Kombucha? Scoby? What is this stuff?

Yes, you can make your own scoby and kombucha

finished kombucha in second fermentation

Kombucha? Everywhere I look something about Kombucha seems to be showing up. My food prejudice was showing up as well and I passed the media glut off as another natural food fad, and I’m not a fan of fads, I’m a skeptic. So while visiting our local natural food store recently I saw some kombucha in the cooler and decided to give it a try. I wanted to see what all the fuss is about. One word…convert.

While I’m a doubting Thomas about all the purported health benefits of kombucha I can’t deny the great taste of this fermented tea concoction. Being a fermented food full of probiotics I’m reasonably sure it has some health benefits the chief among them is adding some beneficial microbes and bacteria back into the stomach. So I like that idea but I really like the taste. Not overly sweet with a mild hint of vinegar tang and if brewed correctly, some effervescence. And if you brew your own you can flavor it in more ways than one can imagine. We’ll get to brewing in a moment.

The skeptic in me seriously doubts the claims of positive treatment for everything from arthritis, cancer, AIDS, and diabetes to reversing grey hair. If it were that powerful Big Pharma would be all over it. On the flip side there are some reported adverse effects. These range from liver and kidney toxicity to acidosis, or a increased acidity in the blood stream and other body tissue. The fact the CDC and the FDA aren’t screaming for people to stop brewing tells me a lot also.

On both fronts the evidence is spotty at best. Take everything you read with a healthy dose of caution. Neither the anecdotal benefits or limited medical studies are clear. Me? I remember growing up eating fermented pickles and sauerkraut as a kid so that’s why I’m not too horribly concerned but that’s me. You are you. The caveat is this. When making a fermented food product there can be things that go amiss. If you make kraut and there’s grey fuzzy stuff on top, it’s mold. Mold is bad…toss the ferment and start over. Ditto for kombucha. If your kombucha is moldy or smells real weird it’s most likely bad…toss it. Ferments are inexpensive to make and being a cheapskate or hero isn’t in your best interest.

Let’s talk SCOBY then kombucha

So what is kombucha? The history of kombucha is a little vague in my estimation. Maybe I read too much and can’t see the hype or fact. Tibet, China, or Korea. First brewed in the 1800s or an ancient drink of the Orient. What is clear is kombucha is a fermented tea, most usually green tea, sometimes black tea. Different people will tell you green tea is the real deal and others black tea. I’ve successfully brewed both. And that’s what we’re going to talk about. How do you brew kombucha? One starts with a scoby, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, and you can make one at home. Don’t freak out at the bacteria. They are bacteria you eat almost every day.

  • Acetobacter – the vinegar bacteria
  • Saccharomyces – the bacteria which produces alcohol
  • Brettanomyces – bacteria which produces both and can make wine taste funny
  • Lactobacillus – the bacteria we love in fermented cabbage, pickles, and yogurt
  • Pediococcus – produces lactic acid
  • Gluconacetobacter bylines – ferments the alcohol produced by the yeast and turns it into acetic acid (vinegar)
  • Gluconacetobacter kombuchae – feeds on the nitrogen in tea and promotes the scoby “mushroom”
  • Zygosaccharomyces – assists in building the scoby and produces acetic acid

It’s said we are approximately 10% human while the rest of our body is bacteria. Over 100 trillion according to some studies. What’s more, there are estimated to be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 different bacteria in our stomachs. So don’t sweat the bacteria thing. There are likely far more good bacteria than bad and the body usually knows how to keep them in check.

In my experience using these bacteria to start a scoby for kombucha is much easier than many would lead you believe. With very little effort you can grow your own scoby to brew kombucha in just a few days. Spoiler alert. Scobys can be really gross looking and off-putting to some. You’ll get used to it after a while.

First you need a bottle of live culture kombucha. Price about $3.99 or so from the local healthy food joint. Then you need cane sugar, tea, and water. The ratios vary if you search the all knowing internet but here’s the one that worked for me.

  • 2 cups brewed tea, green or black. Use two bags or an equivalent amount of bulk tea. If using bulk tea strain before adding the other ingredients.
  • 1/4 cup store bought kombucha as a starter. I used GT ginger flavor and despite the conventional wisdom…ginger worked.
  • 1/4 cup cane sugar. You can use raw honey but start with sugar first to get your feet wet.

Now it gets complicated. Brew the tea, dissolve the sugar in the tea, let the sugar/tea come to room temperature, add the kombucha, put it all in a pint jar, cover it with a paper towel secured with a rubber band or lid, and let it sit in a warm place for ten to fourteen days. The best temperature for a scoby to grow is said to be 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If its cooler it will take longer, if it’s warmer it won’t so watch the temperature.

Hints:

  • Find a closet which is warm. And if the counter top is your choice keep the brew out of direct sunlight.
  • Don’t use cheesecloth to cover the brew as it’s too permeable and you’ll end up with unwanted fruit flies in warmer weather.
  • Don’t add the starter to tea/sugar which is too hot. Yeast and some bacteria are killed at about 115 degrees F. Stay cool dudes and dudettes. Stay cool.

