Thursday, February 2, 2012

Making Kombucha Tea

Who here is familiar with kombucha tea? It's a fermented tea drink that is thought to be healthful.  If you've not heard of it, here's an excerpt from wiseGEEK, who explains it better than I can:
Kombucha is a fermented beverage made of tea and bacteria cultures. For the last 2,000 years in Asia, families drank kombucha for its purported medicinal qualities. The special yeast and bacteria cultures are usually circulated person-to-person, although now mixtures can be purchased online. This homeopathic drink tastes tart but full-flavored, like carbonated apple cider. Kombucha recipes have traveled to Korea and Japan, from there to Russia, and finally reached Europe after WWI.

You must have a "mother brew" to cultivate kombucha, which is why originally it was handed down through generations of a family. Much like yogurt, a cup of kombucha can be reserved to make the next batch. This is because it is a living brew, with microorganisms that are beneficial to our digestive tract and others claim help other internal systems. The culture is not a fungus, as some report, but a mixture of bacteria and yeast that forms a gelatinous, yellowish substance.
Ok, so it doesn't sound all that appetizing, but if you like tart, slightly fizzy drinks, it's a good one.  Shane and I both like the commercially-prepared kombucha tea we've tried in the past, but it's kind of dear at $3-$4 for a 12-16 ounce bottle.  It's not that easy to find, either, so we'd been trying to find a "mother", also known as a scoby (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) for a while.  The closest we came was talking to a person on craigslist who not only lived too far away, but had a weird schedule and a weirder online presence.  When that didn't work out, I put the idea on the back burner.

I was thrilled when I learned in December that an acquaintance, George, makes kombucha tea.  Most of the friends we have in common with George think it's just weird and wouldn't even try it, but things like kombucha are right up our alley.  George was so pleased that we even knew what he was talking about that he offered us some mothers for free.  I made a couple of small "starter" batches just to make sure I could do it right, then I started making gallon-sized batches.  Here are the details of the first big batch I made.

Beware that these photos may not be suitable for wimps the "culinarily squeamish".

Three "mothers" (starter cultures) in some kombucha tea that our friend gave us.

The jar above contains three scobys and about 1 to 1-1/2 cups of kombucha tea from one of George's batches.  The scobys are disc-like and spongy.  I read somewhere that they feel like calamari.  Yep, that's as good a description as any.

Per directions George gave me (which appear to have come from the Cultures for Health website)  I brewed some tea, using 13 cups of distilled water, 1 cup of sugar and 2 Tablespoons of loose tea (or I could have used 8 tea bags).   After letting the tea steep until it cooled to room temperature, I strained it to remove the tea leaves, then added 1 scoby and 2 cups of George's kombucha tea.  I covered the jar with a coffee filter to keep out dust and other foreign particles.  Then I left it to sit on the counter, out of direct sunlight, for several days.

Brewed sweet tea with a scoby and some kombucha tea added.
Closer look at the scoby in my first big batch.

The tea can be ready in as little as 5 days, depending on your taste.  We like ours a little more tart, so we leave ours longer.  Here is the same jar on Day 9.  

Notice how the tea has lightened in color. You can see the new "baby" culture on top and you can also see that the mother floated to the top at some point and attached to the baby.  It happens sometimes; other times not.  Doesn't really matter. 

This is a living culture, so it changes daily and never turns out exactly the same way twice.  The tea tastes sweet, tart, musty (like wine, especially homemade wine), and is lightly carbonated.  It "tingles" on the tongue when you taste it.  If you've ever had homemade ginger beer or soda, it's kind of like that.

Then what?  First of all, I reserved a three cups of the new tea -- 2 cups for the next batch I made and 1 cup to cover and protect the new scoby I now had.  Then we stored this first batch in the fridge and drank it as it was, either straight or mixed with more of our regular sweet tea.  Since then, we've been playing around, using green tea as the base, letting batches ferment for 2, 3 and 4 weeks, mixing some of the tea with fruit juices and other beverages and pouring some into airtight containers to ferment a second time so that it becomes even more carbonated.

Over time, we're going to find ourselves with more babies than we need.  When that happens, we can either give them away to someone else who wants to make their own kombucha, or we can compost them.  No problemo.

So, that's that.  It's an easy process, but not a quick one. It's a real money saver, too, if you're in the habit of drink kombucha tea regularly.   Doing a very rough calculation based on costs of tea, sugar and distilled or purified water, a batch like this could cost as little as $1.80 (more if you use organic tea and sugar...I didn't, but I probably should in the future).  I get about six 16-ounce servings after taking evaporation into account.  That's as little as 30¢ for what would cost at least $3.00 in the store.

I'll be posting more about kombucha as I learn more about the brewing process.  If you're eager to learn more about it, check out this tutorial from Cultures for Health.  Or just do a Google search and you'll find dozens of links.

Anyone else out there tried kombucha?  Would you ever consider making it at home?

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