The first time I heard about kombucha was from i-quit-sugar Sarah Wilson, a proponent of the fermented tea. A few years later, kombucha started popping up everywhere. Two of my favourite Instagram people created their own version. The barista at my work was thinking of stocking it. So of course, I got on the bandwagon.
What is kombucha?
I was intrigued and grossed out by the concept of a ‘mother’ culture – the blob that you use to start your brew. People like to complicate the process but it’s as simple as:
Tea is poured over a yeast culture and left to ferment.
Below, I answer all of the questions I initially had about kombucha and then show you how to make it.
- What does it taste like?
- What is a scoby?
- Is it actually good for you?
- When do you drink it?
- How do you make it?
- How do you sterilise equipment?
- How do you pronounce it?
I chose the worst possible day to collect my SCOBY.
What is a scoby?
SCOBY, for your info, is an acronym which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. A mother is another word for a scoby. (When an acronym becomes super common, you don’t have to capitalise it. So you pick.) It looks pretty revolting – like a thick white pancake. It’s flexible but firm and can have strings attached.
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It was pouring rain. Raining so hard that my windscreen wipers couldn’t keep up. I thought about pulling over but felt pretty sure I’d be collected by a truck on the side of the freeway. So I persevered half-blind through the downpour.
I was collecting my new scoby from my cousin, who had gotten on the fermented train long before me. He’d even made kimchi. That is true fermentation dedication. When it was time to leave his house, I went to say goodbye to his five-year-old son Bob*, holding my scoby in a jar. ‘What’s that?’ Bob asked me, with what I can only describe as a twinkle of mischief. ‘It’s a scoby,’ I explained. ‘It’s used to make kombucha.’
‘Kombucha. Don’t you mean kom-boo-cha?’ he corrected me, triumphant. I’d walked straight into his trap. And just like that, I’d been shamed by a five-year-old.
I have always been a nervous pronouncer. I read a lot growing up, which meant I saw my vocab before I heard it. When I was twelve, one of my best friends made a joke in class about a Harry Potter character nicknamed Phlegm. ‘Not everyone realises but obviously it’s flem,’ my worldly friend told the rest of year six. I nodded in vigorous agreement, majorly relieved not to have been outed. I mean it looks like fleg-em!
I feel like pronunciation stories are maybe better suited to in-person accounts. Is this reading ok? I don’t want to become a nervous pronunciation storyteller.
It took me years – and much mocking – to get façade right. Bob’s comments have only amplified my uncertainty.
What does it taste like?
To me, kombucha tastes like a healthy soft drink. A little less sweet (though this is variable), often fruity, and carbonated. Or like fizzy tea. It can have a slightly vinegar-y taste depending on how long it’s been fermented. It’s yum! My favourite is the pineapple and mint by The Bucha Shop. For a long time, I thought I had imagined this flavour combination. I’d tried it once and then it had vanished from my supermarket’s shelves. But investigations revealed that there had been a supply error and it had been stocked for the briefest of times. Not crazy yet!
If pineapple and mint isn’t available at your local supermarket, do not worry. I have never had a bad kombucha. Whether it’s Remedy’s raspberry and lemonade or the Keep it Cleaner lime and ginger, it’s all good. However, brands differ majorly when it comes to nutrition.
Is it good for you? How is it made?
Kombucha typically undergoes two fermentation stages. In the first stage, the mother eats all the sugar. In the second stage, if you want your drink flavoured, you add fruit and herbs and bottle it. This is also where the fizz happens. The longer you leave your kombucha in the first stage, the less sweet it will be (because more of the sugar will have been eaten). Kombucha is generally considered non-alcoholic but can contain up to 0.5% alcohol.
Given the process described above, it would seem reasonably good for you. It’s naturally very low in sugar. However, a lot of brands like to sweeten their kombucha. Stevia doesn’t count as sugar on nutrition panels so don’t be fooled. Remedy is quite low in terms of added sweetener. Brands typically mix their kombucha (sometimes only 20%) with carbonated water. When you realise that, you can start to feel a bit ripped off. $7 for a bit of water and tea? Try no.
