Brewing Kombucha–or, “What the Hell is that?!”

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Home-brewed kombucha. Part mystery, part tasty, part science.

Grumpy Kevin and I fell down the fermentation rabbit hole after our first batch of sauerkraut. Then came fermented beets, ginger, pickles, eggs, vinegar, and kimchi.  And now we’ve arrived at Kombucha, or fermented sweet tea.  On further contemplation it seems pretty logical to ferment sweet tea in the South.  After all, have you seen some of the weird things we eat??

Now there’s a lot of hype, myth, and confusion about Kombucha. Some say it’s from Russia, others from China. There are claims that it will ‘cure what ails ya’ and others claim it can kill you. Generally when such extremes are shouted from the mountaintops, I do a little investigating prior to jumping in headlong. So, I scoured the interwebs, reviewed several books on fermentation (previously read), checked out any evidence in medical journals (none), talked to buddies that were already brewing it, and reviewed a write-up by the CDC. What I determined for myself is pretty much what I learned in my Anthropological studies–cultures have been doing these things ‘for-evah’ in conditions much less clean than most kitchens and yet the folks are still alive. Now, one tool in their arsenal that we generally don’t have is a massive cultural legacy handed down from one generation to another on how to do this.  What does that mean?  Proceed with caution, common sense, and moderation.

**Note:  Kombucha is brewed in the presence of a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast).  You can get these from friends (make sure you know their brewing practices) or order online from a reputable seller.  These are live bacteria and yeast that must be cared for properly (no chemicals, no metal, etc.).  For your safety and own knowledge I highly suggest doing some reading before you go down the Kombucha Road–no site contains all of the info in one place.**

Basic Kombucha Recipe

  • 1 SCOBY plus 2 cups of starter tea (or use unpasteurized, non-flavored store-bought kombucha)
  • 1 gallon filtered water
  • 1 cup white sugar (necessary; will be used up in fermentation)
  • 8 bags black tea (or 2 tablespoons loose tea)
  • Choice of fruit or other flavorings for a second fermentation
  • Large stockpot
  • 4-6 quart jars with lids
  • Butter muslin, tea towels, or other breathable cloth
  • Twine or large rubber band

Obtain a SCOBY.  Ask your more ‘crunchy’ friends if they brew kombucha and ask if they have a SCOBY to spare. I got mine from my buddy, Jeff, after a conversation about the wonderful weirdness of fermenting.

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If you didn’t know better, you’d think SCOBYs were something out of a 1940s horror flick–not something you are actually trying to cultivate!

Make your tea. Make sure to use quality tea without pesticides or chemicals and no flavorings (think Earl Grey)–your SCOBY is a living thing and these will harm it.  In a non-reactive stockpot, boil your water.  Remove from heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Steep the tea for 15 minutes. Let the water cool completely (too warm of a temperature and you’ll end up killing your SCOBY). Remove the bags when cooled, or strain the loose tea.  When completely cool, stir in the starter tea or store-bought kombucha.  Cover with cloth (I use butter muslin) and secure cloth tightly with twine or a rubber band.

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Kombucha in its element.  An ‘adult’ or ‘mother’ kombucha SCOBY and baby SCOBY forming on top.

Wait. Let the weird, gelatinous, SCOBY-blob do its thing in a room temperature spot out of direct sunlight for 5 to 30 days. Yes, that’s quite a spread. Start tasting at 5 days (clean equipment only) and stop when the flavor seems right to you. Grumpy Kevin and I are quite a fan of tart, so we ferment for 21 days at a temperature of about 70ish. The result is definitely tart–like an apple cider vinegar. We then send it though a second ferment with fruit or other flavorings for 5 to 7 days. During your ferments, use common sense and watch for things like green or black mold (the acidic environment should prevent this).  This is where your reading comes in since great granny isn’t giving out advice on kombucha brewing (at least not in the South).

Have some fun.  Second Ferment…or ‘wait again’.  Now you can have some fun with the flavor of your Kombucha.  Use ginger, lemon, orange, berries, other flavored teas, or herbs for a “second ferment”.  Gently remove your SCOBY (clean, vinegar-rinsed hands) and place it in a clean, vinegar-rinsed glass container. Don’t forget to save 2 cups of starter tea for your next batch.  Place a bit of fruit (no science here–maybe a half of a cup) in the bottom of your clean quart jars and fill them with kombucha, leaving an inch or so at the top.  Place your lids and set them out of direct sunlight on the counter. Wait 1-5 days for the carbonation to increase and flavors to develop, releasing the building CO2 daily.  After the taste is to your liking, strain the kombucha into quart jars, place lids, and put in the fridge. They will last several weeks.

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Carbonation from a second ferment.

Start up your next batch.  Follow the instructions again from the beginning to keep yourself stocked in kombucha. Otherwise keep the scoby and starter tea in a sealed glass container in the fridge until ready. We continuously brew kombucha, so I’ve not had to ‘put the SCOBY to rest’ yet. There are plenty of sites with info for doing this though.  If you’re super brave, you can try doing a second fermentation with sugars/fruit and/or other yeasts to purposefully increase the carbonation and alcohol content of your kombucha.  I have not done this…but it sounds like a good experiment (i.e. watch for that at a later date!).

Ferment Nation: It’s Sauerkraut Time!

