We apologize for the posting haitus, but are happy to be back! In my time away from blogging I have become very interested in fermentation. This interest largely began with a book I saw at a tea room about fermenting vegetables and beverages. Scanning over the pages, I found myself enthralled with the idea of microbiomes in food that can be consumed to improve the biomes in our bodies, as well as preparing a new array of delicious foods. I bought the book and hurried home, beginning a fermenting spree. Over the course of the next several months, I hope to share some some of my favorite fermented products, as well as easy recipes so you can follow along at home.
Today, I am going to discuss a product that has gained a lot of attention in recent years: Kombucha.
Kombucha is fermented tea with a very distinct flavor and visceral experience. It is presently tart and bubbly. It is produced when a culture of a few types of bacteria and yeasts feed on a mixture of tea and sugar. This little party responsible for fermenting the tea is the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts), which forms a small squishy puck. When given tea and sugars, the SCOBY will thrive and feed off of the sugar, caffeine, and tannins to produce lactic acid, CO2, and a variety of vitamins. The longer the tea sits at room temperature, the more sour and carbonated the tea will become as the colony happily eats. By home fermenting, you can control the tartness as you like to taste.
An interesting characteristic of the SCOBY is that it will produce a baby colony if it is given sweetened tea. In essence, for each batch you will have another SCOBY. (This is why the SCOBY is sometimes referred to as the “mother”) You can share them with loved ones and friends.
What’s so great about all this? Well, I like to compare it to someone who has a green thumb or enjoys gardening. You are watching and tending to a living organism that fluctuates and changes before your eyes. It is pretty fascinating. There are also potential health benefits to probiotics. There happen to be a wide variety of claims when it comes to Kombucha, but a general consensus is that the bacteria in the drink are beneficial for the human intestinal flora and that the drink is a nutritious alternative to carbonated sodas due to the colonies ability to produce traces of vitamins and minerals.
Making Kombucha is simple and fun, but requires one particularly unique and somewhat uncommon ingredient: the SCOBY. The easiest way to get your hands on a SCOBY is to order a “starter kit”, which includes the SCOBY as well as a small amount of Kombucha (sometimes called starter tea). If you are very fortunate and know others who are fermenting Kombucha, see if they would be willing to offer you or sell you a SCOBY. There are many places to look online, like Cultures for Health, although I purchased mine from a Fermentation on Wheels, a traveling food educator.
Once you have the SCOBY the process goes pretty simply. To start, you’ll need plain caffeinated black or green tea, granulated sugar, and your SCOBY with starter liquid. Below are specific measurements of ingredients for your first batch based on a 2012 article in Urban Farm Magazine. Note that the amount can be adjusted as needed, but we recommend making at least a quart.
3 and 3/4 cups of water (filtered unless your tap water is good quality)
2 bags of black or green tea (Can use loose tea as well, brew to taste)
1/2 cup of white granulated sugar (no stevia, no honey, no brown sugar)
SCOBY with 1/4 cup starter tea (already fermented tea)
1 quart jar
First, bring two cups of water to a boil in a pot that can fit at least a quart, setting aside the rest of the water. When the water comes close to a boil, add the half cup of sugar and allow it absorb fully into the water. Then, once the water comes to a boil, turn off the stove and add the two tea bags. Allow the tea bags to seep until the water begins to cool so that the tea bags are seeping minimally. Then, add the remaining 1 and 3/4 cups of water to further cool the liquid. Let the pot sit until it cools to room temperature. This may take a few hours. Once the sweetened tea cools, pour it into the quart sized jar and then add the SCOBY and 1/4 cup of starter liquid. Again, it is very important that the sweet tea is cooled so it does not kill the SCOBY. Afterwards, cover the jar with a cloth and a rubber band so that debris does not fall into it, but so that it is not sealed. This is because the SCOBY needs sufficient oxygen.
Now you have your tea and it will begin fermenting. It will need to sit for at least 3-4 days, but after then you can taste it to check if the sugar has been absorbed and if the flavor is to your liking. The tea should taste a begin to taste a bit tangy. The longer it sits, the more tangy it gets. Depending on the amount and taste you prefer, you may choose to have you liquid sit longer. Some will let it sit for as long as 14 days! When your tea is where you like it, remove the mother culture with a 1/4 starter liquid for your next batch.
Next comes my favorite part – the “second ferment”. This is when you can add flavors and extra carbonation to your batch. Prepare a few jars or bottles to store your tea. Grab your flavorings: a chunk of ginger, some fruit, some mint leaves, some dried flowers, whatever. Add it into the bottle and then add your tea. This time you are going to close the cap and allow the bottle to sit at room temperature for at least one day. Depending on the sugar content of your flavoring, the tea will continue to ferment and create a lot of CO2. You should check your bottles every so often and burp them to avoid a messy explosion.
At this point, you have your SCOBY and its starter liquid. You can make a new batch to feed the culture or make it dormant. For each brew, your SCOBY will grow a baby colony as a layer on its top. The more you feed it, the more SCOBYs you will end up having. This is where a SCOBY hotel comes in handy. It is just a small jar where you can put your excess mamas and babes when you don’t have the time to tend to all of them. You should still feed them though every 4-6 weeks, just with a smaller recipe using the same tea to sugar ratio. Putting the jar in the refrigerator will make the colonies go into a much slower ferment, as if they were sleeping.
Happy fermenting! I’d love to hear of anyone’s experience in the comments below!
A few notes:
The trick is keeping the sugar ratio to 10% of the volume of your brewed tea. For a while, I thought that I was using way too much sugar for the recipes I was referring to. But I realized, the sugar is not for me – it’s for the culture. If you use less than the 10% per volume sweet spot, you risk inviting other bacteria and microorganisms into the picture. The excess sugar makes for a pretty harsh environment for bacteria aside from the ones in your SCOBY. On top of that, the sugar is used as food, and an acidic environment is also crucial to kill off unwanted bacterias and yeasts that may enter the batch from the air.
Temperature plays an important role in any fermentation process. Kombucha develops best in the temperature range of 74F to 84F. The general rule of thumb is that the colder the temperatures, the slower your ferment.
SCOBYs like the dark, don’t let them sit in direct sunlight.
Keep an eye on your SCOBY and make sure that it does not turn black or blue. If so, you will have to dispose of the Kombucha as this is a sign it is unsafe and molding. A healthy SCOBY will appear as shade(s) of white and brown. Also, wash your hands before handling your SCOBY directly.
Don’t over-do it. Try drinking a maximum of 8 ounces a day to avoid lactic acid build up.
Sanitation is key, brew at your own risk!