The Brewing Bird

July 15, 2009

You either love it or you hate it. Or you don’t know what the heck it is…
Why, I’m talking about kombucha, of course! The drink with amazing powers for healing!
For those of who that are curious about kombucha, have never heard about it before, or just would like to know more about it, read on. If not, skip down a little further…
Kombucha is the Japanese name for a fermented sweetened tea traditionally made using a yeast enzyme with green or black tea. It is a pro-biotic drink that originated thousands of years ago in the Eastern world. The yeast enzyme culture has many different names: SCOBY for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”, or “mushroom”, or “mother”. A kombucha “mother” is a somewhat stringy, spongy, slippery mucilaginous substance consisting of various different kinds of bacteria, mainly Mycoderma aceti (doesn’t sound that enticing, does it?). It forms on the surface of the tea when fermenting the liquid. And I have to admit, it kinda looks like an alien. Sometimes I just look at it with wonder and awe, and other times am completely petrified by it. It’s so darn fascinating! The culture is added to a mixture of tea and sugar “food”, and consequently greatly reduces the amount of sugar and caffeine present. Large amounts of B and some C vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, and organic acids are produced. Some of the organic acids include glucuronic, gluconic, lactic, acetic, butyric, malic, and usnic acids. The fermentation also produces a very tiny amount of alcohol, typically less than 0.5% (you can get a tiny bucha buzz if you drink it really quick-like… sometimes it’s quite pleasant…). Of course that depends on how long you brew and ferment. It could be up to 1 or 1.5% if you let it. In the final drink, there can be strands of the culture floating around, but the organism itself is not consumed directly. The flavor takes some getting used to, although it is not unpleasant. The taste is simultaneously fruity and vinegary, sweet, bubbly, and refreshing, almost like apple cider vinegar (but better). It really has an addicting taste. The more I drink it, the more I crave the stuff on a regular basis. There was a period of time a few months back when I thought I needed to get checked into “Kombucha-holics’ Anonymous” because I was drinking 1-2 bottles a day for about three weeks straight! It’s funny because when I first tried it about 5 years ago, I absolutely despised it. But a few years later I thought, why not?! A few of my coworkers seemed to love it. I bought a bottle of GT’s “Mystic Mango” and the rest is history…
With every brew you make the kombucha forms a new layer or SCOBY on the surface of the liquid. These can be left to thicken the SCOBY or can be divided, giving you spare cultures that you can store in some sweet tea in the fridge in case something should happen to your active culture. Or you might want to pass on spare Kombucha cultures to friends or use a new SCOBY to start another batch of kombucha.

Many health claims are made for kombucha but there hasn’t been much research. In rats it’s been shown to protect against stress and improve liver function. There is a lot of experiential evidence from people who have been using kombucha over many years. Many of the benefits reported include improvements in energy levels, metabolic disorders, allergies, cancer, digestive problems, candidiasis, hypertension, HIV, chronic fatigue and arthritis. It’s also used externally for skin problems and as a hair wash among other things. For more on the health benefits, go here! I have to say from personal experience, this is what I’ve benefited: a greater “feeling of well-being”, relief from constipation, digestion, or stomach aches/ulcers, improvement in skin tone and condition, reduced sugar cravings (more noticeably in the beginning), increased energy, and resistance to colds and flu. I haven’t been sick in so long! And if I do feel something coming on, it never invades full-force. Seriously. It is a “wonder drink”!

Some of the organic acids present in kombucha are as follows…
-Glucuronic acid: detoxifier, kidnaps phenols in liver, glucosamines (a by-product) are structures associated with cartilage, collagen, and fluids that lubricate the joints (which is the reason kombucha is effective against arthritis…)
-Lactic acid: essential for digestive system, assists in blood circulation, preventing constipation, aids in balancing acids and alkaline in the body, believed to help in the prevention of cancer by helping to regulate the blood pH levels.
-Acetic acid: preservative, inhibits harmful bacteria.
-Usnic acid: natural antibiotic, effective against many viruses. (I seriously have not gotten sick ever since I’ve started drinking this stuff two years ago… it really works!)
-Oxalic acid: effective preservative, encourages intracellular production of energy.
-Malic acid: helps detoxify the liver.
-Gluconic acid: produced by bacteria, can break down into caprylic acid which is beneficial to sufferers of candidiasis or other yeast infections.
-Butyric acid: produced by yeast, protects human cellular membranes, strengthens walls of the gut.