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Summer’s winding down and the first hints of cooler weather are in the air.  That means I’m getting antsy to stew and braise and make big, bubbling pots of goodness that fill the house with their savory aroma all day long. Unfortunately it’s only slightly less hot than the Hinges of Hell here, which is not quite cool enough for standing next to a steamy meat cauldron all day.  What does one do then, to prepare for fall cooking? Ferment. That’s what.

With just a little bit of prep and a whole lot of waiting, barely chewable raw cabbage is turned into that salty, sour delight we call sauerkraut.  Setting out jars on the counter now will allow for braised pork steaks with sauerkraut, apples, and onions in about a month. Or a mound of sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, kielbasa sausage, and a little German mustard.  Or pork belly (or braised ham hock or pork neck) and sauerkraut mashed potatoes.  It also goes well on a sharp cheddar cheese grilled sandwich.  So much sauerkraut, so little time!

Here we go (for 3 16 ounce jars):

  • 3 sterilized, quart-sized, wide mouth canning jars
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 2 medium heads of cabbage
  • quality sea salt
  • Caraway seeds to taste (I used about 1 tsp)
  • Juniper berries to taste (I used about 2 tsp)
  • Coconut oil, about 6 TBSP, gently melted (olive oil may be substituted)
  • Sterilize canning jars by submerging in boiling water for 10 minutes. Or, cheat like I do and put them in the bottom of the dishwasher and run the sanitize cycle.
  • Thoroughly clean cabbage.  Remove about 3-4 outer leaves from each head of cabbage.
  • Fill a pot large enough to fit one outer leaf of cabbage at a time half way with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, blanch each outer cabbage leaf for a minute or two or until soft enough to manipulate without tearing.  These will serve to hold the shredded bits of cabbage under the brine. Set blanched leaves aside. Discard water.
  • Finely shred each head of cabbage using a cabbage shredder, mandolin, food processor, or chef’s knife.  I really do seem to like the rustic feel when done by hand—big pieces, little pieces, and varying textures.
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A sharp knife makes easy work of hand-shredding cabbage

  • Sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the bottom of a large bowl. Place a layer of shredded cabbage on top of the salt. Sprinkle that layer with salt, caraway seeds, and juniper berries and add another layer of cabbage. Continue until all of the cabbage is layered with salt, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. Mix thoroughly with very clean hands. Press firmly with the wooden spoon to encourage the cabbage to release more liquid (or squeeze firmly with those very clean hands). Allow to sit for one hour.  The salt will continue to draw liquid out of the cabbage to form a brine. Do not discard this liquid as it will serve to cover the cabbage and create an oxygen-deprived state for the microorganisms to do their job.
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You can start to see little beads of water forming on the cabbage: This is your cabbagy brine starting to form.

  • After the cabbage has wilted for an hour, stuff into sterilized quart jars and pack tightly (do so every few handfuls and the task is easier). After all jars are packed, tuck a blanched cabbage leaf or two over the top of the shredded cabbage. Now pour the remaining brine over the cabbage in the jars equally. If there is not enough brine to cover, add more brine made of 1 tsp. sea salt to 1 cup of non-chlorinated water (I use filtered).  Make sure no cabbage is peeking above the brine level. If it is, it will serve to encourage undesirable yeasts and molds.
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cabbage packed neatly into the jar and covered in brine (I’ll take care of that little piece trying to escape a bit later)

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The blanched whole cabbage leaves work to hold all the bits and shredded cabbage under the brine

  • Cover each jar with two layers of cheesecloth or butter muslin and tie with kitchen twine.
  • Place the jars in a warm spot (I’ve read everything from 68-73 degrees; my house stays an even 72 in summer and fall here in the South) on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel. The mixture may produce more brine over the next day or two and spill over (hence the tray and towel).
  • When the jars stop producing more liquid (1-3 days depending on temperature), I make sure everything is tucked in and cap with coconut oil by gently melting enough coconut oil to form a 1/4 inch layer on top of each jar’s brine. Over several hours the coconut oil will harden and form a close-fitting cap. It is easily removed later and I can easily ‘smell the progress’ through the cap.  I’ve also used a layer of olive oil (it can be mixed in prior to eating).
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Note how the color changed from bright green to yellow and slightly translucent–this is normal

  • Sit back and enjoy the show for the next 3-4 weeks (mine usually seems to hit the spot at about 2.5 weeks with the house at 72).
  • Do watch for mold, browned cabbage, pink cabbage, or fuzz. This indicates you need to throw it away. Apparently a bit of white sludge in the bottom or on top is normal. Mine have never produced that, so I can’t say how it affects taste.
  • When it reaches the desired taste and texture (anywhere from 1 week to 6 weeks or longer), make sure all parts are still covered in brine, remove the coconut oil cover, put a lid on the jar, and place it in the fridge. It will keep for months (if you can keep it around that long!).

I don’t know if I’ll ever learn all there is to know about fermentation. It’s part science, part art, part instinct.  If you’re brave, read up on the internet posts and get going–that’s how I started. Looking back, I’d have done a little more reading first. That being said, two great resources I now own and highly recommend are Wild Fermentation:  The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (found here http://www.wildfermentation.com/wild-fermentation/) and The Art of Fermentation (found here http://www.wildfermentation.com/the-art-of-fermentation/).