Kombucha – What is it? Getting started…

I tried Kombucha for the first time about a year ago after someone I follow on Twitter mentioned it. They were touting it as an alternative to alcohol – a bold claim! Intrigued, I sourced some at Whole Foods, paid the £4 per bottle and tried it out. It was fizzy, sharp and fruity. Then I did a bit more research, read about some of the health claims and more excitingly, discovered that it is easy to make at home… so I knew I had to have a go.

Hold up! What even is Kombucha?

Basically, it’s fermented tea often with added fruit, herbs or spices. Some sources say it has health benefits in the form of good bacteria for your gut and digestion – I don’t know much about that, but I do know it is tasty, fun to experiment with and much, much cheaper to make than it is to buy.

Kombucha is made in two stages – a primary fermentation and a secondary fermentation. In the first stage, you brew a batch of sugary tea and once it cools you add in a yeast and bacteria culture known as a scoby. The scoby is a living, growing culture that can be used over and over again. It thickens during the brewing process and even develops a new baby scoby every time you make a batch. You can get them online or steal, I mean adopt, a baby scoby from anyone who is already making kombucha.

Get a brew on

During primary fermentation, the scoby converts sugar from the tea mixture into acidic compounds, giving the Kombucha a vinegar type quality. This is done in the presence of air, also know as aerobic respiration (high school Biology flashbacks!) This takes at least a week but somewhere in the region of 10-14 days gives me the flavour I like. The longer you leave it, the stronger the vinegary-ness of the kombucha, so it’s wise to taste it after a week, then every few days. You’re waiting for a slight tartness – if it still tastes like cold, sweet tea then it needs longer.

Once the first stage is over, it’s on to the secondary fermentation to develop flavour and FIZZ. The unflavoured Kombucha is bottled into air-tight bottles with an added source of natural sugar. Without any air, this stage of fermentation happens as anaerobic respiration (short science quiz coming next week, students!) The by-product of this process is carbon dioxide, which will become trapped in the bottle then dissolve into the liquid making it fizzy. The fruits or herbs that provide the sugar will also sweeten and flavour the kombucha.

Oh, sugar…

You can use all sorts of fruits, herbs and even flowers as your source of sugar for the secondary fermentation. Sweet fruits like strawberries and raspberries make a juicy, bright red Kombucha and will get fizzy very quickly. Grated ginger and lemon makes a brew reminiscent of ginger ale but takes a bit longer to develop fizz. Usually it takes about 3 days to develop any fizz, so at this stage I’d pop the lid off and check. When it’s just how you like it, put it in the fridge and the fermentation stops in its tracks.

Don’t leave your bottles sealed for more than a few days at a time as the fizz can build up quickly. The kombucha will need ‘burping’ every few days to release a bit of pressure. Make sure to use bottles designed to withstand pressure – swing top bottles are good as they easily opened for burping and the lid should pop off if the pressure gets too much – don’t use anything not intended for carbonated drinks because, well, BOOM!

A word on Scobies

Scobies are not the prettiest things – they look a bit like clumps of snot, or dying jellyfish. But don’t be put off by this! Why not give them a name, and think of them as your little alien pets. My flatmate calls my scobies my Scooby Doos. Awww… not so minging now, see? Well, maybe still a bit minging. Below is a video of my scoby when it arrived.

I bought my first one on eBay for a few quid, and it has since produced several new scobies. I now have four of them at home and another one that went off to Glasgow with a friend so she could start her own set up! The main thing is to remember it’s a living culture so it needs a sterile environment. Use only glass vessels for brewing, handle with clean hands, and don’t let it come into contact with metal or hot liquids. I always rinse my bowls and jugs with white vinegar before putting the scoby in and haven’t had any problems.

Fancy trying it out?

I have posted a recipe and method for making basic unflavoured kombucha here. I will be testing out all sorts of flavour combinations for the secondary fermentation in separate posts, with precise recipes.

Happy brewing!

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