I had only tried Kombucha tea once when a fellow foodie in Nashville invited me to her home for a KT making tutorial. Although I found the drink tasty and the health benefits appealing, the process seemed a little daunting – seeing her shelf chock-full of different fermenting tea batches with the blobs of culture floating in them reminded me of the nightmare that was high school chemistry. I was also suspicious of the process being time-consuming. Not to mention, in a few months, I was going to pack up everything and leave the country for a 2+ year stint in Korea. Resigned, I added Kombucha brewing to my list of things to do when I returned stateside and settled. After all, where was I supposed to get a big blob of bacteria and yeast in Korea?
Shortly after getting settled into our most recent Korean apartment, we decided to purchase an oven and other items from an out-going couple in our program. While visiting with them, the wife nonchalantly mentioned that she brewed Kombucha. Wait, what? Where on earth had she found a big blob of bacteria and yeast in Korea?
For the second time, I listened as someone walked me through the process of making booch, then begged her to share part of her big blob with me. I left her apartment with my own big blob and went home to read everything I could find on Kombucha brewing.
The big blob goes by many names – culture, mushroom (even though it is not a fungus, and therefore not a mushroom), s.c.o.b.y. (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeasts), or mother. I prefer to use “mother” because this is the first name I learned for the blob. I especially enjoy taking off the “er” and replacing it with an “a.” Take these phrases commonly said while making Kombucha:
The s.c.o.b.y. grew, so I split it up and gave one to a friend.
I’m not touching that s.c.o.b.y. with my bare hands – hand me a pair of tongs.
That’s one good lookin’ s.c.o.b.y.
The s.c.o.b.y. will probably float, but if it sinks a little, that’s okay, too.
Now, replace “s.c.o.b.y.” in each sentence with “motha’.” Kombucha making just got a lot more fun. With each batch of Kombucha that you make, a new layer of mother will form on top – you will never run out of gifts for friends!
A few tips before you jump in:
- Clean your hands. This is a no-brainer, but your hands should be very clean – especially when handling the mother. You can also remove your jewelry as an extra precaution.
- Only use glassware or stainless steel when making your booch, anything else could harm your mother. This goes for measuring cups, utensils, and especially the glass container for brewing your booch.
- Choose a medium to large glass container for brewing your Kombucha. I use around a two gallon glass container, so I can brew a gallon at a time and still have plenty of room for my growing mother.
- Sterilize all of the utensils and containers that you will be using. Wash them in hot water with a natural dish soap, such as Seventh Generation. Then boil them (make sure they are submerged) for at least five minutes and let them dry on a clean towel.
- As mentioned above, only use natural soap for cleaning your utensils, containers, or your hands. Harsh chemicals can hurt your mother (and us and our water supply).
- Only use real tea, such as black, green, oolong, or white. This means nothing marked “herbal,” like many Celestial Seasonings teas – it won’t work. Also, do not use Earl Gray, as the bergamot oil could hurt your mother.
- Only use white sugar when brewing your booch. Trust me, I hold an aversion to white sugar, but this is for your safety and the safety of the mother. Using honey can change the chemistry of your brew, and put your brew at risk of developing botulism.
Kombucha is nearly fool-proof, but, as with all food preparation and storage, there is some degree of risk of illness when brewing and bottling your Kombucha. Once you have a few batches under your belt, you should be able to determine the safety of your booch with your eyes, nose, and taste buds. Your brew should be only slightly sweet, with a little bite.
Kombucha itself has antimicrobial properties, and if brewed with basic hygiene and caution holds little risk of food-borne illness. However, if you are nervous, you can use a pH strip to test your first few batches and any batches that you are on the fence about – low pHs greatly inhibit bacteria and mold growth. Ideally, the pH level for Kombucha should be between 3.2 and 2.8 pH.
Obviously, if there appears to be mold, you need to dispose of your batch and mother and begin again. Mold growing on your Kombucha will look very similar to mold growing on other food products, such as bread or cheese. It could be green, brown, bluish, and have fuzz. Mold should not be confused with brown strands of matter often hanging from older mothers or floating in the tea, as these are simply old or dead yeast cells. Also, do not be concerned by white bumps or air pockets on/in your mother, as these are also common. If you do happen to find mold growing atop your mother, do not try to salvage any of the mother. Dispose of the entire batch along with the mother, and start anew.
Here is the simple recipe that I use to make one gallon of booch:
Start by heating one quart (four cups) of filtered water in a stainless steel pot until it is almost to a boil. (You will need a total of four quarts of filtered water (one gallon) for this recipe).
Then, add 5 or 6 tea bags or 5-6 tablespoons of loose leaf tea and steep for a few minutes. Remove the tea bags/strain the loose leaf tea and stir in between 1 cup and 1 and 1/4th cup white sugar until well dissolved. You must use white sugar. Do not attempt to substitute honey or any sort of nectar. For those worried about sugar content, most of it will be consumed by the yeast during the brewing process.
To save yourself the trouble of sweeping up broken glass, add the remaining three quarts of water to your glass container before pouring in the quart of hot sweet tea. When you are sure that the tea is about room temperature, add your reserved cup of booch and stir well, before placing the mother on top of the mixture, dark side down. Never pour the hot tea directly onto the mother, as this could kill it. The mother will probably float, but if it sinks a little, that’s fine, too.
Your mother is a living thing, and therefore it likes to breathe. Secure the top of your glass container with a clean, tightly woven cloth (not cheesecloth as fruit flies will find a way in) and tight rubber band. Cloth dinner napkins work very well.
Place the container in a spot away from direct light and where the temperature remains consistent. The optimum Kombucha temperature is somewhere in the mid-high seventies. Lower than 70 F, and your brew could be off, higher than 85 F and you could cook your mother.
Within two to three days, you should begin to see what looks like tiny white bubbles forming on the surface of your brew. Many first-time brewers mistakenly take this to be mold, and toss the batch. This is not mold, but a new “baby” mother forming on the surface – a beautiful thing. You can keep this as a new layer on your mother, compost it, or give it to a friend.
Much of the amount of time you allow your Kombucha to ferment depends on your taste preference. If you prefer a more sour flavor, allow it to brew longer. For a slightly sweeter beverage, stop the fermentation sooner. For me, the magic number of fermenting days is about eight. However, in cooler temperatures it could take a few days longer. Likewise, it could take a day or two less if temperatures are rather hot. The best way to tell if your brew is close to being finished is a taste test. You can perform this by placing a clean straw in the batch and trying it out, or you can always rely on a pH strip test to assess drinkability.
Expat tip: For expats living in S. Korea who want to try making Kombucha, the ondol floor heating system will be your best friend during winter as it doubles as a consistent heating pad for your brew.
If you taste your booch and find that you have over-fermented it (it tastes like nearly straight vinegar) you can add a little more sweet tea solution and let it brew another day or two. Check it until the taste is to your liking. If you do not want to salvage the batch, you can let it ferment even longer for homemade table vinegar.
Congratulations, you have come to the end of this post! I wish you luck in starting your first batch. Once you finish brewing your first batch of booch, head over to the bottling page for information on how to bottle your booch like a pro. For more information about Kombucha in general, visit my Kombucha page to learn answers to questions that I had myself when I first heard of the beverage. If you have any questions on brewing, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. Also, I’d love to hear about your experience with brewing Kombucha, especially if you are an expat!