Adventures in Kombucha making

The first hurdle was finding a brewing container. After much research, we decided to use the continuous brew method. Continuous brew results in a more consistent flavor and contains more of the complex compounds such as B-vitamins, antioxidants, and glucaric acids to which many health benefits are attributed. For continuous brew you need a moderate sized container with large mouth and a spigot. Available containers were plastic (bad), ugly (very bad), or were manufactured in China with glazes of questionable chemical content (really, really bad) and with metal (really, very bad – stainless steel is okay though). We finally were able to purchase two Italian made heavy glass containers with spigots that worked perfectly. The mouth of the container is covered with layered cheesecloth and held on with a large rubber band. This allows oxygen to exchange, but keeps out anything which might contaminate the brew. The whole jar is then covered with the box the jar came in to protect the contents from sunlight which can potentially damage the SCOBY.

The second hurdle was obtaining a SCOBY. SCOBY is an acronym standing for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. This is a communal yeast and bacterial organism that takes tea and sugar, and transforms it into a mildly fermented probiotic drink which promotes health and happiness. SCOBYs are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a Kombucha mushroom, but the SCOBY is not actually a fungus. SCOBYs can be purchased online by searching for Kombucha SCOBY or Kombucha mushroom. If you are lucky enough to know someone who already brews Kombucha, then you can ask if they will split it and give you half. Never known to take the easy path, we decided to create our own from scratch with nothing more than unflavored commercially available raw organic Kombucha.

The third hurdle was that we live in Denver, Colorado and it was the middle of winter. We live in a poorly insulated house we heat around 70 degrees when we are home and awake, and around 60 degrees when asleep or not home. Getting a new batch going works best at higher temperatures than 70 degrees. After the brew is going and you have a strong SCOBY, the low temperatures actually work to our advantage because slower fermentation produces better tasting kombucha. But to get things going we purchased a heat mat used for starting seedlings and a controlling digital thermostat with a food safe temperature probe.
Having acquired the handcrafted Italian containers, the bottle of unflavored raw organic kombucha, the heat mat, and thermostat with probe, we set out to brew Kombucha and save our bank accounts from implosion.
Creating our own SCOBY was a simple matter of combining 2 cups unflavored raw organic kombucha with 1 cup sweetened tea. We filled a quart jar 2/3 full with the mixture and covered the opening with cheesecloth. We placed the jar on the heat mat, set the heat mat at 73 degrees. Then we covered the jar with an upside down cardboard box just slightly larger than the jar so that air could circulate. The box keeps the heat in and light out.

Because we would not stop checking hourly (and by “we” I mean Natalie), SCOBY formation was slow at first. It also did not float initially but hung about halfway down. This is fine and we have been assured that a sinker SCOBY will make fine kombucha. Also, about this time the SCOBY temporarily took on a darkened colour. Panic checking against online photographs helped us determine that everything was fine. We waited two weeks and had a small but happy SCOBY about a 1/4 inch thick.
We then upsized our operations by moving the contents of the quart jar to its permanent home in the 1.6 gallon container. The larger container was placed on the heat mat, protected with cheesecloth, and covered with its box. We added more tea equal to the current mixture and waited a week. We began tasting the mixture every few days and adding more tea till we reached the 3/4 level. The SCOBY was by now nice and thick and a creamy white disc that covered the surface completely. We were also starting to get carbonation at this point. We removed the heat mat to slow down brewing.

Tasting continued until we had a brew we liked about a week later. At that point we decided to try secondary fermentation similar to what you buy in the store. We were able to draw off 12 ounces of kombucha every third or fourth day into a glass bottle. To the 12 ounces of Kombucha tea we added 2-4 ounces of 100 percent organic fruit juice. The goal is to perfectly fill a 16 ounce bottle with no airspace. The bottle is then placed on the counter protected from light for 5-7 days. This is the secondary fermentation stage. If you get lucky you will get more carbonation in this step, but even without carbonation it is hard to beat an ice cold homemade Kombucha.

Once we were able to produce a consistently tasty final product, we split our SCOBY and started a second 1.6 gallon container. About this time (two months from our start) the Kombucha lost its cloudy appearance which is a result of suspended yeast. After both containers equalized, we were able to draw 36 to 48 ounces of raw Kombucha every third or fourth day. If we were brewing at higher temperatures we would probably be able to do it every other day. Success with brewing Kombucha is more tinkering to adjust to your specific local conditions and tastes than following a recipe.
Important notes:
  • The sweetened tea I have used to feed the SCOBY is 1/3 black tea to 2/3 green tea. The black tea gives the final product a better taste; the green tea feeds the SCOBY. Sugar is 1/4 cup to a quart of tea. Use filtered water and white cane sugar only. If you heat the water to make tea, do not let it boil. Boiling drives out oxygen that the SCOBY needs. Let the tea reach room temperature before adding to the Kombucha.
  • The white cane sugar is for the SCOBY, not for you. Very little will make it through into the final drink. Do not use other types of sugar or honey which are bad for the SCOBY. I have white cane sugar in the house for only two purposes, feeding the SCOBY and making sugar water for the bees if they need supplemental feeding. Do not use unfiltered tap water; the chlorine can kill the SCOBY.
  • Try to always leave at least as much Kombucha with the SCOBY as you are adding sweetened tea. This keeps the PH balance correct for the SCOBY. If you need to add more sweetened tea, add tea over multiple days with at least one full day in-between each addition.
I have added a link to Food Renegade in Resources. They have a nice post regarding research on health benefits.

The beekeeper mentioned in the previous post as the inspiration for our adventures in Kombucha making is Dennis Murrell from Bee Natural, which I have also added as a link in Resources.
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Backyard Ecosystem began as an expression of my determination to make a difference in our own backyard. Literally and metaphorically making a difference at the micro level of my yard and to operate at macro level of treating the entire planet as something I am an integral part of and whose destiny is shaped everyday by what I do in my corner of the world.

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