Having lived in Santa Cruz during the height of the kombucha craze, it was inevitable that I become a fan of the uniquely tangy beverage. All of my friends were drinking the stuff and singing its praises — GT’s Kombucha bottles were practically a status symbol around the music building at UCSC.
At first, I was resistant to the charms of fermented tea. Plain kombucha tastes like someone spiked your English Breakfast with apple cider vinegar, then added a little carbonation. I couldn’t imagine how people were enjoying it at all, but I thought that maybe if I tried to make it at home I’d gain an appreciation for it. No such luck. My home brewing experiment left me with an overly acidic batch that was far from drinkable (and also lent its unpleasant aroma to the entire downstairs of our condo), and I was put off of the ‘buch for quite some time after that.
My revelatory moment came in Spring 2009, when a new Whole Foods Market opened just a few blocks from where I was living. They had a first-of-its-kind kombucha bar, featuring [now defunct] local company Kombucha Botanica‘s offerings on tap. They were doling out free samples of intriguing varieties like Pineapple Ginger, and after a first tentative sip, I quickly got hooked on the zippy, fruity flavor. It turns out that adding a little fruit to the brew makes for a seriously delicious drink.
Every once in a while, I’d buy a bottle of flavored kombucha as a treat, but I never thought to brew it at home again until Emma posted an incredible looking recipe for Strawberry Kombucha on her blog. A brewing afficionado (her cookbook is hot off the presses and absolutely gorgeous. If you’re interested in making small batches of soda, beer, kombucha, or kefir at home, I suggest you check it out!), she had come up with a summery recipe that I couldn’t resist attempting on my own.
And so, my second homemade kombucha adventure began about two weeks ago, when Emma generously gave me one of her starter cultures, or SCOBYs. The Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast resembles a gelatinous and floppy pancake — it’s actually a zoogleal mat comprised of bacteria and yeast. Feeding off of the sugar in a batch of sweetened tea, the yeast converts it into CO2 and alcohol, while the bacteria in turn use the alcohol to produce acetic acid, gluconic acid, and occasionally lactic acid (depending on which bacteria are present in your culture).
If you can’t already tell, I’ve been having a grand old time nerding out, reading up on kombucha’s history, biological makeup, and various brewing methodologies. Multiple sources confirmed a couple of concrete details that aid in a more scientific approach to brewing: Kombucha cultures thrive at temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and a finished brew should measure anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 on the pH scale. Being able to take these measurements along the way takes a lot of mystery out of the brewing process, and so I armed myself with an instant-read thermometer and a pH meter, courtesy of my friend Sheri.
If you don’t want to be a wonk about it, you can brew based on feel and taste — your tea should be at about room temperature or slightly warmer when you add the SCOBY, and when it’s done, the kombucha should taste, well, like kombucha. Not too sweet and flat, and not so tangy that you’ve made yourself an unpalatable batch of vinegary tea, best used as a hair rinse.
Problem is, I’ve got a serious aversion to drinking room temperature, unflavored ‘buch. Being able to just measure the pH has considerable appeal. Plus, hey, it’s fun to play with gadgets. If and when she wants it back, Sheri’s going to have to pry this pH meter from my stubborn, iron-fisted grip.
Below is my variation on Emma’s recipe, with a few small changes, along with some additional nerdery and detail (seeing a theme here?) thrown in. Instead of strawberries, I used blueberries and white raspberries, and I added an extra pinch of sugar after the second fermentation to ensure lots of fizz in the finished beverage. You can use just about any berry you please, and experiment with other fruits as you become a more brazen brewer. I can’t wait to try out seasonal varieties as the produce selection changes from summer berries to autumn apples and pears, and maybe throw in a few chia seeds with my next batch for an agua fresca variation.
Blue Raspberry Kombucha (printer-friendly version)
electric or stovetop kettle
1 one-gallon, wide-mouth glass jar (I use this one)
large wooden spoon
paper towels or cheesecloth
pH tester or strips
a dark corner, out of direct sunlight
medium mixing bowl
potato masher or fork
fine mesh strainer or chinois
6-8 swing-top bottles (sold by the case of 12)
medium (4-inch) funnel
3 1/2 quarts water, divided
8 black tea bags (I used Tazo English Breakfast)
1 C. organic cane sugar
2 C. starter tea (1 bottle Original Synergy Kombucha or two cups from your latest batch)
1/2 pint (6 ounces) white raspberries
1/2 pint (6 ounces) blueberries
3 1/2 tsp. organic cane sugar
To Brew the Kombucha:
1. Boil one quart of the water in an electric or stovetop kettle. Pour into one-gallon glass jar and add tea bags. Let steep for 10 minutes, then remove tea bags and discard.
2. Stir in the sugar until fully dissolved, then add the remaining 2 1/2 quarts of tap water to the jar. Let the sweetened tea cool to 80F (according to most sources, the ideal brewing temperature for kombucha is 72-85F).
3. Pour the starter tea into the jar with the sweetened tea — the liquid should reach about two inches from the top of the jar.
4. Carefully place your scoby in the jar. Don’t worry if it floats, sinks, or stands on end in the jar — its position will not affect the brewing process.
5. Cover the jar with paper towel or cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band. Place the jar in a cool, dark spot, out of direct sunlight, taking care not to jostle the liquid and dampen your lid.
6. After four days, begin testing your kombucha with the pH tester or strips — the pH of the kombucha will drop as it brews, becoming more and more acidic. To test, use a turkey baster to take a sample of kombucha, taking care to draw liquid steadily as you bring the baster up the side of the jar. Transfer your sample to a small glass, and dip your pH tester or strip into the liquid. When the pH tester reads between 2.5 and 3.5 (I prefer mine around 3.2), you’re ready for the secondary fermentation.
For the secondary fermentation:
1. Uncover the glass jar, remove the SCOBY, and place in a 1-quart container. Cover the scoby with two cups of the brewed kombucha — this is your “starter tea” that you’ll use for your next batch. Set aside in a cool, dark spot — you can start a new batch right away, or leave it for a few days with no ill effects. Just make sure that the SCOBY stays suspended in liquid, and add a small amount of sweetened tea if the liquid evaporates to the point where your SCOBY might dry out.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, use a potato masher or fork to mash up the blueberries and raspberries until all of the blueberries have been popped, then add the mashed berry mixture to the one-gallon jar with the remaining kombucha.
3. Re-cover the jar with paper towel or cheese cloth, then set it back down in your cool, dark spot. Let sit for two days. Check the pH — when you get a reading of 3.0 or whereabouts, it’s time to bottle. I bottled mine at 3.2.
1. Using a fine mesh strainer or chinois, strain your kombucha into a one-gallon pitcher. Make sure you pick up all of the yeast that has settled in the bottom of the brewing vessel — you want that to end up in the bottles.
2. Secure your swing-tops to the bottles if they are not already attached, then add 1/2 tsp. of sugar to each bottle before adding your kombucha. This will ensure that it ends up nice and fizzy — the yeast will consume the sugar and convert it into a negligible amount of alcohol, while releasing lots of CO2 in the process, carbonating your kombucha.
3. Carefully funnel the kombucha into the bottles, leaving about an inch of headspace (i.e. space between the liquid and the top of the bottle).
6. Seal the bottles with their swing-tops, return to their cool, dark spot, and leave for two days. Transfer it to refrigerator to slow the fermenting and carbonation process. I like to let it sit in the fridge for at least a day before serving.
7. Open your kombucha over the sink — it may bubble over. Pour into glasses and serve chilled.