|Raspberry Ginger Kombucha on the rocks|
Kombucha. Odds are that if you live outside of the West Coast, you've probably never heard of, let alone tried, this stuff. It's a very hippie-dippy sort of beverage, that people seem to take very seriously around here. The finished product that you drink from a glass is essentially a mildly carbonated chilled (fermented) tea, that is full of probiotics, which is gut-flora heaven, I've been told. Kombucha followers are not but slightly cult-y, but that's kind of charming too. We all want you to join us. Join us... Join us... Where was I?
Oh yeah, the process of making it involves a big ol' floating fungus in a jar, and it looks a bit like a science experiment gone awry. But if you can get over the initial shock factor of the process, and take a non-biased sip you'll probably find it quite delicious. Depending on the kind of tea and additional flavors you are inclined to add, it can taste like all sorts of delicious fruits, berries, and herbs (ginger is very common), but in general, it has a mild acidity, like a glass of white wine, perhaps, but only 1% alcohol -- if that -- and it's a little bit fizzy like a soda, so you could drink it any time of day (although it does have some caffeine, like tea does, so if you're sensitive, you should not drink it later in the day.)
The pronunciation, in case you are still stuck on that, is "Kohm-BOO-cha," and many aficionados refer to it as "Booch" for short, which is a nod back to home distilled "Hooch" during prohibition days. I first heard of Kombucha a couple of years ago, when I saw it in the health food aisle at a local store, and I first tried it about a year back at a friend's house. She had a locally made brand, and it was light in color, like champagne, almost, and fizzy, and citrus-y, and delicious. Store-bought kombucha can be upwards of $6-10 a bottle, so if you are the least bit kitchen-savvy, you can save lots of money by making it at home.
Since quite a lot of my local friends make kombucha, I inquired on Facebook if anyone had a scoby to share (more on that in a moment), and arranged to pick up my slimy scoby-baby from my friend, Devyn. After that initial acquisition, I stopped by a store to get a gallon-sized jar, organic black tea, organic sugar, and sterilized a stash of hinge-top glass bottles that my mom had saved from some European beer. It was time to make some inexpensive and amazing kombucha at home.
This photo below, ladies and gentlemen, is a SCOBY. Don't be afraid; it's weird at first, but it's so fascinating that you'll soon think of it as a family member. It feels a bit like a firm jellyfish, and sometimes it gets little brown globs and strings hanging off of it (which is a type of yeast). So what is a scoby? It stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, and it's a slippery round disc that takes on the size and shape of the container it's growing in. The scoby works as a yeast, like when you make beer or wine, by eating up the sugar in your tea concoction, and adding fizzy bubbles as it ferments. As it does its thing in a jar of tea, it forms new baby Scobies in a stack below, like a heap of fungal flapjacks. (I wonder if anyone on Google will ever search for "Fungal Flapjacks" and find this blog entry!)
|SCOBY: Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. IT'S ALIVE!!!|
Devyn kindly pointed me to the amazing tutorial on The Kitchn by Emma Christensen, and that is pretty much the exact process I use now. It's so simple that I didn't even have to refer to the recipe after the first time. That's right. I memorized the steps in one go- that's how easy it is.
You can go directly to that site to read the more elaborate instructions, plus great trouble-shooting tips, and tips for keeping your scoby healthy.
2 - 2 1/2 TBSP loose leaf organic black tea, or 8 tea bags of organic black tea
14 cups filtered water
1 cup organic sugar
1 majestic scoby (if you can't find a friend locally who has one handy, you can mail order them from Amazon.)
So to start with, for a one-gallon batch of kombucha, I measure out about 2 or 2 1/2 rounded tablespoons of organic loose leaf black tea. For the first fermentation, you should avoid using any teas with oils (like Earl Grey, or Orange Pekoe) as the oils interfere with the primary fermentation. Also avoid using green tea for your primary fermentation, as it seems to lack some of the components that make for a healthy kombucha, and will weaken your scoby. (It's okay to use flavored or green teas as a flavor addition for the second fermentation, however, as you'll see when you read on.)
