Kombucha, a fermented, slightly sweet and fizzy tea, has been around for ages, but it's been just in the past decade or so that it's gained a following in the States. Full of enzymes and amino acids, the beverage has been hailed as a cure for serious health issues including cancer and cardiovascular disease, though no substantial proof supporting these claims has been established.
Other purported benefits include boosting immune system function, and aiding digestion by populating the gut with healthy bacteria.
"I feel like it can help get toxins out of your body," says Amanda Dawn Neufield, a local kombucha home-brewer who also considers the fizzy concoction a healthier alternative to high-fructose corn syrup-filled sodas.
Researchers have found that some kombucha samples contain Candida yeast, which can proliferate and cause a host of symptoms. Still, most agree it is safe to drink in moderation, so if you like the taste — but not the $3- to $5-per-bottle price tag — read on to learn how to make your own for pennies per gallon.
Neufield recommends first-time brewers acquire a SCOBY from a friend or online sources. Because it's composed of living bacteria and yeast, the SCOBY multiplies each time you brew, and you can use the original or its "baby" to make another batch. Another local home-brewer, Michelle Thompson, got started two years ago with a SCOBY snipped from a larger one belonging to a friend. "Similar to the art of sourdough bread making, the SCOBY, if kept properly, is the gift that keeps on giving," Thompson says.
1. Decide how much you want to brew at a time and find a glass container. Thompson uses a gallon-size wide-mouth jar. Remember, the container must be glass.
2. Get a SCOBY, either online or from a friend. "There are so many people in Chattanooga brewing kombucha at home, and if they are like me, they are practically begging people to take a SCOBY," Thompson says.
3. Select the type of tea you want to use, which can be either green or black organic tea. No flavored teas should be used in the first fermentation, says Thompson, as oils in flavored teas can damage your SCOBY.
4. Find a recipe (Thompson's follows).
What you need:
» 1 gallon filtered water
» 6 green or black organic tea bags
» 1 cup organic sugar
» 1 SCOBY
What you do:
1. In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add sugar to dissolve. Remove from heat, add tea bags and let tea steep until the mixture is at room temperature.
2. Add tea to desired container and add your SCOBY. (Never add your SCOBY to warm or hot tea, which will kill it.) Your SCOBY may float or sink, either of which is fine, Thompson says.
3. Cover with a cloth and store in a warm spot. Thompson keeps hers on her kitchen counter in the spring and summer, and on top of her fridge in the fall and winter.
4. In a few days to a week, depending on the temperature, you will notice a skin forming on the surface of the kombucha. That's a new SCOBY forming, which means you're doing well. Congrats!
Note: Using anything metal — including a metal lid on your jar — at this stage can disrupt the fermentation. Neufield puts a paper towel over the top of the container and secures it with a rubber band.
5. Let the mixture sit for 10-14 days. During the cold months, it may take longer. To see if it's ready, stick a straw into the liquid and sip to see if it tastes the way you'd like. If it's too sweet, let it ferment longer for a more tart taste.
6. At this point, it's ready, unless you want to add flavor with another fermentation process that incorporates fruits, herbs, spices, juices or flavored teas. If not, bottle it up and refrigerate (metal lids OK at this point). It should last a couple of weeks when refrigerated and sealed, or about a week if you've opened the bottle to drink from it.
Note: This optional second round also adds the fizz most have come to expect in kombucha, a natural development of the additional fermentation process.
8. If you want to continue brewing, start the process over in your original jar with the 1-2 cups of kombucha you saved along with the SCOBY.
9. If everything doesn't turn out perfectly — it can mold, or develop a strong vinegar taste if you let it sit too long, Neufield says — troubleshoot by doing some online research or talking to fellow brewers. Thompson likes kombuchakamp.com.
There is a science to brewing kombucha, and it's definitely a learning process. If you do some internet research, don't be surprised if you find lots of variances in information and instructions. "Brewing at home is also full of troubleshooting," Thompson says. "So, be prepared along the way to possibly change your method."
More brewing tips:
» Use high-quality filtered water.
» Make sure utensils are sterilized.
» Don't use metal utensils to stir, as it disrupts the fermentation process.