It’s Alive! (Kombucha)

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This semester, I brewed kombucha under my bed in a college dorm room.

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Starting from at beginning of this story, I took a kitchen chemistry class this semester (yes, I go to a liberal arts school). At the start of the semester we were told that we had to chemically and biologically examine a recipe and explain how it worked in scientific terminology. With all this time, I decided to create a beverage that I had fallen in love with over the summer. Kombucha.

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For the uninitiated, kombucha is fermented tea. If you drink rum, wine or any other fermented beverage, you now officially lose the right to say, “Ewww”. It’s sour, tangy, refreshing and absolutely fantastic during the summer. Over winter, you can warm it and sip it like hot cider. The really fantastic thing about kombucha though is how great the stuff is for you. Loads of B vitamins, probiotics, other delicious things. It’s like an energy drink, but without the caffeine and nagging guilt from the energy drink (ok, it’s not actually strong enough to be an energy drink, but it’s still something). So it’s good for you, it’s delicious, I’m pretty sure it saves starving martians on Venus or something.

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So how does this kombucha-y thing work? There’s actually a really simple explanation with lots of non-essential things to learn. The actual process is very simple: sweetened tea is fermented for 10 to 12 days using a culture to acidify the tea and give it a delicious, fizzy tang. There are a lot of other variables involved, but that’s the gist of it. If you want to learn all about making kombucha and all the interesting variations you can create, check out Kombucha Kamp which was an invaluable resource during my research. The Art of Fermentation is also a fantastic book if you’re interested in creating all kinds of delicious tangy foods. For now though, I’ll include a short explanation of why to choose certain ingredients with the recipe.

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– Compounds – Ingredients –

3 quarts filtered water

It’s best not to use chlorinated water. Chlorine is meant to kill bacteria and viruses and other nasty things, but it’s kind of like cleaning your carpet with a flamethrower instead of a vacuum. Sure, you’ll get rid of all the bad things, but you’ve also gotten rid of the good things as well. Distilled water also isn’t a great choice since it’s really just pure water without any minerals or delicious things. Filtered water still has some of the good stuff left but doesn’t have the nasty chlorine chemically stuff.

1 cup organic sugar

You can use white sugar, it tastes crisp and clean. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Sucanat (unrefined cane sugar). It still has the vitamins, minerals and molasses compounds that are normally removed and once it’s fermented gives a fantastic complex flavour. Other things that work? Maple syrup is delicious but expensive. Using honey also gives a really nice flavour, but as some on Kombucha Kamp will tell you, it doesn’t always work so it’s best to use half sugar/half honey. Stay away from artificial sweeteners and stevia, they don’t work at all. Rule of thumb: If it isn’t made of sucrose, it probably won’t work.

4 organic tea bags

Black, green or white tea only. If you want to add herbal teas, add them in addition to the 4 tea bags. “Real” teas come from Camellia sinensis and will provide nitrogen for the kombucha mother/mushroom/SCOBY/squishy thing. I recommend you use organic, but I did just fine with Twining’s English Breakfast tea for a month. When picking your tea remember, black tea will create the strongest brew, green will be smooth and white will be delicate. If you want to be creative, try combining 4 “real” tea bags with two herbal ones. Two chai tea bags with four black tea bags is delicious in the winter and two mango herbal tea bags with four green tea bags in the summer is fantastically refreshing.

1/2 cup kombucha from a previous culture

You can get this at any local store that has plain kombucha. Or you can order some online. This doesn’t matter as much as long as it doesn’t have fruit juice or other things mixed in.

1 kombucha mushroom or starter culture

Best case scenario? You have a friend who will give it to you for free. Next best case scenario? You have connections with the weird hippie people at your farmer’s market. Worse case? Order online.

– Procedure – Instructions –

(Non-bolded procedure for science-y people. Bolded instructions are for the rest of us.)

  1. Heat 3 quarts of filtered water in a vessel of appropriate size. Bring to 100ºC/212ºF.
    1. Make 3 quarts of water boil.
  2. Sanitise the vessel that will contain the ferment.
    1. Wash a large glass or ceramic jar.
  3. Pour the heated water into the vessel that will contain the ferment
    1. Pour the water in your kombucha jar.
  4. Combine sucrose compound with heated liquid. Stir until dissolved.
    1. Mix your sugar with your hot water. Make sure it’s mixed in and isn’t settling on the bottom of the container.
  5. Add your four samples of Camellia sinensis to the heated water. Remove the samples once the water has dropped to ~21ºC/~70ºF.
    1. Add your four tea bags to the hot water. Take them out of the hot water when the hot water is not hot anymore.
  6. Combine the sample of tea ferment from previous experiment with the liquid.
    1. Add the kombucha from the store to the tea.
  7. Gently place the Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeasts (SCOBY) into the liquid. Cover with a sterilised cloth and keep in a dark location with regulated temperature for 10 to 14 days.
    1. Name your kombucha mother/squishy pet. Carefully add your pet to her new home and then cover the jar with a towel (rubber bands hold it in place pretty well). Keep out of direct sunlight as kombucha doesn’t tan well. It also prefers to stay at about 70ºF, though it won’t complain as long as it’s within 20ºF of that. Try to keep it cooler than 90ºF and warmer than 50ºF. Actually, it won’t complain at all. It doesn’t talk.
  8. After fermentation cycle is complete, remove SCOBY sample from fermented tea, making sure to reserve enough tea ferment to cover the SCOBY. Pour into containment vessels and store in a reduced temperature environment for up to a week.
    1. Once your kombucha is tangy and delicious, take the mother out and store her somewhere safe and clean with enough kombucha to cover. Pour your kombucha into jars and store them in the refrigerator. Try to drink them before the week is up because it will continue to get stronger (all those probiotics keep working even after you’re finished brewing).
  9. Consume beverage. Repeat process if more tea ferment is desired.
    1. Enjoy your kombucha. If you want to make more, then just start over from the beginning, since you should have all the ingredients again.

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