Sunday, May 3, 2009

Some Things We've Gotten Right: Kombucha

(clicking on any picture will enlarge)

It's hard to believe it's been nearly 9 months since we were given our first Kombucha SCOBY (thanks, Maria!).

Last year we branched out a bit in investingating pre-biotics, pro-biotics, and lacto-fermented foods. The first three experiments involved our first attempts at culturing real milk into Caspian Sea Yogurt and Kefir. Of the two, we most enjoyed the Caspian Sea Yogurt, but only managed to sustain the culture for 3-4 months at a time before it got overactive and changed from its original taste and texture. The Kefir was enjoyed, too, but simply was more maintenance than the CSY, though we enjoyed both. Our uses of them centered around pairing them with fruit or granola (or both), or with frozen fruits and honey as smoothies. Boy, was it good!

As the very very hot months here progressed, we got caught up in other projects, and the "milk projects" took a backseat, since they require a good bit of regularity (though none of it was difficult). At the same time we'd researched those, we'd also played with the idea of buying a Kombucha starter "mushroom," or "SCOBY" to being making this highly-beneficial probiotic fermented tea. We noticed how many people made kombucha regularly, and that its appeal seems to be widespread and has a very loyal following. We also noted the potential health benefits. But frankly, I was just intimidated about it and afraid I'd poison my family by accident in all my experimentation.

Thankfully, there were online friends such as Maria, who coached me past my initial insecurities and got me off to a good start on this VERY EASY process of making Kombucha. She sent me the gift of one of her baby SCOBYs, yay! Shown above is the glass of kombucha I'm enjoying while typing this very post...and I do have to say it's NOT an acquired taste for's simply delicious!

The more it's allowed to ferment, the stronger its flavor gets. If left to its devices, it will essentially turn into a sort of strong best to drink it and refresh it before it reaches that stage. At its best, it's an effervescent slightly tart slightly sweet tea with a hint of apple, and a delightful sweet cider smell.

This closeup shows the foam and tiny carbonation bubbles in a freshly-poured glass. Mmmm!

Kombucha has helped me forgo drinking Cokes (sodas, to you northerners). Jack never drank soft drinks much, but I did, especially on those blazing hot summer days. Now ice cold kombucha or water with lemon is our drink of choice. We save old bottles and use them sometimes to store kombucha in the fridge...if there's any left!

Before I ever got started, I went online and compared pictures of the SCOBYs I saw...they varied significantly. Some were pristine white and looked like pure paraffin. Some were uneven, or had "blisters" in different places. Some were creamy beige and others were unevenly colored anywhere from beige to darker brown spots. Some were pure spongy discs and others were layered, uneven pancake stacks. Some of the brews were barely tinted and others were very dark, nearly opaque.

And then there was the matter of the "strings" and odd floaty things. That's where the warning bells kicked in for me. So I read on...

Now that we've been doing this for several months, I'm not saying we're experts, but I am saying we've found what works for us. The hanging-down fibrous "jellyfish tentacles" that develop under the SCOBY ("mushroom") are normal and are what help create the changes from a simple sweet tea to a delicious fermented probiotic. In the jar shown below, I've made a fresh batch of sweet tea and poured it into some reserved kombucha (a couple cups or more from the first batch) and let the mushroom remain the same. I handle the cooking implements with very clean hands but have to make sure there are no traces of antibacterial soap left on them because that would quickly kill off the very GOOD bacteria we're trying to nurture in the kombucha. So after cleaning my hands and utensils, I rinse all in plain white vinegar, which serves to keep things clean but is friendly to the kombucha.

If I have a good, strong SCOBY, I'll often smooth off a lot of the fibers that hang down off the bottom layer, and if the bottom layer begins looking flaccid or seems to be coming apart easily, I'll dispose of it and rinse the next layer up with a little vinegar. In the picture below, all the layers were healthy and I needed a jump-start to a large batch of new tea, so I left the fibers. I no longer worry if they cloud the brew slightly, etc...I'll just get rid of the fibers the next time I brew a batch. They're actually healthy for the brew. Just filter them out when you pour some to drink (not harmful to drink, but I like my drink without any "floaters.")

A clean piece of kitchen linen is what we use to cover. A rubber band keeps it secured tightly but the layers of cloth allow it to breathe, which is necessary for the fermentation. We keep our jars in a shadowy area in a hutch we have, where they won't be handled or moved around in between batches.

