Everything You Need to Know About Drinking — and Making — Kombucha
If you haven't tried it already, be assured: Kombucha is coming for you. This delicious, nonalcoholic fermented tea beverage is increasingly showing up in bottles and taps. Better still from a Superfoodnerd's perspective, it is enjoying a revival among DIY home brewers, who are discovering that kombucha is eminently makeable, so long as you can track down a good source for the very particular symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast necessary to transform sweet tea into sour kombucha.
Now, the phrase "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast" does not, to be kind, have a lot of savor to it. Quite the contrary: It sounds like an illness. No surprise, then, that most people prefer the more appetizing anagram SCOBY, evoking a cuddly cartoon character — which, to be clear, it is not. It more closely resembles a gelatinous marine invertebrate — and not a pretty one. If for some reason you stumbled onto this sheeny, milky, undulate Frisbee of who-knows-what, you would not dare to touch it — you would run. I nearly did. Thus, for beginners, kombucha making necessarily involves some getting-over-it step.
And that is why it is particularly useful to have someone to walk you through the process, to assure you that, despite all appearances, you are not in fact poisoning yourself. You need a kombucha doula. And for this we were fortunate enough to turn to Jovan Sage — a fermentation enthusiast, herbalist-in-training, food justice activist, aspiring cafe proprietor and current associate director at Slow Food USA. Yes, Sage is one cool woman. My colleague Heather Ramsdell and I journeyed to Sage's Mason jar-jammed home in Brooklyn, where we were treated to a demonstration of the method behind her home brew. Find out the ins and outs about the fermented drink, and then get her step-by-step guide to brewing kombucha here.
A long-time kombucha fan ("It makes my body feel good — and it's great with bourbon"), Sage began brewing her own a couple of years ago when it dawned on her that there was no need to pay for something she could perfectly well make on her own. Plus with store-bought, much of which is heat-treated, you don't always get "all the good stuff" — the live, probiotic bacteria that lend the drink its reputed tonic properties.
As Sage explained, kombucha is actually among the simplest, most forgiving of all fermentation projects. It requires no special equipment beyond a large wide-mouthed glass or ceramic brewing vessel and a bit of fabric for covering the jar (cheesecloth or a clean old T-shirt will do), and demands little of your time. Once you've procured a SCOBY — easily found in online exchanges — all kombucha asks for is your patience. Kits are widely available but hardly necessary. Kombucha tolerates an enormous range of tools and methods, freeing home brewers to make do with the materials they have on hand. This is how Sage sums up her fear-free approach: "It's kind of like, whatever you have, I'd say rock it out."
The process is incredibly simple. Basically, you make strong tea, sweeten it, add water, add a SCOBY, cover it all with something porous (kombucha needs oxygen) and wait. With the exception of the SCOBY, all the ingredients — water, tea, sugar — are likely sitting in your kitchen right now.
Sage brews her kombucha in 1-gallon batches. She begins by making a concentrated tea base: In a large pot, she steeps about 9 teaspoons of loose-leaf black tea packed into a muslin bag in 1 quart of water fresh off the boil. She advises using filtered or spring water, as the chlorine in tap water can interfere with fermentation. Green tea or white tea can also be used; herbal teas or flavored teas of any sort cannot. After 10 to 15 minutes, she pulls the tea out of the pot and adds 1 cup of raw sugar, stirring until it's fully dissolved. Though most recipes call for refined white sugar, Sage prefers the slight molasses flavor of raw sugar and has never found it to have a negative effect on her brew.
When the sweetened tea has cooled to warm room temperature, she pours it into a clean 1-gallon Mason jar (no need to sterilize), fills the jar to three-quarters full with room-temperature filtered water and stirs. The precise temperature of the water is unimportant, so long as the mixture remains below 100 degrees F, beyond which you risk killing off the microscopic creatures fermentation depends on.
The next step, adding the bacteria and yeast, demands a couple of deep breaths. Sage taught us not to fear the SCOBY — she prefers the term “mother,” which more accurately captures its remarkable reproductive capacity. A SCOBY is, in effect, a world complete in itself, a totally benign microbial planet that some Manchurian genius of the ancient past conjured to produce a delicious, possibly health-conferring beverage. And the truth is that SCOBYs are not so very foreign after all: A sourdough starter? Functionally a SCOBY. A vinegar mother? Just another type of SCOBY. So don't let the ghastly appearance throw you.
Unless you are going directly from one batch to the next, SCOBYs are normally stored in a zip-lock bag, immersed in a small portion of brew from the previous batch. When the time is right, Sage first pours this starter liquid into her diluted tea. Next, with clean hands, she lays the SCOBY in the jar, across the surface of the tea; though it may sink for a bit, it ought to float. She then covers the mouth of the jar with a piece of cotton cloth, secures it with a rubber band, and stores the jar someplace warm and dim, well out of direct sunlight, for about a month. Many recipes call for a shorter fermentation, closer to 10 days, but Sage's taste runs to sour and the longer the fermentation the more time there is for lactic acid to develop.
During the month of waiting, an incredible transformation takes place — the sweet tea is, in a sense, inverted: Sweet turns sour, dark turns bright, tannic becomes fruity. With oxygen above and sugar below, the SCOBY goes into a reproductive frenzy. In the course of a month, two or three new layers may develop, each one a SCOBY in its own right. These layers are easily separated, and with only a single layer needed to produce kombucha, every batch produces its own self-perpetuating surplus — each mother creates a new mother. Therein lies the core of kombucha's beauty: More than any other kitchen project, kombucha SCOBYs beg to be exchanged, shared, bartered; they fuel the vibrant community of home brewers.
Once the kombucha has soured to her taste, Sage pulls out the SCOBY and decants the liquid into a container for refrigerator storage, reserving some for use as a starter — and begins the whole process all over again.
Many people add flavorings such as cut-up fruit or — Sage's favorite, chopped ginger — thereby initiating a period of secondary fermentation that in some instances can produce carbonation. The possibilities for adding flavor are exciting and endless. And for those who find kombucha a little overbearing, these flavored varieties can be a welcome gateway.
After explaining her fermentation process, Sage offered us a glass of her most-recent finished brew. It was nothing short of revelatory — nearly dry, clean-tasting, bracingly acidic, with pronounced cider and green apple flavors and a gentle vinegar aroma. If it were wine, you would call it quaffable. I must confess to having approached the subject as something less than a fan — a result, most likely, of over sweetened commercial varieties I'd sampled. But, having glimpsed the sublime heights kombucha can rise to, I now see my own error.
As we packed up, Sage, our kombucha doula, peeled off a few SCOBY layers, carefully packed them in a zip-lock and sent us on our way with our very own "mother" — in kombucha, as in life, every ending is a new beginning.