Though there are probably hundreds of websites and blogs dedicated to kombucha, I’m publishing my own to share my personal experiences with novice brewers. I combed the internet when I purchased my first SCOBY, and even though there was a lot of information, I had very little success finding exactly what I needed. I wasted time and money, and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.
If you didn’t already know, SCOBY is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It is a living thing, so it must be fed and properly cared for if you intend to brew kombucha on a regular basis. A SCOBY can be used multiple times, but I almost never do because a new one forms each time I make a new batch, and I’ve found equal success using starter tea over using a SCOBY.
Recalling my initial experience, I was enamored by a kit I saw in a health food store. There were pH strips to test acidity and well-written instructions accompanying a dehydrated refrigerated SCOBY. I thought I did everything right, but I never achieved success. I purchased the same kit again at another health food store, and the same thing happened. Since a dehydrated SCOBY can take as long as 30 days just to hydrate (not even counting the time to make kombucha), I lost months of time. I finally bought a SCOBY from the internet that came packaged in starter tea; it was fully hydrated. I had instant success. So, maybe there are people out there who had a different experience, but my advice would be to start with a fully hydrated SCOBY in starter tea.
When I received my SCOBY, I kept it on the kitchen counter. Optimum fermentation temperatures range from 68-85 degrees Fahrenheit. I never refrigerate a SCOBY. I do allow my home temperature to go as low as 65 or 66 degrees during the winter, but I haven’t had any issues brewing kombucha in colder temperatures. I invested in a heating pad designed to grow seedlings indoors, and I used it to keep my kombucha brew jars warm last winter for several months. The only difference between last winter and now is that my kombucha takes an extra couple of days to ferment. In fact, I like that because I’ve had several batches ferment too quickly, and I had to use some of the tea as vinegar in marinades or dressing because it was too sour.
Even though I don’t recommend investing in a heating pad or attempting to keep the kombucha warm, I do recommend investing in inexpensive fermometers. Fermometers are “stickers” with an embedded thermometer. They are available in home brew stores or online; I purchased mine from Amazon, and they are the perfect size for my gallon-size brew jars. (Fermometer Adhesive Strips)
Fermometers can be reused. I don’t know exactly what the lifespan of a typical fermometer is, but I have several for both kombucha and wine making. I clean my equipment religiously, by hand, so I can’t speak to dishwasher safety. But I’ve never had a problem with a fermometer not working properly or losing adhesion.
Fermometers are valuable for two reasons: 1) When you are just starting to brew kombucha, it’s good to rule out problems if your tea doesn’t ferment. If you brew tea and put it straight into an empty clean brewing jar, it may be too hot for a SCOBY. The fermometer will either show the maximum temperature or be “off the charts” which is an indicator you should not add a SCOBY or starter tea until the liquid has cooled to at least 85 degrees or lower. It’s also possible that your liquid is too cold. This probably won’t harm the SCOBY, but it may explain a delay in fermentation. 2) It’s good to know the approximate temperature to plan how soon the tea should either be consumed or refrigerated. During the summer months, my tea was fully fermented in as few as three days. If I didn’t stop fermentation in the refrigerator or consume the kombucha immediately, it would over ferment and be too sour.
Equipment: Brewing Jars and Lids
Kombucha can be brewed easily in standard quart-sized Mason jars or larger jars (e.g. gallon size). They should not be covered with solid lids during fermentation. One, the SCOBY needs to breathe. Two, kombucha will accumulate gas during fermentation, and there needs to be a safe escape for that air. Just Google kombucha disasters, and you will see what type of explosions can occur if you don’t heed this warning.
When I started reducing paper consumption to promote sustainability, I purchased medium-size white cotton handkerchiefs from Walmart to replace tissues. These handkerchiefs make perfect kombucha brewing lids when used in combination with a tight rubber band. The important thing to remember is that the cover needs to let air in and out while keeping all other foreign objects from entering. In the warm months, it is common for fruit flies and small bugs to contaminate kombucha. There are pictures of this floating around the internet, too. It’s gross, and you don’t want that to happen because it ruins the entire batch of tea and, most likely, your SCOBY.