My "mushroom" used to look thin and very uneven, and I was worried it was unhealthy, or maybe dangerous. I learned that it just takes time to get the batch built up to consistent brew, and the first couple of batches will make way for much better ones in only a few rotations. The way we now have SCOBYs for our three 3-gallon containers is by taking one of the "pancake" layers from another SCOBY and putting it into the jar along with a few cups of reserved kombucha, and then adding in the newly-brewed tea. Making sure to have a couple other SCOBYs on hand assures that you can keep things going if you feel one needs to be replaced. Here's how one of ours looks now. It is smooth on top but still has a "blister" here or there, which is normal for ours. We don't leave them exposed to air without a cover unless refilling with tea...especially with occasional fruit flies about.

(In the picture above, there is a reflection of the paper towel roll against the glass...there is not a white ghostly apparition at the left side of the brew ;-))

Here's a closeup...

We followed a very precise method at first, but then switched to what works best for us. Here's what we usually do:

1. One of our containers has a spigot. The other two do not. We use the tea in the one with the spigot first.

2. As the first container's being drunk down (usually quickly) the others are fermenting. By the time we drink the first container down to about three inches from the bottom, we simply refill it with some of the kombucha from the other containers. We do this for a couple of draining and fillings, never fully draining any container. This, for us, accomplishes the same thing as the Continual Brew method.

3. At some point, all three containers will begin getting low. We don't let them get lower than 3 or 4 inches from the bottom (several cups of brew remaining in each). If we're going out of town or don't want that big of a refill soon, we leave them As Is...covered, with several cups of brew in each. Undisturbed. They can stay this way for weeks, and will get stronger and stronger as vinegar. Not enjoyable to drink, but it preserves the SCOBYs.

4. If we DO want more of the Continual Brew Kombucha, we simply make several batches of sweet tea. The proportions we use are 1 cup plain sugar and several small plain Lipton tea bags per gallon of Spring water (any kind of purified water works as long as it has no salts or chemicals). They are cooled to room temp before refilling the containers. Sometimes we fill the containers all the way, sometimes not, but always use the same tea-to-sugar ratio per gallon. We never pour them in hot or cold...always at room temp.

5. Before pouring the new brew into the old, we assess how vinegary the remaining kombucha in the container is by tasting it. If it's really vinegary (like as strong as pickles), I'll remove some with a measuring cup till there's only an inch or two in the bottom. I like to skim from the top and not pour it out because that old kombucha has mature probiotics in it that only get better with age, and these are often concentrated at the bottom of the brew. (I do NOT wash my containers each time since we do continual brew. ONLY if my entire batch looks strange do I wash everything and start it over.) If the remaining brew is not very vinegary, I just leave it all and pour in the new batch.

6. I rinse the SCOBY in white vinegar and smooth off any dark brown strings or excessive hanging fibers. I look at the bottom layer to see how slick and healthy it seems. If it seems to be disintegrating, I pull off the parts that easily disengage and discard them, and then rinse the bottom with some vinegar on my clean hand. Nothing clinical...just smoothing the excess with my hand wetted with vinegar. It's at this point that if you have a "baby SCOBY" pancake forming one or more layers and you want to share with someone else, separate the part that easily comes apart and set aside in a sealed plastic bag with a few tablespoons of kombucha to keep it wet inside. If your SCOBY doesn't separate easily and the layers cling tightly together, I leave it be.

7. If there is ever any DRY discoloration or DRY mold on the SCOBY, or any discoloration besides brown, discard it and the entire batch of remaining kombucha, wash everything thoroughly in hot soapy water, and rinse all in white vinegar. You can restart it with a few cups of kombucha and a new baby SCOBY from another batch if that one's not got mold on it. Add a couple tablespoons of white vinegar to the liquid (this helps balance it) and a teaspoon of a pure grain alchohol. It might take a couple brew cycles to get back to the good mature flavor after doing this.

8. Fasten clean linen or cloth squares to top tightly with rubber band. Don't use cheesecloth, as the fibers are too widely spaced and dust and fruit flies can get in.

9. At some point in a few days or more, you will see "floaters" in the liquid, which are the floating fibers that are active in fermenting the kombucha. These are normal, and can be strained out when you pour yourself some to drink. In our container that has a spigot, most of these are concentrated at the bottom of the container below the spigot line, so most times we just drink it straight without filtering.

