha is hard. It isn’t! You will only need to invest about half and hour once every 10 days or so to washing your bottles, making some tea and bottling your fermented kombucha.
If you decide to try your hand at kombucha making I would love to hear from you! Don’t forget our facebook page Gracious Goodness Essentials for some great support and encouragement from other members.
How do I know if my SCOBY is healthy?
Easy, it looks healthy. It should look and smell fresh. If there are black spots, mould, a rancid smell… It aint healthy. Discard the kombucha brew and the SCOBY and start again with fresh ingredients. Touch wood, but in over 12 months I’ve not had a single SCOBY look or smell unhealthy. Do consider the environment you ferment your kombucha in though and avoid cross contamination where possible… don’t place your fermenting kombucha next to your compost scrap bin as an example.
What do I do with all my baby SCOBYs?
Start a SCOBY hotel of course! Simply brew up a smaller quantity of slightly stronger and slightly sweeter black tea, once cooled transfer to an appropriate canister and start popping your excess SCOBYs in. They will live happily in there, with the occasional tea change every month or so.
You can also compost any SCOBY that you don't want. Your garden will love you for it!
What’s the benefit of having a SCOBY hotel?
You can share your SCOBYs with your friends, you have the ability to brew multiple batches if you desire and if something goes wrong with your main SCOBY and you need to start again, you can simply take one from the hotel along with some of the liquid.
What tea do I use to make the kombucha?
The SCOBY likes everyday, normal black tea the best. Black tea provides the SCOBY with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
That being said you can experiment with combining different types of tea along with the base black tea. Adding oolong, rooibos, green tea, white tea, herbal teas to your black tea all produce different flavours.
Avoid oily teas such as Earl Gray, as they can kill the SCOBY.
Can I use any sugar?
Essentially yes, however the SCOBY prefers cane sugar over other less refined sugars.
If you use something other than white sugar you will need to taste your kombucha brew more frequently to learn how the SCOBY is reacting to it. I suggest doing some research on your chosen sugar substitute and kombucha brewing to learn from other people’s experiences.
Remember that you are adding the sugar for the SCOBY not for you. The SCOBY is transforming the sugar into a variety of acids through the fermentation process. Don’t try and reduce the amount of sugar to tea ratio used, you will simply starve your SCOBY and get a dubious kombucha.
You cannot use stevia or xylitol for fermentation.
What do I do if I forget to check my kombucha and it over ferments and is too tart?
Well, you have two choices here. You can discard the tart kombucha except for 0.5-1 cup, and start a fresh batch simply using the reserved liquid as normal. Or if it is particularly tart, you can use it in place of vinegar in salad dressings! Simply bottle and keep in the fridge and use as required.
I hope this blog has been helpful for you. I have tried to think of and answer as many questions as I could. If you have more, please feel free to ask.
Enjoy drinking your kombucha brews!