Important: keep your fermentation jar out of direct sunlight.
To make fermented tea, there are two main requirements: standard sweetened tea and culture. Depending on the size of your batch, you can brew a small amount of tea with a few cups of hot water and tea bags or loose tea using your favorite hot brew method (e.g. Keurig, tea kettle) or with at least a half of a gallon of hot water in a small pot and appropriate amount of loose tea or bags. There is no special equipment required.
Making kombucha starts with brewing tea. A reputable Kombucha supplier* suggests using the following ratios when using a hydrated SCOBY and/or starter tea:
- Hot Water 2-3 cups
- Sugar 1/4 cup
- Loose Tea 1 1/2 teaspoons (or two bags of tea for every 1 1/2 teaspoons)
- Starter Tea 1/2 cup
- Hot Water 13-14 cups
- Sugar 1 cup
- Loose Tea 6 teaspoons
- Starter Tea 2 cups
Note: If you want to make a 1/2 gallon batch, reduce the ingredients in the Gallon recipe by one half. These numbers are not exact, and there are many people who use less water to make a very concentrated sweetened tea and then add cold water to cool the tea more rapidly so that it will be the right temperature to accept the culture. I typically boil water, add the sugar and mix thoroughly, then add tea leaves. I let the pot sit until it cools to room temperature. The brew is stronger and always at the right temperature to accept starter tea or a SCOBY.
If it’s your first time making tea and you only have a SCOBY, you can place the SCOBY in the room-temperature tea to start fermentation. For future batches, you can keep transferring your original SCOBY and any new one that forms into your next batch, or you can store the SCOBY with several others in another jar with just enough tea to maintain a moist environment. I typically store a few just in case I run into a problem. When there are too many, I give them away or compost them. For me, it’s easier just to use some starter tea for a new batch and leave maximum room for tea instead of taking up several inches of space with a big SCOBY.
I read several sources that said you can only get a “good” batch of kombucha and maintain the strength of your culture by using black tea. Since fermentation does not remove caffeine, this wasn’t going to work for me. I started experimenting with various herbal teas, including Dutch Clover flower tea from my backyard, and they all performed just fine. The only thing that really changed was the caffeine content and the flavor. Red hibiscus is my absolute favorite tea. It has a beautiful red color and a slightly tart flavor. When it reaches what I consider a perfect ferment, it bubbles like champagne. Why anyone would grab a carbonated soft drink after having red hibiscus kombucha is beyond my comprehension.
As for water, when I was struggling with the dehydrated cultures, I bought distilled water. I purchased bottled spring water. I tried boiling my own municipal water (that contains small amounts of chlorine) for over twenty minutes to “burn off” the chlorine as some websites recommended. This was all a waste of time. Unless you have something really unbalanced in your water or your water is officially not fit for consumption, you can use standard tap water. The SCOBY determined success in my case–not the water. I have been using tap water since my first successful batch of tea without a single issue.
When it comes to sugar, I started out with organic cane sugar. Then I used raw sugar. Now, I’m back to organic cane sugar. I don’t see any reason why standard off-the-shelf sugar wouldn’t work. It’s really a matter of personal preference. I have not experimented with sugar substitutes, and I probably won’t. The purpose of the sugar is to feed the SCOBY–not to sweeten the beverage. That being said, there’s no practical way that I’m aware of to test the sugar content at the time of consumption, so if you have a sensitivity to sugar, be cautious. As the tea ferments, more of the sugar will be consumed by the SCOBY. I have no idea at what point the sugar is completely gone if it’s ever completely gone. I do know that the tea is much sweeter if it’s not left to ferment longer, so we can make some assumptions about sugar content. If you are just starting out, I would recommend using standard or organic cane sugar or raw sugar. If you want to do some research or experiment with alternative sweeteners, do it in small batches with extra SCOBY’s. That way, you can keep waste to a minimum and not ruin your chances of brewing another batch of tea.
