Monday, August 30, 2010

Get Yourself Some Booch: Brewing Kombucha at Home

You’ve probably heard of Kombucha -- a fermented beverage made from sweetened tea. Effervescent, refreshing, and virtually caffeine-free, kombucha has a vinegar-like flavor that some compare to hard apple cider.

Although kombucha is often referred to as “mushroom tea,” it has little to do with fungus. In fact, the fermentation process actually originates from a gelatinous pancake of bacteria and yeast called a SCOBY.

What on earth is a SCOBY?
Well… SCOBY is actually an acronym that stands for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeasts. I like to think of it as a little community of "good guys". Together, the bacteria and yeasts work synergistically, and the colonies help to ferment various foods and beverages. In the case of kombucha, the SCOBY feeds on a mixture of sugar and tea, improving the tea’s nutrient profile by increasing B vitamins and food enzymes. The resulting beverage is a pro-biotic beverage believed to contain any number of health-producing compounds. It also contains a little bit of alcohol.
Which, of course, is where all the “trouble” begins.
A raw kombucha brew begins with a very minimal alcohol content (a bi-product of the fermentation process). However, over time, the drink’s yeast continues to convert sugars to alcohol, nudging the content higher and higher. Among bottled kombucha, at least one brand was determined to have reached 2.4% alcohol content according to a study cited in Good Magazine’s initial report on the Kombucha shortage. And this raised some eyebrows. In late June, kombucha producers were forced to pull their product from shelves at Whole Foods due to elevated alcohol levels. And kombucha lovers everywhere have been in withdrawl ever since.

Unless, of course, they’re like us.
We’ve been brewing our own kombucha at home for the past four months. And it’s been quite gratifying. Unlike the home-brewing of beer, in which even the tiniest microbe of bacteria can influence flavor and brewing success, kombucha is a pretty easy (and painless) process. You just need a few basic pieces of equipment, a few tablespoons of tea, some sugar, and a bit of old fashioned patience. And you have the opportunity to adjust the brew to your own particular tastes.

I received my initial SCOBY from my lovely and generous aunt, who has a virtual kombucha LABORATORY going over at her health food store in Hartland, Wisconsin. She’s been brewing kombucha from a wide variety of teas, including green, black, oolong, smoked oolong, and even… yes… Earl Grey tea.

Now, Earl Grey is generally is considered a poor choice for growing a SCOBY since there is some evidence that the bergamot added to the tea is harmful to the culture. However, she’s been brewing delicious Earl Grey kombucha without incident for some time – and I absolutely loved the flavor. So, I decided to take home one of her Early Grey SCOBY.

We made our first few batches of kombucha using an Earl Grey tea from a Milwaukee-owned company called Rishi Tea. We’ve since switched to their China Breakfast Tea, which has a more neutral flavor – the perfect palate for some of our more recent experiments with fruit-infused kombucha.  Some flavors we've brewed up include sweet cherry, raspberry, raspberry peach, watermelon, and blueberry ginger. Most recently, we made up batches of cherry vanilla and peach spice kombucha -- both of which ended up slightly "over" spiced -- but which we'll definitely try again, with slightly different proportions of fruit to spice.

Where can I get a Kombucha SCOBY?
You can buy a SCOBY online. Or, you can simply ask a Kombucha-brewing friend or community member if they’d be willing to share the wealth. Every batch of Kombucha results in the formation of an additional SCOBY, so regular kombucha brewers will usually have extras. I shared one of my first SCOBY with Rebecca from Cakewalk. In fact, she was so excited that she wrote her kombucha brewing adventures back in June, shortly after receiving her SCOBY.

In fact, if you happen to be in the Milwaukee area, email us! We can probably work out a deal ;)

Instructions: Making Kombucha Tea

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  1. Easy, painless, and alcoholic? I'm thinking I need to try this.

  2. Wow! You guys are adventurous! Looks great.

    You know, when I first tried American kombucha here in Seattle recently at a farmers market, I was so surprised that it was sweet, cold, and soda-like. "Kombucha" in Japan (where I first had it) is made from huge slabs of seaweed (kombu) and it's salty and warm. "Cha" actually means "tea" in Japanese so over there it's basically a hot non-bubbly tea. I love it when I have a sore throat--very soothing and salty.

  3. I LOVE kombucha. I hate to make it though. So I found a friend who will swap me part of my raw milk herdshare for her kombucha. It's a win win!

  4. That's so ambitious! I tried kombucha for the first time recently, and I think it must be an acquired taste, no? But I can see how it might become addictive - especially if you're making your own. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us!

  5. You know we have yet to even try drinking Kombucha yet! I noticed Foxy Falafel sells it at the farmers market so I'll have to try some.

  6. Interesting make-your-own booze post. Looks like it could be worth trying.

    Mushroom tea? I hope not. I think of mushroom tea as something else entirely. ;-)

  7. Well... the point isn't to make something alcoholic :) In fact, I think you'd have to drink an AWFUL Lot of kombucha to get anywhere close to drunk!!

  8. We make kombucha as well - I will have to try the Earl Grey though, that sounds lovely! I usually brew mine with green tea and kombucha. But I think I need to experiment more. Have you made water kefir before? We make both, and I prefer the water kefir (I brew it with maple) and my husband prefers the kombucha! So I will keep making both! LOL!

  9. Jenn - We've not tried water kefir, but it's on my list! Did you get your grains from Cultures for Health?

  10. Unless you are Lindsey Lohan, Lo... She claimed to officials that her ankle bracelet was detecting the alcohol from her kombucha drinking!

    I'm still so glad you gave me my start! I now can't imagine not drinking this every day - and when I'm out of town like I was this last weekend, I really missed it. The only good news was that I had extra to drink up on my return! I'm even getting my Mom to brew her own - she's getting excited too!!

  11. I live in Milwaukee and am looking for a SCOBY. Sadly, I was a bad mommy and let my go feral...Not something I recommend. You mentioned the possibility of working out a deal. I love to barter! You can contact me through my website.

  12. I love kombucha, but for me, its not because of the taste so much as the health benefits. I think I have a lot less grey hair since I have been drinking this stuff. Also its a great hangover cure and really helps keep me ALERT and AWAKE for long drives. In Russia its known as "kombucha mother" or "kvass" tea and they have known about this for a very long time over there.

  13. Can't get enough kombucha
    Any Good flavoring tips ?
    I like the ginger , but was looking for a little more variety


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