So, on one of my last days while I was trekking through Portland, I came across a community co-op grocery store on Mississippi Ave. and this is what I’d found… a kombucha starter kit!

I immediately had to devise a plan to get it home with me safely on the plane. Once I discussed my concerns with the cashier, I felt it would be possible. All I had to do was simply purchase a few ice packs to keep it chilled and triple-ziploc baggie it in between my clothes. Not so bad. I figured this was my chance. For about $14, I had a mushroom to call my own, a few bags of black tea to brew with, and some simple instructions. I figured, what’s there to lose? Making my own kombucha has been on my “list of things to do” for quite some time now. Never really found the motivation to learn the steps (which once you learn, you realize it’s so freakin’ easy and not intimidating at all!) or buy a starter kit (some I found were going for $50) or SCOBY online. I figured once I bought all of the equipment and put all the time into it, it wouldn’t be worth it. I resorted to just being lazy and continuing to buy $3 GT’s all the time. Well, I’m definitely glad I had the sense to reconsider.
About two weeks ago I finally acquired all of the equipment I needed to brew. And since I haven’t posted a recipe in quite a long time, I think it’s necessary to include one here. I know it’s not baking, but brewing is just as tedious and requires the same amount of attention. The number one thing I cannot emphasize enough is to BE CLEAN and CONSCIENTIOUS. Good sanitary practice and cleanliness is important when brewing. You want clean hands, sterilized equipment, and soap-dish clean working space because if other bacteria or yeasts are present, you are asking for a poor result in your brew. It’s usually pretty obvious if it has been contaminated. It will not smell right, carbonate, or taste right. And the mushroom pellicle will probably have mold growing on it. Yuck! It’s pretty rare but if that is the case, throw out the culture and start over.


What a beauty!

Basically what you need is:
-1 gallon of distilled water (the chlorine in tap water can hurt your SCOBY!)
-5-6 black, green, darjeeling, or any kind of non-artificial tea bags (even regular old Lipton is fine! It’s fun to experiment… in my second batch I added two bags of rose petal tulsi!)
-1 cup of organic cane sugar
-a large stainless steel pot (like one you’d boil pasta in)
-a gallon-sized glass jar
-a piece of cloth that will cover your jar (some people say cheesecloth, some recommend just a piece of cotton fabric… those anti-cheesecloth say it’s because fruit flies can easily get in. I went that route the first time but from now on I’m going with a solid cotton napkin…)
-a rubber band or something big enough to go over the mouth of the jar

-the Kombucha culture “mother” in about 1 cup of the Kombucha fluid (this can be attained from the a health-food store, a site like this, Craigslist, etc. but people are usually pretty willing to give extra SCOBY’s out… just look online or ask friends)

-a semi-warm environment (it’s best to let it brew between 70-90 degrees F. I placed mine on top of the hot-water heater and it turned out to be ideal!)
1. Be sure your hands, equipment, and work environment are clean.
2. Bring the water in the large pot to a boil. Once boiling, turn off the heat and add in the tea bags, steeping for approximately 15 minutes (I also cover it with a lid).
3. Remove the tea bags and add in the cup of sugar. Stir and cover pot again and let the tea cool and sugar dissolve. This can take several hours so you can let it sit overnight if you want.
4. Once the tea is cool, pour it into the glass jar.
5. Wash your hands well and gently handle your SCOBY and place it in the jar, with the additional at least half-cup of already-brewed kombucha liquid. Sometimes the culture floats to the top, sometimes it floats to the bottom. Either way, it’s a-okay.
6. Cover the top with a cloth and rubber band. This keeps out fruit flies while simultaneously letting the kombucha breathe.
7. Put it in your special spot, ideally out of the direct sunlight, but warm enough to ferment. As long as it’s not winter, there’s no real need to be concerned.
8. Forget about it for a week.
9. After about a week, go check your jar. You should see a new “baby” SCOBY forming at the top of the surface. Your kombucha is threw brewing once your new baby is at least 1/8″ thick. Taste it! Just get a straw and avoid the culture and see what you think. Most people let their kombucha ferment somewhere inbetween 7-14 days. I bottled mine on day 12.
10. Once you experiment and figure out what taste you prefer, you can let it ferment shorter or longer. The longer you leave it, the more sour it gets. Half-sweet, half-sour, and fizzy is usually preferred. This is a great site to check out to “balance” the flavors just right, helping you with trial-and-error.
11. Bottle (and flavor) your kombucha. Gently remove the new “baby” SCOBY with about 1 cup (approximately 10% of the entire solution) of the kombucha juice. You can leave it out at room temp if you are going to start another batch the same day (the tea/sugar solution and the SCOBY solution need to be at the same temperatures) or refrigerate it in a glass jar until you are ready to brew again. It can probably keep for several months. For bottling, I used clean, sanitized brown beer bottles, a siphone, and other various bottle-filling instruments (many thanks to my beer-brewing father…), which I soaked in Star-San beforehand. Thankfully we also happened to have a capper, but it isn’t completely necessary to do what I did. You could easily pull it off just using a funnel (but don’t fill it completely to the top, especially if you want to flavor it!). Some people reuse Pellegrino bottles or old GT bottles. Whatever works, just as long as it’s glass. People say that metal and plastic are reactive and can leach into the kombucha. In the future I look forward to experimenting with Grolsch bottles.

