The Old, The New, and The Healthiest Brew
It seems like every other day there is a new food and health trend, a way of eating that could completely change your life. Among these is one that is centuries old, tried, and true: fermented foods. Cultures all around the world have been using fermentation to promote health and wellness as well for preservation and flavor. Kimchi in Korea, wine in France, yogurt in Greece — it is widely agreed that the key to a healthy life is a healthy gut and fermented foods ensure just that.
The new drink trend that has been sweeping the United States is kombucha. Although the actual origins of this mysterious beverage are unknown, it is suspected that the brewing method originated in China and was brought to Eastern and Western Europe along the Silk Road during the heyday of the spice trade. Today, it is a brewing process that is practiced all over the world. The United States has just begun to catch on and craft kombucha breweries are popping up all over the nation. Many popular “clean-eating” spots will serve kombucha on tap.
This fabulous fermented tea is sold in almost every grocery store and bodega in America but here is the issue: it is really pricey. A singular bottle can cost anywhere from two dollars to six dollars. If that is something that you can swing in your day-to-day I highly recommend making it part of your routine. However, as a recent college grad trying to survive a pandemic and the worst job market since the Great Depression of the 1930s, I’m a little tapped on cash to spend on vinegary tea. So what is a Brooklyn hipster to do? Simple. I learned to make it myself.
Kombucha in its simplest form is only made up of three things: steeped tea, sugar, and scoby. The scoby is the key ingredient that contains an illusive essence that is often referred to as the mother, as well as so many other good, living bacteria cultures and probiotics. Before I get fully into the brewing process, let me tell you a little bit about the mother. The mother is the same substance in apple cider vinegar that makes it so healthy and cleansing. It works inside your body to kill bad bacteria while fostering the growth of those cultures which support a healthy gut and overall immune system. Basically, the mother is the secret that makes kombucha such a wellness powerhouse.
In brewing Kombucha, it is essential that you first obtain a scoby. There are many sites online where you can buy them and they are even sold in some health food stores. I was lucky and secured mine from a friend who was giving kombucha brewing a try around the same time that I was. With every batch of kombucha, a new scoby is created, so it is easy to share your materials with others who may be interested in brewing their own. Once you have your scoby and some starter tea (this is just ultra-fermented tea that actually tastes like vinegar), you are ready to get brewing!
The size of the batch you are able to make really depends on the size of the scoby you have but most are a good size to make at least a gallon of tea. Also, when making a first batch, it’s better to go smaller than to go over the top. When brewing any fermented drink, it takes a few tries before you can get it just the way that you want it. But in all honesty, getting it just the way that you specifically want it is the hardest part. The rest is so easy, it makes you wonder why you ever spent so much money on individual bottles in the first place. The rest of the process is just brewing some tea and letting the scoby do its thing.
You want to start with a plain tea as your base: nothing floral or flavored because it can disrupt the fermentation process. It is best to go with plain green tea or a basic black tea. I opt for green tea because I find that it works better with a variety of fruit juices that I add later in the process. All you do is brew an entire soup-pot worth of tea with a whole lot of honey, wait for it to cool to room temperature (no more than 27°C/80°F), then add in the starter tea (or some other type of vinegar) and scoby. Cover it with a cotton cloth or cheesecloth and put it in a warm place with little to no light. I stored mine in my younger brother’s room on the top floor of my mom’s old Victorian house when I was quarantining in my childhood home. It’s amazing how the odors from a teenage boy’s room can cover the smell of fermenting tea.
Once you have secured the location for your tea to ferment, all there is left to do is wait. It is best to leave it alone as much as you can, but after seven days, it is time to start checking it. Unlike most fermented beverages, kombucha doesn’t take an excruciatingly long time to ferment. A small container will be ready to drink after that initial seven days and even larger amounts often take fewer than two weeks. Ten days was my sweet spot. Literally — the perfect level between sweetness and bitterness. This is where the fun part comes in.
Kombucha in its raw form is just fermented tea with sugar, but stores sell it in a variety of flavors that were created by incorporating fruits, spices, and in some cases even vegetable juices. All of this is done after the initial fermentation process. This is also the part of the process when all that carbonated goodness comes into play. For maximum bubbliness, you’ll want to get your hands on some glass bottles. You can buy glass bottles at any craft or home goods store but a more sustainable (and frankly, more affordable) method is to simply re-use glass bottles from the kombucha that you were buying at the store. Once I got a bigger brewing operation going, I also found that Mason jars worked really well. Now the experimenting begins.
I tried so many combinations I can’t even begin to create a list, but I did determine which were my favorites. My all time favorite and constant go-to is just strawberry juice and lemon juice. The sweetness of the strawberry cuts through the bitterness of the raw kombucha and makes for summery brew that can be enjoyed any time of year. Whatever you decide to add, you’re going to want to let it sit in the individual bottles at room temperature for at least 24 hours before you drink it. This ensures that the flavors you add are fully incorporated, and it allows for carbonation to build up so that your tea is light and bubbly. Once your brew has reached the desired level of bubbliness, congratulations! You have officially made a successful batch of your very own kombucha.
This process sounds easy, and in terms of beverage fermenting it is, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take a lot of trial and error to get it just right. There were times when I would miss a step and ruin an entire two-gallon jug. Once I completely forgot to add sugar so I was left with straight vinegar. Another time, in the flavoring process, I thought it would be an amazing idea to make cucumber mint lemonade. Sounds incredible, right? Well, guess what happens when you mix cucumbers and vinegar. It turned out to be a lovely concoction with elegant notes of mint, lemon and kosher dill pickles. It was a complete toss out. And that’s ok. It is all part of the process and it’s fun! It makes me feel like a scientist mixing up different concoctions and watching them bubble and age into something delicious that I can share with those around me.
Brewing your own kombucha benefits your body, the environment, and honestly, your wallet. Not only will you be taking care of your gut and your health, but by making your own kombucha, you cut down on the consumption of glass bottles. You’ll even be giving these single use bottles second, third, fourth lives and beyond by continuing to use them for your own brewing purposes. My favorite part about the brewing is that after the initial cost of starting your kombucha operation, each gallon will cost you about just one dollar. Just because something is trendy doesn’t mean that you have to break the bank to be in vogue.