Kombucha isn’t just glorified tea because of all the other (supposed) health benefits:
- Kombucha is a probiotic.
- It increases healthy bacteria.
- It improves your gut.
- It reduces your blood pressure.
- It promotes and eases digestion.
- It counteracts ageing.
- It’s rich in antioxidants.
- It protects against cancer.
As of January 2018, most of the findings around kombucha are based on tests without humans. Much like turmeric lattes, studies have shown that when kombucha is helpful, it’s when it’s consumed regularly. So a bottle every other week isn’t likely to do much.
Plus, it can be dangerous! The whole reason I took so long to brew my own kombucha was because I was scared of poisoning myself and everyone around me. If you do it wrong, by not using sterilised equipment or by over-fermenting or a number of other steps that I could easily have done, EVERYONE DIES. Or you can get sick or something.
How do you sterilise equipment?
I found the easiest way to ensure all my jars were safe to use was to:
1) Wash them thoroughly in hot water and detergent and rinse them well
2) Place them in a pot of hot water and bring to a boil, then allow them to boil for five minutes.
I was worried the glass might shatter but you shouldn’t have to worry about this, as long as you bring the water to a boil once the jars are in the water. Don’t boil the water first. The glass will not like this.
Once you’ve sterilised your equipment, use it immediately. There’s no point sterilising your jars the day before, I learnt the hard way. You will only have to sterilise them again.
Anyway, all this talk of sterilising brings me perfectly to my promised procedural text–
HOW TO MAKE KOMBUCHA
Makes: Just under 2 litres.
Ingredients & equipment:
- 8 cups water + 8 cups water
- 8 tea bags (black or green)
- 1 cup sugar
- Flavouring (eg. can of pineapple, mint, frozen berries)
- Tea towel
- Rubber band
- Big jar (for first stage fermentation)
- 8 x small jars or bottles (for second stage fermentation)
I more or less followed this recipe.
Like I said earlier, you are brewing sugary tea and allowing this to ferment with the yeasty culture. I’m going to get specific but as I liked to remind myself along the way, it is only tea. You can do this.
Sterilise everything as per above.
Boil 8 cups of water in a pot.
When the water is boiled, add your tea bags. Steep the tea bags for 20 minutes. Remove.
Note: You can leave the tags dangling over the edge of the pot. You can use tea leaves instead of bags but I didn’t want to get all complicated my first time. Use green tea, black tea or a combo of both. This alters the flavour. But don’t ask me how.
Add one cup of sugar. Stir.
When the tea reaches room temperature, pour the tea into your big jar. Add 8 more cups of water. Add your scoby with some of its starter tea (maybe a cup worth).
You want to add this starter tea to create good conditions for your new batch.
Place the tea towel over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.
You could easily use a t-shirt, a coffee filter or cheesecloth instead of a tea towel but a tea towel is so easy, why would you bother with anything else?
Leave the jar for 1-2 weeks while it ferments.
It becomes more sour with time, so do a taste tester after 7 days to see if you like it. I left mine a bit longer than intended because I got busy/forgot but it seems fine!
Pour the kombucha into your little jars. Leave the scoby in the big jar. Flavour the kombucha. This is when your kombucha starts to become fizzy, by feeding off the new sugar you are introducing.
I added frozen raspberries to half my jars and pineapple juice and mint to the other half. I also added a piece of pineapple to two of the jars because, you know, curious.
Leave the jars (with lids screwed on) for about 2 more days. Then refrigerate to stop the fermentation and carbonation.
Pray to god you haven’t stuffed up any of the steps above and consume at your leisure.
Have you tried kombucha? It’s cheaper if you brew your own but more of a headache (at least the first time around).
The good news is, whether it does or doesn’t protect against cancer, kombucha is definitely healthier than soft drink. So if you like the taste, you’ve got yourself a healthy substitute.
Tell me what you think of kombucha below! What flavour would you have done?
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