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When I was in the research stage of this magazine, I opted to go hands-on with a ferment that was new to me. Of course, this was made easy given my access to the inventory of the Fermentation store. I decided to try the Kombucha Brew Now Jar Kit, a prepackaged kit designed by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory of Kombucha Kamp. I was able to ferment great-tasting kombucha within 21 days, start to finish. The kit came with a 1-gallon jar, upcycled cotton cloth cover and rubber band, organic cane sugar, Hannah’s Special Tea blend, a reusable cloth tea bag, a fully developed SCOBY in starter liquid, pH strips for testing acidity, and an easy strip thermometer to attach to the fermenting vessel. I supplied nonchlorinated water, and extra ingredients for flavor.
Key to your first kombucha is a SCOBY and starter liquid. SCOBY is an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”; when the bacteria (Acetobacter xylinum) begins to grow, it produces a great deal of cellulose fiber. These fibers create a mat and bind the bacteria and yeast together. The dynamic duo of bacteria and yeast build a floating structure that protects the newly fermenting liquid of your kombucha, keeping out pathogens and allowing critical chemistry to proceed safely underneath. A SCOBY is a durable living ecosystem that survives vacuum packaging and mailing, and even freezing! Each and every batch of kombucha needs starter liquid from a previous active batch, as well as a SCOBY. Adding starter liquid and active SCOBY to a new batch of brewed tea is a technique in fermentation known as “backslopping”. Essentially, the new brew (or brine or cure or dough) is inoculated with active microbes from a remainder of the previous recipe that has finished fermenting.
Like a sourdough starter used to make bread, your SCOBY needs to be fed in order to grow and ferment. So, the SCOBY with starter liquid is backslopped into freshly brewed tea, and sugar is added to feed the microbes. The fermentation is the process of these microbes eating and transforming that sugar, and the result is a slightly sour, slightly effervescent, microbe-packed, delicious drink. You can make your first gallon as easily as I did by following these instructions using the contents of the kit, and then simply adding water and time!
Testing, Bottling, and Flavoring
Because I made my first kombucha in winter, I kept it in my gas oven that had a pilot light. This kept it warm and within the optimum temperature range. The handy self-adhesive thermometer helped with this. I started to taste-test my batch after about 10 days by slipping a straw past the SCOBY for a sip. At the same time, I tested for pH levels. I wasn’t sure about my taste test, so the pH strips were helpful. An ideal pH is between 3.5 and 2.5, depending on how sour or tangy you like your kombucha. My batch took 21 days to reach a pH of 3.0, and that’s when I decided to bottle it.
To bottle your finished kombucha, you’ll first need clean bottles (recycled is best), with flip-top or nonmetal lids. You’ll also need a funnel, a clean bowl for your SCOBY, and a cotton cloth to cover it. Wash your hands, remove the SCOBY to your bowl, scoop 2 cups of liquid from the top of your vessel, and ladle this over your SCOBY. Cover the bowl with a cotton cloth. Now, you can use your funnel to fill your bottles. If you prefer, you can strain out or keep the yeast that drops to the bottom of your ferment vessel. Fasten the lids and set the bottles aside for 1 to 3 days. This last stage of fermentation will add carbonation to your kombucha, and the longer you leave it, the fizzier it will get. You’ll need to burp your bottles if you like it bubbly. Once you get the level of carbonation you want, move your bottled kombucha to the fridge.
Adding extra flavor from fruit, juice, flowers, or herbs should be done at the time of bottling. There are lots of recipes for great flavor combinations that pair well with primary combinations of black, green, and white teas. A little flavor goes a long way, and you can add flavor items directly to the bottle before adding your fermented kombucha. The same 1 to 3 days of secondary fermentation at room temperature will allow both flavor and carbonation to build to your desired taste. You can strain out additions, if preferred, before refrigeration, which will slow both carbonation and flavor changes.
Now that you’ve completed your first batch, you can start a second brew with your leftover liquid and original SCOBY with any new SCOBY growth. Just follow the same instructions. As you continue to brew, you may wish to move your SCOBY growth to a “SCOBY hotel,” to take a break, or try the continuous brew method for more kombucha.
Fermentation Type: Alcohol, Lacto, and Aceto
Primary Fermentation: 7 to 21 days
Secondary Fermentation: 1 to 3 days
Total time: 8 to 24 days
Yield: 3/4 to 1 gallon.
- Heat 4 cups of nonchlorinated water in tea kettle or pot.
- Just prior to boiling, turn off the water and let cool for 1 to 2 minutes before adding hot water to your fermentation vessel. (If your vessel is cold and your water too hot, it may crack.)
- Add 4 to 6 teaspoons of loose tea to your reusable tea bag, or 4 to 6 tea bags of your choice to your vessel, and steep for 7 to 15 minutes.
- Remove the tea bag(s) and stir in 3/4 to 1 cup of organic sugar until dissolved.
- Slowly add 8 to 12 cups of non-chlorinated, room-temperature water (be sure to test that it’s a comfortable 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or close to body temperature).
- Add the entire contents of your kit’s SCOBY and liquid; or, add 1 to 2 cups of a previous batch of kombucha and a SCOBY large enough to cover the surface of your vessel.
- Cover the vessel with the tightly woven cloth and rubber band.
- Place your vessel in a warm (75 to 85 degrees), well ventilated spot that’s out of direct sunlight.