10. At any time, if the "floaties" actually move, look at them closely. If they move on their own, there is an imbalance and you have "vinegar eels"...nothing pandemic, but discard it all, clean everything, and start it all over.

11. We don't let our kombucha get below 72 degrees F. The warmer it is above that, the faster it "brews." If it turns too vinegary too fast, we simply drain some of it out and put in fresh tea mix (as stated above).

12. Basically, though this seems to be a very long set of instructions, it's not hard at all. You essentially make fresh batches of sweet tea and instead of putting it in the fridge, you put it with your SCOBY and it makes some delicious kombucha just by sitting around. The worst you ever have to do is very seldom discard a batch, clean it all, and start over, but if you have harvested the new layers of your SCOBY and started other containers, you always have that to fall back on.

13. We used to make a separate new batch every time we drank the old. Our modified "continual brew" method is an adaptation of the method described in some literature we ordered. By simply refreshing the brew while still leaving the concentrated bottom liquid in the container, the continual brew method, for us, seems to give a more consistent product. We often leave in as much as 6 or 7 inches of the old brew, depending on how vinegary it tastes. Some people love a very sharp-tasting brew. Jack likes his with a bit of a bite, and I like mine just at the carbonation stage but not very vinegary. It's just personal preference. The stability of the continual brew makes for fewer Start-Overs for us, and less cleaning overall. But there comes a time when it all needs a good scrubbing. Reserving some of the liquid and keeping the SCOBYs healthy ensure some reliability to restart it all again. We much prefer the continual brew method since it just works better for us.

Oh sure, we are novices at this and we've made mistakes. For instance...

1. Right after we got our first baby kombucha, Jack's mom went into hospice and for two months we were not here at home doing anything at all. I put the baby into the fridge with some reserved liquid. It took a while to come out of "dormancy" when I was finally back home to get things going again. But it did finally do its thing.

2. Neglect. I'm the culprit when that happens. Scenario...we've drunk all the jars down to the last few remaining inches of kombucha. And I plan on making a big brew to refresh them all. And then we get caught up in 100 other things and it doesn't happen for a while, and all the while the kombucha keeps getting more vinegary. Well, by the time I do make the big batch to refill them they're almost pickled...ha! But they still do their thing, despite my benign neglect.

3. A certain husband who will remain nameless got so desperate for a new batch of kombucha once that he couldn't wait for me to make it. So he did. Only he used enough tea bags to start his own Boston tea party, and used brown sugar instead of white. Thankfully, he only filled one of the jars with that. It was black and opaque. Ergo, it soon became time to start it allll over again, and Robbyn finally un-procrastinated and re-did the whole shebang.

4. Yes, SCOBYs can, indeed, be left floating in their kombucha-turned-vinegar for nearly two months and still remain healthy. (Don't ask me how I know...) But whew, you only need a little of that to kick-start the new batch! :)

My advice for anyone considering kombucha but still having some trepidation...go for it! Find someone nearby who already brews their own, if possible, but if you can't do that, buddy up with an online friend who's a pro at it and give it a whirl. I can MAKE it faster than I can type about what we've learned in trying.

To sum's as easy as making sweet tea.

We feel it really ramps up our healthy internal bacteria, which gives the bad guys a double-whammy sucker punch. Let's hear it for the probiotics...woo!

Got Kombucha??


Wrensong Farm said...

It's good to hear they can survive neglect! My girlfriend gave me my "start" and I have been neglecting it lately (for prob. 2 months) I hope to get it fed and going this week again!! I've nicknamed mine "Chewbacca" which my friend gets a good laugh at! This was a great post, I need to read it completely through again!!

Carolyn said...

Sounds interesting. I would love to try it!


ChristyACB said...

I'll be honest, while I love the idea of Kombucha and will drink it at other people's homes, I can't bear to drink what I made. It just looked too weird and being convinced I would be found dead when I didn't show up for work on monday clinched it.

In college I worked with determining the rate of mutation on some of my subjects and the rate for diatoms has alway stuck in my mind when contemplating doing thing like this. Even my home-made ginger beer (ginger ale) which works only with yeasts, gets a fresh start every time rather than saving the plant.

Carol said...

I will definately bookmark this one. I have completely given up "soda"...and this sounds pretty good.

Lemongrass said...

Robyn, where did you get your glass container? I have a glass bowl, but think the mouth is too wide.
I love making and drink my homemade tea. Great post!

Robbyn said...

