A little over a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger, world traveler and adventurer Nicholas Adriani stopped by for a bit. He came bearing extravagant gifts: a venison summer sausage the size of my forearm, a couple of plucked quail acquired from a hunting-type friend, and a huge punch jar brimming with sour-smelling liquid, topped with a thick, scummy growth.
Anybody who is into the whole hippie/fermented/’alternative foods’ thing will understand why I was excited by this, and not confused and offended. Nick was giving me kombucha, a fermented tea beverage that is (supposedly) full of all kinds of helpful probiotics and vitamins and is also (definitely) really damn tasty. I don’t really buy all of the health claims that the hardcore kombuchists 1 make, but I do think that any fermented foodstuff or beverage 2, in moderation, can have health benefits.
Plus, as I said, it tastes really good. Not everyone will agree. 3 There’s a slightly vinegary tang, which I like because a) I grew up drinking honey-vinegar tea when I was sick, and b) because I’m weird. I won’t argue with this. It’s not a taste for everybody.
But if you DO like kombucha, there’s really no reason you should be shelling out four and a half bucks every time you want that tangy goodness. A lot of recipes on the internet make it sound like it’s this really difficult thing to make, as though a SCOBY 4 is a very picky pet, not unlike an asthmatic chihuahua with IBS that, if given slightly wrong food or housed in a less-than-completely-sterile environment, will die messily and with greatly unpleasant odor.
This has not been my experience. I have barely had to do anything at all to continuously brew basic, high-quality kombucha. All you really need is black tea (I use Lipton’s), sugar, and a piece of SCOBY. 5 Oh, and you need a glass brewing vessel. Apparently using plastic or ceramic can result in bad things leaching from the material into your beverage. Bleah. I use the glass punch jar that Nick gave me. It’s about a gallon or so, and it has a spigot at the bottom. Oh, and you’ll also need a coffee filter and rubber band to put over the top once you’re done.
It’s a pretty simple process. Brew tea. 6 Add sugar. Cool to room temperature. Add tea to brewing vessel with SCOBY. Wait a few days. Drink. Repeat. Here’s a more detailed outline:
- Bring a half gallon of water to a boil, remove from heat, add five tea bags for five minutes. Remove tea bags.
- Dissolve a half cup of white sugar into it.
- Let it sit until it comes to room temperature.
- Carefully pour the tea into the jar with the SCOBY.
- Cover the top of the jar with the coffee filter, securing it with the rubber band.
- Taste it a couple of days later. If it’s vinegary enough, start drinking it. If it’s too sweet for your taste, let it sit another couple of days.
- When the jar is about half empty, go back to step 1.
Note that I started with a jar full of fermenting kombucha, and not just a SCOBY. I’m curious to hear about the process of shepherding a SCOBY through its early development. Hopefully my friends at Jack Piepan can enlighten us, seeing as how they got a piece of SCOBY from me.
Oh, that’s right! That scoby 7 just keeps growing. Every once in a while, you’re gonna need to break it down to keep it from taking over the whole jar and gumming up your drink. I just ripped it apart. I wish I had pictures. There’s really nothing I can compare it to. But I ripped it because apparently using a metal knife will kill the microbes. : ( No bueno. So I ripped it up and gave all the extra pieces to my friends. The remaining piece dropped sadly to the bottom of the jar for a few days, but soon floated back up and grew bigger and better than before. Kind of scary.
You can add other flavors, like ginger, or you can do secondary bottling to get a carbonated beverage, but I don’t have any experience doing these things, 8 and I don’t want to mislead you fine folks. I just want to put it out there that, provided you acquire the starter culture and a brewing vessel, making kombucha is a really cheap and easy thing to do. Even though it looks kind of gross. But hey, E.T. was ugly, and he still won all our hearts. And a SCOBY won’t eat all of your Reese’s Pieces. 9
- That’s a word, right? I’m making it a word. ↩
- Yes, I am including beer and wine in this. ↩
- But I’m right. ↩
- Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s the thick disc of scum that is floating on top of the kombucha, and is the culture that facilitates fermentation of the beverage. Bottled commercial kombucha does not have a SCOBY, but it might have a few thin, slimy strands hanging around, strands that are made out of the same bacteria/yeast matrix as the SCOBY, and can turn into a SCOBY given the right growing conditions. ↩
- You can buy SCOBY or kombucha culture online from sites like Kombucha Kamp, or you can shout out on Facebook; there might be somebody you already know who has some they can share. ↩
- Some sites claim you need distilled water. I’ve never had any trouble with the stuff from the tap. ↩
- I’m done capitalizing it. ↩
- If you have added other flavors or bottled for carbonation, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about how you did it! ↩
- I have a theory that SCOBY is actually a hive-mind metaorganism from outer space that is slowly staging an invasion of earth by using hipsters, hippies, and health freaks to propagate itself. Eventually it will coat the surface of the planet, consume everything organic, and extend massive pseudopods into the paths of passing asteroids in order to spread to other planetary bodies. And by ‘theory’ I mean ‘movie idea’. ↩