12. Okay, now here comes my favorite part. Flavorings! So many ideas! Where to start?! You can get so creative with it, it’s a little overwhelming (at least for me, anyways…). For this batch I used a few tablespoons of Santa Cruz Organics Mango Lemonade with some additional freshly chopped ginger root for some (adding in fresh herbs or dried fruit can create more “fizz”, sweetness, and carbonation, supposedly), and then added a few drops of my homemade rose petal jam in others. I kept one plain, and one with just a few slices of ginger. You can even add freshly pureed fruit or berries! In the future, I plan to make some with pear nectar and a lemon ginger echinacea.


It helps to label your caps or bottles with the flavors and the dates you bottled, especially if you brew various batches. I think the reason for this is pretty obvious.
13. Once you bottle or cap it, stick it in the fridge. I’m experimenting with this because some people say you should leave it out for an extra 2-3 days for secondary anaerobic fermentation, especially if you added fresh ginger or dried fruit, as more carbonation and a “fuller” flavor will result. So I refrigerated and half and left half out. I’ll report back. Supposedly it stores indefinitely. And if you leave it out, just store it in a dark, cool place, like you’d store fine wine.
14. Begin drinking! Four to eight ounces is considered a therapeutic dosage, but I just drink it till I’m satisfied. Speaking of which, I think it’s time for a nightcap…
Thanks for tuning in and please let me know if you try it! I’d love to hear your experiences, advice, or opinions, and I’ll keep you updated periodically with my brewing adventures (I’m also currently brewing a batch of some pale ale… almost seriously considering starting my own brewery at this point!).
Long live Kombucha!!!

Please note: Although I’ve done a lot of research on this, please don’t just take my word for it or hold me responsible. Do your own research as well! There is a galaxy of Kombucha information out on the web, but it can get a little overwhelming. Here are some additional links for reference that you may find useful: What Is Kombucha, Organic-Kombucha, Tips on Improving Your Kombucha Brew, How To Make Your Own Kombucha Tea, Kombucha Kamp, Happy Herbalist: Brewing Kombucha, The Best Bottling Techniques, Give It To Me RAW, Re-Nest: How To Make Your Own Kombucha, Kombucha Bottling 101, Kombucha Recipes.
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5 thoughts on “The Brewing Bird

  1. radish

    oh thank you a million for this post!! i used to drink this in Russia (we made it) as a kid and we called it "grib" (literally means mushroom) and i recently introduced it to my dad who just started chemo for his NH Lymphoma — to help with digestion and such. He remembered it being same as what we made in russia and is making it now himself at home so I passed your link along to him!! I'm definitely going to try this once I move to a new place – again thanks so much for posting this!!!

    Reply
  2. sophia

    hot damn! you are hardcore! congratulations, i really admire you for succeeding at such an endeavor as homebrew kombucha.portland is so fantastic! looks like we went to some of the same places. my friend got a bottle of that dr. kombucha on alberta too. did you get to the vegan bbq cart next door? amazing! i also acquired a supercute owl dress which is probably now the most darling item of clothing i own.as for montana, yeah. it's gorgeous. you should go!

    Reply
  3. Julia

    Thanks for the post. I just brewed my first batch too. I read that you can also start your own kombucha from the tea itself. It will generate it's own SCOBY, but it takes more time. By the way, I'm a fan and former shopper of Shopper's Corner. I'd shop there now, but the commute would be bad for the fresh foods. Thanks for the beautiful window on the goings-on in Santa Cruz.

    Reply

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