Wren, lol! With mine, as long as there is enough kombucha liquid to keep it wet and floating at all times, it's turned out to be ok. It got powerfully vinegar-smelling and I only used a small amount of that to restart the next batch.

Carolyn, I was very skittish about it, but have really been glad we got started :)

Christy, I did a lot of reading and ended up calling and speaking with the owner at the Happy's a link...
I understand being uncomfortable with the unknowns. I would never recommend that anyone proceed unless thoroughly researched and convinced it's right for them. And I still get a bit wigged about the floaty stuff. For some reason, my body seems to crave it and so far we've noticed no ill effects, nor heard about any from so many people who brew their own. I'd love to hear your feedback if you find out any facts we might not be aware of :)

Carol, I hope you like it. We initially tried some of the retail health store's bottled raw kombucha (sold in the fridge section) to see if we liked it. There were different flavors, but they don't taste much like what we brew...ours is milder and sweeter.

Lemongrass, I saw some videos online of people who had great success with kombucha in glass bowls...the SCOBY will slowly adapt to whatever dimensions your container is, especially if left undisturbed when not draining. Jack bought me the containers at a regular store..they came with lids and were food grade and we thought we'd used them to store flour or other staples we use regularly. We purchased the spigot container from the Happy Herbalist site listed above in comments, but I'll be on the lookout for some glass Sun Tea containers this summer, as I think they'd do the trick much more affordably. Our spigot is food grade plastic, but we prefer the container to be see-through glass. There are crocks out there for sale, but we weren't sure what we were doing at first and preferred to be able to view the kombucha without having to remove the cover each time, which is why we use glass. You just have to be careful not to choose a type of glass that has lead in it (some from China do or might) On a side note, how grows your calabaza? Ours is going to town :)

Miriam said...

We love kombucha in our house...well, dd3 and I do, dh suffers a shot a day that I force him to take in an attempt to get his reflux better and the other two dds take a few sips here and there as they need.

I've let a scoby go for 6 months and it was fine. And I don't do all the vinegar things you do; I just wash my hands really well. (But now I have some great ideas for all of my other ferments since I've had some issues with lemons and salsa.)

We use the sun tea containers and I can give another reason not to use the spigot. Little bits of stuff get caught in them and cause leaks. I finally had to loosen the spigot and turn it upside down so that toddler hands couldn't help themselves to a glass.

Now, have you tried water kefir? It is a lot more work than kombucha (pretty much daily in warm weather) but sooo yummy. It also has a bit of a yeasty flavor and if you let it ferment long enough you'll get a bit of a buzz.

Lemongrass said...

I am using a pyrex bowl which is somewhat of a pain. The tea comes all the way to the top of the bowl. Someone gave me a big, glass kind of candy jar with a lid. I am not sure if it is food grade, so I did not use it.
I will be on the look out for food-grade glass jar. My calabaza germinated once the temperatures went up. I have seven seedlings and they are looking great. I will grow one in a 5 gallon bucket and some in a raised bed. I am very excited about them.

Killi said...

This is a very silly question, but, with the SCOBY floating on the top & sealing the Kombuchka, just HOW do you get to the tea? I don't have any spigotted containers & can't find a SCOBY near here anyway :(, but I would like to know how you get the tea out. Yes, I'm as SilliKilli

Anonymous said...

This is a great post! I'm pleased to hear someone being honest about not diving straight into this. I find the floating bits quite offputting too and it has taken me a year to get used to the idea of brewing my own kombucha. I have a batch on the go that is full of bits and I'm not sure that I'm feeling brave enough yet to drink it. Having studied microbiology as part of my degree at university, I'm still quite squeamish about drinking a fermented bacterial and fungal brew!

Miriam - I think you can put (clean) marbles or glass nuggets into the bottom of your jar to keep the spigot clear. I saw this mentioned on a website selling infusion jars and thought it was a brilliant idea. Google "infusion jars" and it is the first link to come up.

Shenanigans said...

I definitely neglected mine for a couple of months and ended up with a nice vinegar. Thanks to your post I'm no longer convinced that the mother is dead and will give it another go.

Anonymous said...

I have just started with the Kombusha & I had my first drink yesterday & I noticed that instead of 1 there were 2 Skubies, but this afternoon I noticed that on of them has a sort of black thing on the side that wasn't there yesterday. Its not hairy, it just looks like its floaty & its partually separated. Can someone tell me what it could be?

Thankyou very much
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