Kombucha – What is it?
Kombucha, in short, is fermented tea. It’s a semi sour liquid rich in probiotics produced by a weird pancake type blob called a SCOBY.
Scoby stands for Symbiotic Culture/Colony Of non-toxic Bacteria and non-toxic Yeast
This living ‘thing’ transforms sugary tea into a vitamin rich elixir.
Kombucha’s been made in China for over 2000 years. It’s one of those healing traditions passed on through generations. It’s said to help liver, digestion and joints with its vitamins B and C, glucosamine and hyaluronic acid. They call it “Divine Che”, “Mo Gu”, “Cajnii grib”, “Hongo”, “Manchurian Tea” or “Kargasok Tea”.
Kombucha’s made a comeback in England. It was popular until sugar rationing in WW2.Germans (incorrectly) call it ‘Mushroom Tea’… Ha, kombucha is neither mushroom nor fungus.
I started making Kombucha in 2014, using green and white tea leaves. Loose-leaf, organic. I have since switched to black tea (in bags) for convenience and flavour.
Once your jar is brewing, you’ll get strange looks from family and friends. Don’t worry, they eventually ignore it.
(If you scroll down there is an audio about Kombucha.)
Why make your own Kombucha?
If you haven’t noticed any creaking joints that need hyaluronic acid and glucosamine, there are a string of other dis-eases Kombucha is said to help. (You can google those).
Anyway buying little bottles of kombucha becomes expensive, and as it’s so easy to make at home, many of us make our own. I take it for the live probiotics. Digestion has been a bugbear for a number of years. I started making my own in 2014 after a natural health friend suggested it could help. As I’d never even tasted Kombucha it was an experiment in faith..
On my journey I managed to kill at least 6 SCOBIES… so don’t be put off if you fail on your first attempt. And no, you don’t need fancy equipment, although those items do/can help…
The Sugar: Tea Ratio for healthy Kombucha
A healthy ratio is 1 part sugar to 10 parts tea. Do not reduce the sugar as you run the risk of killing your SCOBY. Lots of fitness conscious women destroy their SCOBY by starving it. Your SCOBY eats up most of the sugar, so don’t panic. Every extra day your Kombucha brews, the more sour and less sugary it becomes…not a problem.
Technically you’re meant to top your brew up with the equivalent amount to what you use. This involved too much maths for me so instead I give the ‘booch’ a great litre of liquid once a week.
I measure out 100g sugar on a kitchen scale and pour into a litre (1000g) boiled water. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Then add 4 teabags. to this. Regular black tea. (Not Earl Grey which contains bergamot essential oil) Let steep 3-4 minutes, remove teabags. Let the tea cool to body temp then add to your continuous brew. Here’s my super simple way to test the temperature, without using a thermometer: If the tea is too hot to dip your pinky finger, it’s too hot for the kombucha. Much the same as if a bath is too hot for your elbow, it’s too hot for your baby. Except putting your elbow into your kombucha is going to be tricky, a pink finger works better.
Since I wrote this article I’ve discovered a container in my kitchen that holds close enough to 100g sugar, so I use that now, and don’t hassle with the kitchen scale. I keep the sugar measuring container inside the large bag of sugar to make the whole process even simpler.
Green Tea vs Black Tea
I was initially a green/white tea brewer as I worried about excess caffeine. My solution now is having my dose of kombucha earlier in the day eg before 2pm. Green tea makes a paler SCOBY…however, looks are not everything. I prefer the flavour of the black tea, more fruity and complex. Black tea seems to give the SCOBY more coping power over winter too, so consider adding black tea into your brew when the weather has turned nasty.
One tip that’s helped with the flavour….only brew your teabags for 3-4 minutes. Any longer and you run the risk of too many tea tannins getting into your tea. That astringent flavour can also mess with your Vata energies this time of year.
I’ve switched to teabags, for speed and convenience. Having to strain sticky tea was an extra step and invariably I’d make a mess and create another tidy-up job. The SCOBY does not need your finest artisanal tea either, rather enjoy those for your own sipping . :-) Regular PG Tips will be fine. Earl Grey not ok due to the bergamot.
