The Mother of All Ferments: Kombucha

Etheldreda

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bottled and brewed
New bottles, new brew

If you can brew a pot of tea, you can brew kombucha.

The only trick to making kombucha is obtaining a mother to get started. A generous Twitter friend sent me part of hers and my mother (I named her Etheldreda) has been reproducing like mad.

Otherwise known as a SCOBY (a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeasts), a mother will transform sweetened tea into an effervescent, probiotic and delicious fermented beverage.

You cannot make kombucha without sugar—the sugar fuels the fermentation. I realize sugar is poison (I’ve read Dr. Lustig’s book; I’ve seen the movie) but very little sugar remains in kombucha. In fact, if you let yours ferment for several weeks, your mother will consume all the sugar and transform your ferment into vinegar—a useful accident in my opinion. Between kombucha and scrap vinegar, I can make most of the vinegar I need.

Etheldreda
Etheldreda

In Search of a Mother

To make kombucha, you will first need to procure yourself a mother. You have a few methods:

  • Find a community of fermentos. They will love to share some of their ever-growing mothers with you. I searched Craigslist just now and found someone trying to unload theirs.
  • Buy a bottle of fresh and active raw kombucha, pour some into a wide-mouth vessel and cover with a cloth that allows air to circulate. A thin mother will begin to form on top in a few days (see below).
new mother
Set aside fresh, lively kombucha to form a new mother

Ingredients

Yields approximately two, 400-ml bottles

  • Enough looseleaf tea for 4 cups brewed tea
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/3 cup kombucha from previous batch OR 2 tbsp raw cider vinegar

For zero-waste, I buy all my ingredients in bulk, shopping with jars and homemade cloth produce and bulk bags.

Directions (based on Sandor Katz instructions in The Art of Fermentation)

Use a wide-mouth jar for brewing kombucha. Unlike some other ferments (such as mead), you want this one to come into contact with as much air as possible in order to attract acetic acid bacteria.

1. Brew a cup of very strong, concentrated tea. Black, green, oolong or white tea will work. Don’t use anything scented with oils, like Earl Grey. The oils may cause your mother to shrivel and die.

2. Add about 1/2 cup of sugar to the hot tea. Stir to dissolve. You may want more or less sugar in your next batch.

3. After the sugar has dissolved, add three cups of cool water. Hot water will kill your mother, so brewing concentrated tea and then cooling it with water takes less time than waiting for a full four cups of hot tea to cool down.

Chlorine may also adversely affect your mother. If your tap water contains high amounts of chlorine, several hours before you make kombucha, pour tap water into a vessel and leave open to the air to dissipate the chlorine.

4. When the tea has reached room-temperature, stir in either fresh, lively kombucha (about 1/3 cup) OR 2 tbsp raw cider vinegar (i.e., Braggs). Throw in your mother and cover the vessel with a porous cloth that allows air to circulate. The mother should float to the surface.

The first time I made kombucha, my mother sank to the bottom and there she remained. I had put off making my kombucha for at least a week after I received her in the mail. Initially, no transformation took place in my brew and I felt guilty for neglecting my mother and allowing her to die (so I thought). However, after about a week, a new film formed on the surface of my tea! Weak yet alive, my mother slowly fermented my tea over a period of a few weeks. Today, my active, lively, fertile mother constantly makes babies and my kombucha ferments quickly (about a week).

5. Taste the kombucha after a week or so. If you like the taste, you can drink it straight from the jar at room temperature or you can bottle it for a secondary fermentation and then chill it. Either way, set some aside to brew the next batch.

6. If I bottle my kombucha, I flavor it with a few pieces of candied ginger per bottle. It tastes SO good! For the secondary fermentation, I use bottles with a rubber gasket and clamp. Fill them, seal them and let the kombucha sit out on the counter for a couple of days to carbonate before transferring it to the fridge where fermentation and carbonation will slow down. Depending on how much sugar remains in your kombucha, the secondary fermentation may be very active. BE CAREFUL! Due to pressure from CO2, a byproduct of fermentation, bottles can and do explode if you let them ferment too long.

Candied ginger
Candied ginger

When opening your bottle, wrap a towel around it in case it spews into the air like a bottle of shaken soda. I haven’t had much trouble with volcanic bottles (or exploding ones—knock on wood), but the towel is a good precaution. After you have brewed several batches you will get a better idea of how long to ferment your kombucha to the taste you crave.

Enjoy!


Kombucha

Yields approximately two, 400-ml bottles

Ingredients

  • Enough looseleaf tea for 4 cups brewed tea
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/3 cup kombucha from previous batch OR 2 tbsp raw cider vinegar

Directions

1. Brew a cup of very strong tea in a wide-mouth vessel. Black, green, oolong or white tea will work.

2. Add about 1/2 cup of sugar to the hot tea. Stir to dissolve.

3. After the sugar has dissolved, add three cups of cool water.

4. When the tea has reached room-temperature, stir in either fresh, lively kombucha (about 1/3 cup) OR 2 tbsp raw cider vinegar (i.e., Braggs). Throw in your mother and cover the vessel with a porous cloth that allows air to circulate. The mother should float to the surface.