I am already a tea snob to begin with, so instead of buying tea-bags for my kombucha, I prefer to buy a high quality loose leaf black tea, and use a coffee filter to make a giant tea bag by stapling it together. You can also use 8 regular tea bags instead of loose leaf, but loose leaf tea is far more economical in the long run, since you're not paying for packaging. Additionally, organic tea is my preference, because I figure that if I'm going to make a "health beverage" it's best to avoid pesticide-sprayed teas. (For more on types of teas and the kinds of results you might get, consult the handy chart on this page.)
Here's my set up for the first batch.
The recipe that Emma uses calls for 3 1/2 quarts of water, which is exactly 14 cups. (I prefilter it with a Brita pitcher to take out chlorine and other undesired chemicals). You'll need a clean stock pot big enough for at least a gallon, and now that I have two batches going simultaneously, I use a big pot to make a double portion all at once. *A note on sanitizing your stuff: It's no good to use sanitized bottles and containers, if you don't wash your hands properly, or use brand new clean towels when you're puttering around in the kitchen. So to clean your hinge-top bottles, if you don't have a dishwasher, rinse them out by hand several times in a scrubbed and sanitized, rinsed sink, filled with very hot water and a bit of dish soap, or a capful of bleach to a two gallons of hot water. If you do have a dishwasher, you should still practice to hand wash the inside of the bottle with soap and hot water prior to dishwashing them, as you'll often have residues of fruit or berries or ginger inside your bottle that a dishwasher cannot possibly get out. But running the cleaned out bottles in the dishwasher will heat them up to kill any possible bacteria. As soon as they come out of the dishwasher, put the caps on to keep dust or bacteria from getting inside.*
Heat up the water to boiling, turn off heat, throw in your tea bag, and one cup of (organic sugar) and then put a towel or lid on the pot and let it cool to room temperature for 6-8 hours or overnight. When you are processing your very first batch ever, you probably got a scoby from someone else, so hopefully they also gave you some "starter tea" from their batch to add to your initial batch. If they just gave you a scoby and no starter tea, make a cup or two of regular black tea, and add a little sugar to it and cool it to room temperature so your scoby will stay fresh while you're waiting for your big pot of tea to cool down. You can also put your big pot in the sink in an ice bath if you want to cool it faster. But either way, remember to never-ever-ever put your scoby in hot tea, nor in the refrigerator, as extreme temps will kill it very fast.
When the tea has cooled down to room temperature, pour it into a clean, sanitized 1-gallon jar, and stir in the starter tea and gently with well washed hands pick up your scoby and place it inside with care. It may float on top, or slip sideways and occasionally sink to the bottom. That's all normal, as Emma says on The Kitchn-link. Just look out for mold growing on the scoby as you're working with it. A normal smelling batch should be slightly acidic smelling, (like apple cider vinegar or wine) but not smell rotten or strange in any way. Put a clean paper towel or coffee filter on your jar, and rubber band it. This keeps dust out. Do not screw on a lid on your first batch of Kombucha as it will block air bubbles in and cause too much pressure to build up.
|Two jars of Kombucha, that have coffee filters and rubber bands to keep out dust, but allow air to escape|
Now it's time to just be patient. You should probably wait 7 days before you do anything to your kombucha batch. (Kombatch?) Let it just rest in a quiet place away from direct light. After 7 days, I take a clean drinking straw, stick it gently into the jar at the side, and then cap the top of the straw with my finger to draw up a little taste sample that I put on a big spoon. If it tastes too sweet still, give it another day or two. If it's tangy enough to your liking, it's ready to bottle and flavor, if you choose.