Since the article was written I’ve started drinking black decaf, so that should have reduced the caffeine content somewhat. The SCOBY doesn’t seem to mind the reduction in caffeine.
However a warning – do not add any Earl Grey teabags to your mixture – for some reason, the bergamot essential oil in Early Grey kills Scobies and they start dying. How do I know this? From a silly error. Luckily I had a healthy baby SCOBY in a hotel to restart my brewing. (For adding flavour, keep reading, I cover how to do that later in this article.
If you’re just starting out, you would add your Scoby and starter liquid to the cooled tea. Cover the open jar with a piece of cotton fabric. fasten with an elastic band. This is to stop fruit flies having a party. Initially you have to wait 2-3 weeks for your kombucha to be made. Over time this process speeds up as your Scoby grows in thickness. It becomes instinctive after 3- 6 months. Like learning to drive a car or breastfeed a baby.
Should you or Can you rinse your scoby?
No you should not rinse off the liquid. Keep it in sweet tea and starter liquid. Rinsing it can kill it off. It does not need to be cleaned or sterilized.
Tap water contains chlorine – which is harmful. Your SCOBY is self cleaning, and the acidic environment of the container keeps it healthy. You only need to clean out the glass jar once in a blue moon, like if your SCOBY grows a layer of black fuzz, for instance.
How to split a kombucha scoby from its baby
The new baby is very thin to start with, let it thicken then you can peel it away with your freshly washed fingers.
If you leave it longer it will thicken up nicely and can be shared with a fiend or store in a scoby hotel or simply left in the jar!
The babies will pile up forming a new baby each time you add new sweet tea in your continuous kombucha- another reason to go continuous. You don’t need to faff around.
With time you’ll see that babies can grow as thick as tree trunks, given enough time and if for some reason you haven’t been decanting any liquid. I’ve rgown Scobies that weigh a kilogram of more.
What is a scoby hotel?
It is a jar that you dedicate to storing your spares. After a while you will have more than you need or can give away. It’s wise to have a Plan B in place. Also if you are going on a long holiday eg 3 months or longer, you can let your scobies take a holiday. They don’t mind. Just give them a good feed before you go away. I add in some extra sugar to keep them happy. They don’t even expect you to bring them gifts when you come back home.
Scoby hotels need topping up with sweet tea one a month. If you don’t top them up the liquid gets even stronger to a vinegar stage which you can use in salad dressings etc. Decant that, and then top up with sweet tea. Use the acidic kombucha in salad dressings or, gasp, even in the bath, to make your skin feel extra soft.
What is a pellicle?
It’s the pancake blob that floats inside the liquid – its a layer of cellulose that the colony develops when in contact with oxygen.
Yes you can brew without a pellicle anyway one will form on top of the brew as as the culture eats the sugar. The pellicle provides a sort of cover on top of the liquid. It may help with air regulation in the brew.
The pellicle is the part of kombucha where mould can form.
Yes you can brew kombucha from raw kombucha, you do not need a scoby floating around inside of it. You can see this when you do an experiment – decant excess sour kombucha into a jam jar cover with fabric cover and leave it be. A biofilm will start forming on the surface – and in a week you will have a baby scoby. the scoby is a by-product of brewing, not essential to brewing.
Why did my scoby sink?
Who knows why they sink, it’s one of the mysteries of life. Sometimes they do that. They can rise or fall. It does not mean your kombucha has an issue.
Why I switched to Continuous Brew
My first Kombucha had the perfect conditions. An airing cupboard at a constant 20 degrees 24/7 x 365 days. I switched to continuous brew as I found the whole reloading of the liquid each week messy. Really messy. Continuous brew is so much simpler. You pop a small glass under the spout, twist the handle and it dribbles out. Easy. You reload the sweet tea in the top to replenish. No fiddling around with plastic containers and trying not to drop your slippery SCOBY onto the counter/floor etc.
Kombucha continuous brew vs batch
- less mess when refilling with sweet tea
- easy to remove the kombucha – just open the spigot – decant as much or as little as you need
- able to make more, faster. – useful if your family loves to drink Kombucha
- One large container with a spigot takes up less counter space.