5. Taste the kombucha after a week or so. If you like the taste, you can drink it straight from the jar at room temperature or you can bottle it for a secondary fermentation and then chill it. Either way, set some aside to brew the next batch.

6. For the secondary fermentation, fill and seal bottles. Flavor with candied ginger if desired. Let the kombucha sit out on the counter for a couple of days to carbonate before transferring it to the fridge. BE CAREFUL! Bottles can and do explode if you let them ferment too long.

31 Comment

  1. The first time I learned about Kombucha (and this is the first time I’ve ever spelled it), I was so grossed about about it. I honestly felt like I was going to die after eating it….ok exaggeration. Rewrite: Thinking about the “drink” I had swallowed down really sent a chill of revulsion down my spine. However, I have warmed up to Kombucha and have tried the tasty “bubbly” one you’ve mentioned. IS Kombucha a fad? Or is it something that has been around for a while?

    1. The first time I had kombucha, I didn’t know about the blob that ferments it and yet I was still a little hesitant. My older daughter loves it and says it’s a food group but my younger daughter squeals with disgust every time I take down the jar to admire my mother. She says “How can put anything in your body that has touched THAT!” But I love the stuff. When I accidentally ferment mine a little too long and it turns slightly alcoholic and literally warms me up.

      Kombucha has really taken off here in the US in the last few years but it is a fermented drink that people have enjoyed for centuries, especially in Russia and China. People may think fermented foods are trendy but we have eaten them for thousands of years and all the good stuff is fermented. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Btw, your photo of kombucha looks so damn tasty….like I could just slurp it up. And that is the grossest thing I have probably written. ahah- Jas.

    1. Thanks! It is very delicious and full of good probiotics. It’s hard to resist slurping it all up.

  3. Happy New Year & good luck with your fermentation webinar.

    Kombucha… fascinating! Not one I had heard of before. I’m focussing on krauts for the moment and plan to try kvass next summer with homegrown produce.

    1. Kombucha has gained in popularity over the last few years here in the US, but it’s still a small, niche market. It tastes something like less-sweet ginger ale when I add candied ginger to it and don’t let it ferment too long. If it ferments too long, it tastes like bubbly, weak cider vinegar and turns slightly alcoholic.

      Krauts are delicious! I can’t stop eating my most recent batch (I added ginger, garlic, radish and hot peppers to the cabbage). I love beet kvass too. I had been making it regularly but lately I’ve needed all by bottles for kombucha (and I can keep only so many ferments going!). Making ferments out of homegrown produce is ideal. One day…

      Thanks for the well wishes on the webinar and happy new year to you too 🙂

  4. I reember my Mom doing this years ago, although I don’t remember what she used it for. BTW, I love the your little Tardis tea infuser.

    1. I hope my daughter has warm memories one day of me nurturing my SCOBY. Currently, she merely shivers with revulsion when I bring down my kombucha from its shelf to feed or admire it.

      I wondered if I had any Dr. Who fans who would recognize the Tardis :p I have a matching teapot too.

      1. I noticed that immediately. I need one for my “Bowties are cool.” mug.

      2. That would make a great combo.

  5. Glad the mother I sent you is going strong, and you like the candied ginger secondary method. Nice photos!

    1. Thank you, Etheldreda is very photogenic. She makes absolutely delicious kombucha and ferments it quickly. The ginger is fantastic too. Thanks again!

  6. I’ve got one going on my shelf now–the biggest challenge for me is getting around to bottling before it turns to vinegar. I love the candied ginger idea! I’ve been adding some concord grape juice on bottling. It’s always nice to mix it up though.

    1. That’s a challenge for me too. I let one of my last batches go too long (only by a couple of days!) and it was very vinegary. So when I bottled it, I added more candied ginger than usual and let the bottle sit out to ferment for two or three more days. That did the trick. It was delicious!

      On the weekend, my neighbor asked me about making kefir and I do have the grains but I said I can’t possibly keep another ferment going. They’re like pets and I can care for only so many.

