Thursday, July 21, 2011

Post-Kid Kitchen: Meet Your Yeast (and Bacteria!)

I don't recall what possessed me to pick up that first bottle of kombucha. I may have read a little blurb about it in Bust magazine, come to think of it. Something about it tasting like fruity, vinegary beer, but being strangely appealing—and addictive.

I loved it immediately. Some people say it's an acquired taste, but I think I may have pre-acquired it from years of drinking apple cider vinegar tonic. (In an 8 oz glass of filtered water mix 1-3 tsp Bragg's raw, unfiltered, organic apple cider vinegar and 1 tsp of raw honey, agave, maple syrup, stevia or other sweetener. Skål!) The only problem I had with kombucha was the price: $3.00 or more for a 16 oz bottle. I was completely delighted to discover that with a little patience and a lot of cleanliness, I could make this tasty stuff at home.

On my recent trip, I paid $4.16 for a bottle of ginger-lemon flavored kombucha at the sweetest little health food store ever—and it killed me. Don't get me wrong, I love giving my money to tiny businesses, but a 16 oz bottle of my homebrew costs me about 13 1/2 cents to make!

Never-ending Kombucha
Makes 3 quarts

Kombucha SCOBY
3 quarts purified water
1 cup sugar (preferably organic)
5-6 black tea bags (preferably organic)

What's a SCOBY? It's an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, and it's what makes your sweet tea into glorious, tart, fizzy kombucha. And it grosses Rob out beyond belief.

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Layered SCOBYs

There are several ways to acquire a SCOBY. Just like everything else these days, SCOBYs can be found for sale online. I've heard of people selling them (and occasionally giving them away) on Craigslist and various health-foodie-type forums. Or you can grow your own!

I grew my SCOBY from a bottle of raw kombucha from the health food store. It has to be raw, as heat kills the bacteria that make it possible for a new SCOBY to form. Make sure you get a bottle with lots of "gunk" in it, if possible. Those brown, stringy bits are actually small strands of the SCOBY, and if you feed them, they will grow!

Simply bring 3 quarts of water to the boil, add 1 cup of sugar (I used turbinado), and let boil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, add 5-6 black tea bags and steep 10 minutes. Remove the tea bags and move the tea to an impeccably clean glass gallon-size jar to cool. When the tea has cooled to body temperature, pour in your bottled kombucha, and cover with a dish cloth or old T-shirt (cheesecloth is a no-no—the loose weave will let in the fruit flies). Secure your cloth with a rubber band, and put your jar somewhere out of the way. Try to forget about it for a couple of weeks at least.

It took my SCOBY about a month to grow nice and strong.

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Now, you could drink brew that results from your SCOBY-growing experiment, but it will be super tart and very vinegary. You could also use it in place of vinegar in sauces or salad dressings. Just make sure you save a few cups for your next batch of kombucha. That will go a little something like this:

First, uncover your jar.

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Hello, SCOBY!

I'm often weirded out to realize that I have a big ol' chunk of bacteria growing—on purpose—in the cupboard above my fridge. Rob is downright grossed out by it, and refuses to look at it. I think it's really beautiful, but I also think placentas are beautiful, so there you go.

Every time the SCOBY is disturbed (as in, you move the jar), a new "layer" forms.

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These layers can be separated off and used to start new, separate batches of kombucha, if you were so inclined.

The SCOBY needs a place to hang out while all the tea-making is going on. Put it in a glass bowl and cover it with the brew you just pulled it out of. I like to drape a dishtowel over the bowl as well, to keep out the flying beasties and cat hairs. Not delicious.

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Oh, hey! The three quarts of water that you put on to boil (even though I forgot to tell you to start your water boiling) is boiling! Add a cup of sugar...

Sugar time!

...and stir.
Still Stirring
There's no tea in here yet. That's turbinado sugar making the water such a lovely color.

After five minutes of stirring and boiling, remove your pot from the heat, and add 5-6 black tea bags. Or, if you're me and making a giant batch when you decided to take pictures, add a fuckton of tea bags.

Teabag time.
Fuckton of teabags.

Let the tea steep for 10 minutes. Remove the bags, and move the tea to a gallon-size glass jar to cool. A cloth over the top will keep out the fruit flies.

Cooling off.

If you know anything about yeast, you know that they like to be warm, but not too hot. Too much heat will kill your SCOBY. When the tea is body temperature, it's ready for your SCOBY. I say "body temperature" because I find the best way to check the tea is to plunge an impeccably clean hand into it. Ahh!

Add your SCOBY and the "starter" that it's been sitting in to the jar of tea, cover, and stow away for 9-14 days. The length of time it takes to brew your kombucha will depend on how warm it is in your house (the tea ferments faster in warmer spaces) and how tart you like it (the longer it goes, the tarter it gets—until you just have vinegar).

I highly recommend swing-top bottles when it comes to bottling kombucha. No metal or plastic ever comes in contact with the kombucha, and the swing-top helps preserve some of the natural fizziness.
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There is a ridiculous amount of information about kombucha out there on the Internet. If you're interested in brewing your own, I recommend Hannah Crum's Kombucha Kamp. Hannah is quite hippie-dippy (which I love!), but her instructions and FAQ are crystal clear and short-'n'-sweet. Unlike mine.



Cindy said...

I think I'm with Rob on this one. But, I admire anything that's homemade!

Holly said...

Okay, I clicked my way here from Tara's "Joyful Yoga" blog and it just so happens that I spent a good chunk of my morning feeling totally overwhelmed - I googled "how to make your own kombucha" this morning. :)
Love your blog! Thanks for writing!

Ellie said...

Despite my semi hippie dippie-ness, I do not enjoy the kambucha. This is odd because I A)LOVE tea B) Really enjoy vinager C)Like science D) Do not digust easily. I think I tried the wrong Kombucha and need to try again. I do not like fizzy things much, so maybe that's my issue.

Candace said...

I do believe "fuckton" is becoming very popular! LOVE Kombucha!

Tara said...

Hmmm...SCOBY. Ha! Kombucha is awesome and some day I will make my own. This is a great little tutorial!


Do you think Kombucha got me pregnant? I was drinking it for a few months right before I finally got pregnant with Soleil. Then I stopped because I read somewhere not to drink it while pregnant... I drank it because I was convinced it was magic feel-good juice (made me feel real good), not because I thought it would help knock me up. But, now that you have reminded me of this, for the sake of superstition I am going to have to get my hands on some again. And cross my legs three times after sex.