Moving right along, if you are ready to bottle, wash your hands (clean hands, clean towel!) and lift out the scoby onto a clean plate or bowl, and also use a clean measuring cup to set aside two cups of this tea for your subsequent batch of booch. (Bootch?) The next step is a little cumbersome when you're dealing with a gallon sized jar, so I'm putting in some of my photos to show how I do it. I use a strainer to pour the tea into a spouted vessel (like a Pyrex with a handle & spout). The straining is optional, but it catches debris from the scoby so you don't need to worry about drinking it accidentally if you don't want chunks in your beverage. The good cultures will still pass through the sieve.
|I suppose I should get a smaller straining sieve?|
After that, pour the strained tea into swing-top bottles and leave about 1/3rd of the bottle empty to add flavoring elements (fresh ginger root, berries, fresh fruit, fruit or veggie juice, or another type of room temperature tea, like flavored green tea, flavored black tea or an herbal tea like Rooibos). To put fruit or berries into the bottle, chop them small enough to slip into the bottle neck and small enough to be able to shake them back out of the bottle once it's empty. I slice my ginger into matchstick sized slivers.
Here's a few pictures of how I slice up my fruit to fit inside the bottles.
While that looks like a potato, it's a peeled piece of ginger, which I sliced into matchstick pieces. My strawberries are from my own garden, a northwest varietal called Shuksan. Small and really flavorful. I just wash, hull and slice them up into small pieces.
For this particular batch, I also did mango-ginger, which is one of my favorite flavor combinations.
These are Ataulfo / Champagne mangos, which are totally yellow, and insanely sweet, and smooth-textured. They're not as stringy and pulpy as the larger red-green mangos that you typically see at the store. If you have never figured out the best way to peel a mango, here's what I do: I cut around the narrowed ridge of the mango, to make separate the two outer halves from the pit / seed. There's plenty of fruit around the seed, too, so use a paring knife to remove the skin, and slice off strips of fruit.
Next, score the mango in criss-cross fashion, without cutting through the peel on the other side.
Push from the outside of the mango to separate all the little slices of mango, and use a spoon to scoop them out of the rind.
Stuff about 1/3 cup of fruit, berries and/or ginger / herbs into each bottle, and using a funnel, pour your kombucha in leaving a 1" space at the top for carbonation. Cap the bottle, and let it ferment for 1-3 days at room temperature, before putting in the refrigerator. When you are going to pour it into a glass, it's sometimes helpful to decant it through a little strainer to catch the bits of fermented berries, fruit and the little micro-scoby that starts forming at the neck of the bottle. It won't hurt you to consume the berries or fruit, or even if you were to swallow the baby-scoby, it's just a slightly unpleasant slippery chunk that goes down easily. (Yep, I've accidentally drank one) But it is not dangerous in any way.
And lest you think that it's all lovely and beautiful when I cook, here's my Kombucha aftermath. (Kombuchaftermath?)
If you stuck around this far, congratulations. I want to leave you here with a few of my favorite combos that I have tried so far. For the list of fruits and berries below, you can pretty much assume that I have also added in fresh ginger, because ginger is good for your tummy and tastes amazing anyway. Fresh berry and fruit adds sweetness, fizz and flavor to your Booch and makes it taste like an all natural low-sugar soda. It's quite delicious.
Flavors to try:
Orange / Mandarin (You can just squeeze the juice if you don't want to try shoving bits of citrus into your bottle)
Ginger-Lemon (I added a half teaspoon of sugar to my bottle when I squeezed lemon juice into it to add to the carbonation process since lemon is so acidic)
Cucumber-Ginger (It's fermenting even as we speak, so I haven't tried it yet...)
Jasmine Green Tea
Earl Grey Tea
Orange Pekoe Tea
Citrus-Ginseng Green Tea Rooibos blend
... And so on... Use your imagination! Experiment. But keep an eye on your scoby, sanitize your equipment and don't take chances with fruits or berries that look overripe. Wash everything *including fruits and berries* well before adding potential bacteria to your brew.
ENJOY this healthful and flavorful beverage!