  7. Natalia says: Reply

    I’m really enjoying your blog and thought I’d mention a alternative to Kombucha… Jun. Jun works almost exactly the way Kombucha does, only it’s SCOBY is specially adapted to thrive in green tea and raw honey (Hurray! No refined sugars!). Its flavor is lighter and it is often more effervescent. Its fermentation cycle is faster and it likes cooler temps than booch. I brew both with the “continuous brew” method and it couldn’t be easier. Many friends I have who don’t like Kombucha like my Jun and my Kombucha loving friends like it as well. Win, win! Its not as common, so finding a SCOBY can be a challenge, but it is well worth it to me. Its just spectacular. Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Thank you for the info! I haven’t tried jun but have read about it. I would love to make some. It sounds delicious and I love that I can use local, raw honey. I’ll search craigslist for a SCOBY. Someone out there has to be overrun with SCOBYs. How wonderful you do a continuous brew of both! You kitchen sounds like brew heaven. I have my eye on a beautiful vessel for continuous brew and will treat myself to it one of these days. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog 🙂

  8. Natalia says: Reply

    Oh! I forgot to mention that if your ferments get away from you and turn to vinegar (or you can do it on purpose) you can use the vinegar as you would apple cider vinegar, flavor it with herbs & garlic, clean with it, make facial tonics, etc. you can also use the collected yeast sludge at the bottom of your brewing vessel (Jun makes more then Kombucha) as a sourdough starter!

    Aaaaaand, the continuous brew method eliminates the need for the bottling frenzy. You just drain off what you want to consume, when you want to consume it, leaving 75% of the brew intact and adding in up to 25% more sweet tea as needed. You just keep it hovering around a 3:1 ratio and you always have it on tap but can keep it from tipping over into pucker-face land. The probiotic benefits are greater because certain cultures require longer to form and it is also less likely to “go bad” because the beneficial cultures are so strong. You can also propagate your SCOBY and rotate it, using the batch method, with things like herbal teas, so that you can give the kids some w/o the caffeine (it’s best to rotate the SCOBY into the green sweet tea, after). Ok. Enough. Sorry if that’s too much. 😝

    1. Oh I don’t mind if it turns to vinegar. That’s so useful and means one fewer thing to buy at the store. The friend who gave me my SCOBY cans with her kombucha that she purposely lets go to vinegar (!). I MUST add some kombucha sludge to my starter! The next time I feed Eleanor (my stater), I’ll add some yeast sludge. That’s just too cool. Thank you for telling me!

      I know I should do a continuous brew. I don’t like handling my SCOBY so much and it sounds SO convenient. I’ll get that vessel sooner rather than later…maybe sooner…

      No this is not not too much. I love all this info. I’m obsessed! Thank you 🙂

  9. What if you hate tea? Is there some other something you can use to make it, or is it just a tea thing?

    1. I’m not sure if you can make something else with it or not. You might be able to ferment a different type of drink with it. But once the tea is fermented, it doesn’t really taste like tea. It tastes more like cider vinegar with a hint of sweetness. When I add candied ginger to mine, it tastes like grown-up gingerale. It has a bit of fizz too.

      1. Interesting. I’ll have to get some to try. I know some people who make it. I will check it out. Thanks!

      2. Natalia says:

        Little Sprout… When you do a second fermentation, you can flavor it (w/ juice, spices, herbs, fresh fruit). You can also brew in an herbal tea, but it is best to rotate SCOBYs into and out of the herbal batch each time you make it so they can stay healthy and strong in their preferred medium.

        I’ve made hibiscus, tulsi rose and peach “herbal” Jun and Kombucha. I currently have plain, apple/cinnamon and sour cherry/vanilla Kombucha in the fridge as well as plain, fresh ginger/vanilla, sour cherry and strawberry/rose jun. I agree withZero Waste, though. I do not prefer to drink green or black teas on their own, but the ferments taste different, so I like them.

      3. Those combos all sound so good! I need to bottle my kombucha tonight. Maybe I will try apple/cinnamon. Thanks!

      4. I hope you like it. Maybe they’ll give you a SCOBY if you do 🙂

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  12. Nichole says: Reply

    How do you taste the kombucha? Can you use a metal spoon or will that hurt the scoby?

    1. Hi Nichole. I either pour a tiny bit into a cup or I use a spoon. A metal spoon in there for a split second doesn’t seem to do any harm. I have seen people online use a straw but I don’t have a glass straw (I don’t use plastic) and also I kind of worry about backwashing. I guess if you held your finger over the top of the straw that would work though (instead of your mouth).

  13. Adam says: Reply

    Any thoughts on making kombucha on the road? I live in a campervan full time. I’ve heard that the scoby doesn’t like movement.

    1. Hi Adam. I haven’t brewed on the road so I’m not an expert, but if I tried it, I would put the lid on the jar while driving and then after parking, I’d take off the lid and cover the top with a cloth. I have also heard that scobys don’t like movement but I also think they are heartier than they sometimes get credit for. I hope that helps.

  14. […] raw cider vinegar (Bragg Organic brand recommended), a piece of SCOBY, and a some cheesecloth. Just follow these easy brewing instructions from Anne-Marie, and viola! In a week you’ll have delicious […]

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