When you might need a heating belt or mat…
We moved to a drafty Sixties home. No rooms at a constant temperature and the water tank cupboard too tight. So it had to be kitchen area. I killed a few Scobies experimenting with locations. I bought a simple heating belt that runs from Autumn to Spring. It adds a few degrees of heat onto the glass vessel. The SCOBY community are happy. Now I have the problem of too many! (Compost!)
If you are struggling to keep your SCOBY happy, try locations. Being near the fridge was bad news. Next to the oven is better. They don’t want sunlight on them. They are fine in the pitch dark. If your home is well insulated, your temperatures won’t fluctuate as much as older homes. If you live in the Scottish Highlands you might need to make an insulated box for them to live inside. Make a plan.
How to make continuous brew Kombucha
What you’ll need:
- a clean jar with spigot,
- piece of fabric large enough to cover the opening,
- piece of sewing elastic knotted into a snug loop to hold the fabric in place,
- white sugar,
- teabags and
- a baby scoby in some starter liquid.
If you don’t have a scale you’ll need to figure out an easy way to get your sugar : tea ratio. Maybe draw a line on the side of a second jam jar that indicates sugar level and then another line to where the hot water should be added? Make a plan.
You add your scoby and liquid to your sweetened tea, cover with fabric and pop on the elastic band. (Royal Mail posties leave these on their rounds if you wonder where to find one.) Find a draft free spot, like inside the airing cupboard. Don’t fiddle with it. Let it be. Your SCOBY may float or sink… either way, leave it alone for 2 weeks. Any strand like bits are beneficial yeast, leave them alone too.
When you’re new, you’ll see some weird changes to the surface of your tea – that is the start of a new baby Scoby. It forms a fine layer over the top which gradually thicken up. When you have continuous brew, you never disturb the babies as your liquid comes out a spout lower down.
Then after 14 -21 days decant a tiny bit to taste. If it is still sweet, then leave it longer. When the flavour is slightly tart, decant two thirds of the liquid and replace with cooled and sweetened tea. Cover. Wait. Do a happy dance.
If you leave it too long, the brew just gets more sour/tart and eventually makes vinegar. Lovely with mustard and sunflower oil as a veggie/salad dressing. Digressing….
Kombucha Second Ferments For Fizz & Flavour
You can do a second ferment, which is where you add sugar, fruit, herbs to get a fizzy flavoured drink. Google on this. You will need specialist bottles and a safe place to avoid explosions and shattering glass. Second fermenting is an additional step.
You never add your flavours (fruits, herbs) into your main brewing jar. Keep your continuous brew making plain kombucha.
And also keep a spare SCOBY in what they term a ‘hotel’ – this is your insurance policy in case of a problem with your brew.
Have fun with your ferments.
How Long To Brew Kombucha and Other Home Ferments
Quick Reference Chart
|Kombucha Batch Brew||1 Gallon|
|7-21 days||10 days|
|10-30 days||15 days|
|Kombucha Continuous Brew|
|2.5 Gallon Vessel|
|10-30 days||15 days|
|“||5 Gallon Vessel|
|18-42 days||21 days|
|Kombucha Continuous Brew|
Sweet Tea Refill
|1-5 days||3 days|
|Water Kefir||1 Quart|
|1-4 days||2 days|
|Milk Kefir||1 Pint|
|12-48 hours||24 hours|
If you’re in the UK, the best place to get a healthy SCOBY is from Happy Kombucha. Until the past 2 years, I bought all my water kefir, milk kefir and kombucha starters from them. The team were very patient with my questions.
I have also bought from Freshly Fermented – also high quality, good customer service and the products arrived well wrapped.
Of course if you have a friend with ferments, she will be too happy to share her excess with you! Once you get into the hang of it, you will need to cull the extras (composting, doggy treats, soap making maybe?).
Wait, don’t go! I’ve got more healthy tips:
Get started with Kombucha- here’s a short audio interview with Michelle of Happy Kombucha
What you will need to get started:
- A cloth and elastic band
- A starter solution and SCOBY(see where I buy mine in the links below)
- A big glass container
- A countertop or strong shelf out of sunlight and drafts
- Sense of humour