Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kombucha! How I Gave Up Soda

I hear there are many health claims surrounding kombucha. It's definitely probiotic. It contains B vitamins - though I'm not sure how high the levels are. It contains cleansing acids, notably glucuronic acid that is used in our bodies to metabolize toxins (drugs, pollutants, bilirubinandrogensestrogensmineralocorticoidsglucocorticoidsfatty acid derivatives, retinoids, and bile acids, so sayeth Wikipedia). And it's probably claimed to cure everything from cancer to acne. I have no idea whether any of these purported facts are true.

What I do know is that I crave sweet, fizzy beverages from time to time, and most of you do, too. Sugary sodas are really bad for us. Artificially sweetened sodas are probably no better, and may even be worse. I know that drinking soda makes me feel cruddy later, but it's so tempting at times. Since I've been eating a diet with unrestricted healthy fats and little in the way of sugar (including unrefined sugars - they're sugar too, even if they are less bad than refined sugar), my sugar cravings have gone from a near-constant to the occasional desire, either postprandially or out of genuine hunger. All the same, I still want a gosh-darn sweet drink sometimes, and now I get to have it. Now I have, on average, just a few sips of soda per month.

The first time I tried kombucha I had to purchase a bottle at the store. It was...OK. The particular flavor does take a little getting used to, but it was fine. For about $4 I got something that was barely above mediocre to my palate. I decided to culture it myself, bought a bottle and left it in a mason jar in my college apartment until it formed a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts) culture, and coupled together this brewing setup.

Ready to be harvested!
That scoby I use to brew much tastier kombucha than its forbear, and for mere pennies a bottle. Refined sugar, teabags, and water are cheap. I just taste it after it has brewed for a typical amount of time - six days in my kitchen - and bottle it and store in the fridge. That means I control the sweet:sour ratio. Tweaking with the kinds of tea can yield further taste variations, but I have not found it necessary to venture there. Nor have I bothered to do secondary fermentation to make it a really fizzy drink and I only briefly was flavoring my kombucha. I like setups that I can put on at as close to autopilot as possible! Here's how I do it:

Really Easy Kombucha
3/4 cup refined white sugar (pure cane, to avoid GMO beet sugar, or else organic)
5 unflavored black teabags (e.g. Lipton)
1 unflavored green teabag (optional)*
two quarts filtered water
one scoby "mushroom" and some kombucha from a previous batch (if you live near me, let me know if you want enough to start with)

*Do feel free to experiment with tea combinations. Just always use at least half black tea because that's what the scoby needs to thrive, and it's also advised that you keep a "clean", non-experimented upon scoby aside in case you contaminate the guinea pig one.

Put filtered water on to boil. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Add teabags - I take off the strings and tags and just let them swim. Once the water boils for about a minute, turn off the heat. Let the tea steep for...I don't least ten minutes. I walk away or do other things in the kitchen when this is going on. You want this much stronger than you would brew it for a cup of tea. But do remove the bags after a while.

See how extra-dark this is? That's what to go for.
Let cool to lukewarm or room temperature. This is essential so you do not kill the living kombucha culture. If you touch the liquid and it feels as if it could burn you if you kept in it, it is too hot. The same temperature that starts to cook your finger cells starts to kill off typical bacteria and starts to denature enzymes and other heat-sensitive food components (about 117°F, if you are curious - that is why food heated above this temperature is no longer considered raw).

Pour the tepid liquid into a gallon-size glass container. Do not use plastic or metal. I like to use an old iced drink dispenser, as the spout makes harvesting a snap.

Aforementioned snap.
Stir in some kombucha from a previous batch. I generally use about a pint, but less is fine. I would not hesitate to use only 1/2-1 cup. Add your scoby. It may sink or float - it will probably eventually float, but it does not matter. Cover the top of the glass container with a paper towel or thin dishcloth and secure with a rubber band.

Ready to go!

Now put it away in a room temperature or somewhat warm place where it will not be disturbed and is not in any direct sunlight.

Notice how much lighter the finished kombucha is compared to the batch at the beginning of its brew. 

Our awkward utility closet off the kitchen.
There are a handful of variables involved in how long a batch will take. Ambient temperature, sugar concentration, how much starter kombucha was added, scoby thickness, etc. all make a difference.

Taste a little after five days. If there is any taste of tea left, it is not done. If it is too sweet, it is not done, but if it is too sour, it is overdone (just pour out 3/4 and start a new batch with the rest if that happens). It will get a little fizzy, too. My thick-scoby-ed, heavy on the starter kombucha, concentrated batch takes about six days pretty consistently and I dilute it 3:1 with a little water when I drink it. Your batch may take ten. It may take longer in the winter but brew rapidly in summer.

When it is done, harvest into glass containers and refrigerate. It keeps for a few weeks but can gradually become more sour. Open carefully in case it fizzes too much.

What if you do not have access to a scoby?
As mentioned above, I started my own culture with store-bought kombucha. To do this:

Purchase one of those $4 bottles from a health food store or grocery store. Pour it all into a very clean quart glass mason jar, cover with a cloth or paper napkin using a rubber band, and let sit motionless and untouched at room temperature, preferably in a slightly warm place but not in direct sunlight. Take a look every few days. Eventually a beige or tan "pancake" will form across the top of the kombucha. This is your scoby. This may take up to two weeks, methinks. Use the scoby and the (now quite sour and vinegary, I imagine) accompanying kombucha to start a batch. Scobys get thicker the longer a batch brews and a new one forms during each batch, so yours will not start anywhere near as thick as mine is in the picture.

General note on fermenting kombucha: It is very unlikely if you follow commonsensical kitchen cleaning practices, but it is always possible that your scoby could get contaminated by bad microorganisms. Kombucha is a fairly hardy culture and I have never had any issues, but do not foolishly consume something that looks, smells, or tastes "off" (moldy, etc.). Brown stringy things coming from the scoby are normal, as are smaller bits that tend to end up in your kombucha drink. Filter them out if you are grossed out - I just leave the last centimeter of my kombucha undrunk - but they are all harmless or beneficial.

Have you tried kombucha? Do you have any additional tips for kicking a soda habit?

This post is part of Hearth and Soul.


  1. This would be a far better choice than soda, so much healthier for you. Thanks for sharing at Hearth & Soul Hop. :)

  2. I love love love kombucha and have been known to offer it to my friends as well... My father has read up about probiotics, and finally asked me if he can have some of that "creepy stuff" lol. I love the look I get from people when they walk into my kitchen and see the scoby floating there in the kombucha! Hahaha!!!

    You can make your kombucha with green tea entirely. It just needs caffeine and tannins, found either in green or in black tea. It just needs those, and not herbal teas. You can grow a batch or two in pure herbal tea as well, you just need to put it back in black tea or green tea here and there to keep it thriving.

    1. Thank you for the clarifying tips! I also get a kick out of squeamish reactions sometimes. :) It's as if they have never wondered where cheese and other fermented foods come from...