The sugars will be eaten and transformed into alcohol (about .05 to 2%) by the yeast so don’t worry about consuming too much sugar or too much alcohol. (Pregnant or nursing? Err on the side of caution and don’t drink kombucha.) In a few days you’ll see the scoby start to form, a clear film at first turning pale white, maybe blotchy, as it gets thicker. You may see stuff that looks stringy growing on the bottom. Chill…it’s yeast. If you see furry grey or white mold, which is highly unlikely, toss everything, sterilize your equipment, and start over. Remember, no heroes only fools.

Total time invested: 20 minutes max. Whew! I’m exhausted.

scoby brewing kombucha

Houston, the scoby has landed

Now it’s going to get complicated again so pay attention.

Brew 2 1/2 cups of tea with four teabags or an equivalent amount of bulk tea. If using bulk tea strain before adding the other ingredients. Dissolve 3/4 cup of cane sugar into four cups of hot water. Let both come to room temperature, place all in a 1/2 gallon or similarly sized glass container, add 1/2 to 1 cup of your scoby starter liquid, slide your scoby in (I warned you it was a little gross), cover and seal with a paper towel/lid combo, and put it in the same temperature zone you brewed your scoby in. Seven to ten days later you’ll have kombucha. If your brewed tea is too hot it will kill the scoby and bacteria. Again, keep it in the  75 to 85 degree F zone.

After three days start tasting it by inserting a straw carefully down the side and putting your finger over the top to draw a sample. As it ferments the taste will go from sweet to mildly vinegar. That’s normal and you can stop the ferment at whatever point it tastes good to you. My taste is a tiny bit more sweet than vinegar. It’s up to you though. This is called the first ferment, or 1f in kombucha circles. When the booch is to your liking you can move to a 2f, or second ferment, to add flavor and fizz.

For a second ferment gather a bunch of sterilized glass 8 ounce or pint canning jars with lids. You can also use snap cap beer bottles. Remove the scoby and put it in a small bowl dousing it with a little kombucha so it doesn’t dry out. In the bottom of your 2f jars put a few dried cranberries, two tablespoons of orange juice, a teaspoon of sugar, a couple of strawberries, grated ginger, a tiny bit of sugar, or what ever you want, fill the jar to about 1/2 inch headspace with your brew, tighten the lid, and let that sit on the counter for two or three days. A closed environment with the addition of sugar, natural glucose or fructose in fruits, is what will kick the second fermentation into gear. When your bottles have the carbonation you want, refrigerate them to stop/slow the process. Now we better talk about carbonation for a minute.

The second ferment is what will make your kombucha carbonate. Natural carbonation is nothing more than carbon dioxide with no way out. When you brew kombucha the paper towel allows air transfer and the co2 can escape. In the 2f you don’t want it to escape so you seal the container so it will carbonate the beverage. If you are concerned there is too much carbonation just twist the lid to “burp” the booch. Honestly, I’ve not been able to get a real good fizzy 2f yet. Your results may, and probably will vary.

A bit about water. Chlorinated water is a no-no. Chlorine is a powerful disinfecting agent so if you use tap water that has chlorine let it sit over night or boil it to get rid of the chlorine. Chlorine…clorox. Get it.

Pointers

After you bottle your first batch of kombucha you’ll want to save the scoby and 1/2 cup to 1 cup of kombucha for your next brew. Put it in another jar and feed it a mild sugar/water/tea solution so it can eat. Alternately, you can start another batch of booch right away. Your scoby will continue to grow and add more layers, pancake like, as time goes on. This can be separated or cut in pieces to share. To slow the process put the whole thing in the fridge. Cold slows fermentation and the growth of the scoby. Scobys seem to be tough little buggers as long as you feed it and keep it cool.

Videos here!

Here’s a scobvideo and brewing video from our Youtube channel.