What to Expect
As mentioned previously, signs of a healthy SCOBY and fermentation process should start to show within a day or two of adding starter tea (or a SCOBY) to a fresh batch of tea. Though I’ve heard there are times when a new SCOBY doesn’t form, this has never happened to me. There is always a thin layer of film that forms on the surface of the new batch of tea. This film gets thicker as fermentation proceeds. Sometimes, there are big “goobers” of brown stuff that form; this looks gross but it’s normal. There may be “stringers” floating anywhere within the tea or hanging from the SCOBY floating at the top. Sometimes the SCOBY at the surface will fall down into the tea. This isn’t an issue and typically occurs if the brewing container is agitated. In my experimentation days, I saw my SCOBY drop like a rock, and this was because it was dead or inactive or whatever caused it not to hydrate and initiate fermentation. After I started producing healthy SCOBY’s, I noticed a SCOBY would drop initially and then float to the surface. I even had one cling to the side of the jar like a starfish in a fish tank. It was a little creepy.
What you don’t want to see is fuzz or hair-like mold growing on the surface. This typically happens when the acidity is too low. If there’s adequate starter tea, this shouldn’t happen. But in the event you consume too much kombucha and forget to hold on to enough starter tea, you can use distilled white vinegar (standard food grade vinegar from the grocery store) in place of the starter tea to keep the acidity at safe levels. If you have any signs of mold, you should toss the entire batch, including the SCOBY, if you’re using one, and thoroughly clean your equipment before starting a new batch.
There’s really no way to describe every little variation in a SCOBY. The pictures below show the surface of a new SCOBY (left) and several SCOBY’s stored in fermented tea (right). You’ll notice that there are several SCOBY’s piled up in the bottom, and a new one formed at the surface. There is one smaller one on top from a recent batch. A SCOBY will take the shape and size of the container, so if you’re using quart jars, your SCOBY will be the diameter of the quart jar. If you’re using gallon or two-gallon jars shown below, your SCOBY will be much larger in diameter.
Note: If you receive a large SCOBY and want to ferment in a small container, you can cut it. I tried this a couple of times and had no issues. If you do have an issue, then I’m assuming the big SCOBY you got was from a friend who will be happy to provide you with a replacement 🙂
Though I’ve tried several different additives, I’m content with drinking straight red hibiscus kombucha. Occasionally, I will add fresh grated ginger. If you decide to experiment with flavors, do it outside of your fermentation container. You can brew tea to your desired taste, transfer to another container, and add anything from sweetener to fresh fruit to grated carrots or ginger. There’s really no limit to what you can add, but remember not to damage your culture by adding any flavoring directly to your batch of tea.
Because I make homemade wine, I have a way to test specific gravity/alcohol content. The testing equipment is not very precise, but it suggested there could be as much as one percent alcohol in some of the kombucha I brewed. The U.S. Federal Government defines anything with greater than 0.05% alcohol to be considered an alcoholic beverage. Is my testing equipment precise enough to measure this level? No. Would I take any chances serving this to minors? No. It is common these days to hear debate as to whether or not there are any real health benefits to kombucha purchased over the counter because it’s been processed in a way that eliminates alcohol content. So, there are health advantages to brewing your own, but there are also risks in the event the alcohol content manages to exceed those permitted by law. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who could handle drinking enough kombucha for it to elevate blood alcohol levels because too much will send you immediately to the bathroom, but use caution, OK?
That being said, enjoy your kombucha slowly in the beginning. It’s a gut healer. You will definitely experience immediate changes in your bowel movements and/or gas levels when you start drinking it. This will level out over time, but everyone is different, so again, use caution.
If you like to drink kombucha from sealed bottles, just remember to “burp” them, especially if you are leaving them at room temperature to do a second fermentation (add flavoring) or avoid drinking them cold. Bottles could potentially explode. They will still accumulate gas if refrigerated, so be careful when you’re popping open a bottle or any container that’s been sealed for a while. And obviously, don’t shake it unless you want a complete mess.
In summary, my initial experience wasn’t all that pleasant, but I learned a lot from others and my own mistakes and successes. I still can’t fathom the return on the investment. The cost to make tea at home, the added health benefits of a natural process, and the convenience make home brewing the only option for me. If you run into issues, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d be happy to help. Cheers!
©Room2GrowGarden.com, December 7, 2018