But…but…but…and some further reading

  • “My scoby sank!” Yeah, it happens. It may float, sink, or hang out in the middle. All normal.
  • “My scoby has bluish-grey spots under the surface.” The most likely culprit is yeast forming under the surface. If it’s not furry it’s likely not an issue. You’ll see lots of strange looking stuff (probably yeast growth) through the glass as it ages. If it is furry on the top…toss it and start over with a sterilized set up. Use your judgement and compost pile well Scoby-Wan.
  • “My kombucha smells a little like vinegar.” Yup. Acetobacter again. Normal as long as it’s not too strong. Taste it.
  • “My scoby/kombucha really stinks and it’s not a vinegar smell.” Something went awry. Toss it and start over.
  • “Can I use old, cleaned kombucha bottles for my second ferment?” I did and wasn’t impressed as the seals never took hold. Since I have lots of canning jars I use them.
  • “How do I stop the brew process?” Refrigerate it. It will slow or stop the brewing process.
  • “My 2f didn’t carbonate well.” Fizz happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The more you brew, the better your get, the more you learn. Be brave and experiment!
  • “The lids on my canning jars are bulging!” Congratulations! You have a very fizzy kombucha. But you didn’t burp the booch did you? Open it carefully over the sink to catch the overflow.
  • “This stuff is delicious. I could drink it by the gallon!” Whoa, horsey! Your gut is new to this stuff so go easy. Keep it to four or five ounces per day for a while until your tummy gets used to it…or stay close to the loo if you get my drift.
  • “I took a swig of my 2f and got a slimy thing. What the heck is that all about?” If your scoby is strong you may get a baby in the second fermentation. I did and it grossed me out too. We’re young, we’ll get over it.
  • “How sterile should my equipment be?” I wash everything in the dishwasher and scald it all again just before brewing/bottling. Your conscious is your judge so be judicial.
  • “Should I use stainless steel or wood to stir everything?” I use stainless steel, some people use only wood. If it’s sterilized I don’t know that it makes a difference.
  • “I brewed chamomile/herbal tea and a scoby didn’t form.” From what I understand the tea has to be Camellia sinensis, or real tea, not herbal tea. Something to do with bacteria liking the tannins.
  • “I tried a coffee kombucha. Nothing happened.” Coffee kombucha is another animal that I haven’t tried…yet. Crawl before you walk, walk before you run.
  • “What do I do with all the scobys I have now?” Give them to interested friends, start a scoby hotel so you have backups, toss them in the compost, slice them and fry them into booch bacon. (Don’t laugh, someone really tried this.)

Now maybe I got stupid lucky and my brews got off to a good start. But I don’t think so. This stuff is as easy as falling off the proverbial log and you get a better beverage than the stuff in the store. Not many booch-heads would argue that. However, different people have different brewing recipes so experiment. Here are two links to other sites you may find helpful. These are not affiliate links or paid endorsements.

KombuchaKamp – Great educational information and they sell kombucha stuff

Happy Herbalist – Very knowledgable, read with an open or closed mind at your choice

Whatever you do, read, read, and read. If you aren’t comfortable with your brew or ferment then throw it out. Brewing kombucha is inexpensive while hospital care is not. That’s not meant to scare you off trying to brew your own kombucha or fermenting, it’s meant to make you a cautious practitioner of the fermentation nation. Tens of thousands of people ferment safely everyday, myself included. But I’m cautious in my fermenting. And most of all remember you don’t need any fancy equipment. Most of it is designed to part you with your wallet. Glass jars or bottles, tea, sugar, and a scoby are all you need to start brewing.

One book I’ve really found useful for all things fermented is Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. Please note this is an affiliate link to Amazon and we will earn a small commission if you purchase the book. It won’t raise the price of the book, we just get small percentage of the sale.

Now go ferment something….like kombucha or sauerkraut! (Yeah, it’s another video! Enjoy.)

  • reply Krystyna ,

    I am on my first attempt at making kombucha. I’m not sure if I’m on the right track! I made about a gallon of black tea and use coconut sugar, and added some scobey gifted to me from a local farm. Covered with a towel & secured with a rubber band, then put in a dark cabinet. I have had it going for a few days and checked on it but not really sure what I am checking… How long before you know if you’re on the right track?

    • reply Dave ,

      Krystyna, I am so, so sorry to respond so late. First, I’m not sure the coconut sugar will work…I’ve never tried it. But by now you have probably found out so you can teach me that one! I’ve used raw sugar and honey so I’m betting that the coconut sugar worked and probably tastes incredible. Basically what is happening is the yeast eats the sugars and turns it into alcohol (very, very little) and acetic acid, that’s the vinegar taste you’ll experience. If you leave a brew going for too long it will get very acidic and undrinkable. Yup…I did that as an experiment and it was very tangy. (I put some baking soda down the sink and poured the brew down to freshen and clean the drain. Fizzy time!)

      Second, and more importantly, your kombucha is ready when it has a slight vinegar taste. It’s still sweet but has a bit of a tang to it. This is entirely up to your taste buds and you’ll eventually settle in on the taste you like. The time this takes will vary with the ambient temperature. I find when it’s warmer it brews faster, colder it’s slower. To test I use a straw and slide it down the side of the jar, slipping past the scoby, put my finger over the top of the straw to capture some brew, and give it a taste. I have one going now that is on 6 days and is ready, the one before was 9 days but the temperatures were colder. I know that sounds weird because I brew in a heated house and it shouldn’t make a difference…but somehow it does. I also leave mine on the counter top out of direct light.

      When I first started brewing I did a video. It’s my newbie self walking through the process for others brewing for the first time. You can view it here: https://youtu.be/dhEET-sAZEM

      I hope this helps and I apologize again for getting back to you so late. Please let me know how the coconut sugar worked. I’d love to know.

    • reply Tina Jacobs ,

      Dave, Really informative, easy to read article. I’ll have to try Kombucha soon.

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