Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Finally on the Kombucha Wagon

In all my posts about lacto-fermentation so far, I have yet to mention Kombucha. I had heard of Kombucha (pronounced: com-BOO-cha) many years ago, but somehow it just never called my attention, and I have gone along all these many years blithly ignoring anything to do with it. I had never tasted it, never bought a bottle, never knew anyone brewing it and never had anyone offer me a SCOBY.

What is Kombucha?

Black Tea
Kombucha is a fermented beverage made using said SCOBY and sweet, brewed tea. It has to be tea. Real true tea. Flavored teas may run the risk of killing off the SCOBY if they have certain oils added (think Earl Grey tea), and herbal teas do not have the true tea that the SCOBY lives and feeds on. The yeasts need sugar to ferment, so real sugar is needed to brew Kombucha. Honey or other kinds of sugar or sugar substitutes will not suffice. Real tea (black, oolong, green, white) and real white sugar (preferably organic, dehydrated cane sugar) are all that is needed, plus the SCOBY, to get started. The tea can be plain teabags or loose tea, as desired. I happen to have a lot of varieties of loose tea.


A SCOBY, an acronym for a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria & Yeasts is a very strange looking and feeling culture that grows on the surface of Kombucha. This is a kind of which came first scenario. One needs a SCOBY to brew Kombucha. Brewing Kombucha yields new SCOBYs. The SCOBY is similar to a vinegar "mother." They are not the same, and a vinegar mother would make some very off-tasting Kombucha. Once Kombucha is brewing, if it is left for too long, will get sour enough to use as a vinegar substitute in things like salad dressings, but do not use it for canning and preserving, as the pH is too variable.

So What does Kombucha Taste Like - and What if I Don't Like Tea? 

One reason I never got interested in Kombucha was that somewhere I read that it was made with a mushroom. I have nothing against mushrooms, and eat them often. But hearing about yet another health food fad, using a mushroom - well, I was unconvinced. 

I do love tea. Rea tea, camellia sinensis. I love black teas, green teas. Oolong has never quite become a favorite, and I find white tea too mild. I like tea that really packs a whallop. I do not like sweet tea. But what if you don't like tea? Well, for starters, once the sweet tea is fermented, I feel it bears little resemblance to what the original flavor was. As the Kombucha is fermenting, it is also eating up the sugars in the process. Yes you may have a small alcohol content in the beverage and it does tend to become fizzy. I am also not a soda drinker, do not care for fizzy drinks, even champagne - though I will drink a beer on occasion. Kombucha will tend to get fizzy, more so the longer it ferments. 

I don't know who came up with the idea that a SCOBY is a mushroom. It is not.  There are a couple of sites (among millions, it seems) that seem to have more detailed information than others. One is Kombucha Kamp, and another is Food Renegade.

Two SCOBYs, courtesy of another informative site: www.Yemoos.com/kombuchaFAQ.html
As for what it tastes like, I cannot give a definitive answer. So far I have tasted two store-bought bottles. The first was one with fruit juice added. This requires a secondary ferment, I have found. It was very fizzy, tangy and quite delicious. Not terribly sweet, which was good. I had been having troubles keeping my blood glucose numbers in check, so I was concerned. So far, after two bottles over 4 days, I have had no rise in blood glucose levels, so - so far, so good. The second bottle I bought was GT's Enlightenment Kombucha, plain. It was also quite good, and this time I was more interested in what a plain Kombucha tasted like. Lightly sweet, very fizzy, but I cannot precisely put a finger on the actual flavor. For sure it does not taste like tea. 

The fact that my blood glucose is remaining stable after these drinks is good. For one thing, the two bottles had listed only 8 gm sugar per serving - a far cry from most sodas out there. The fact that this is a fermented beverage, with all that implies (lots of pro-biotics and health benefits), is what actually made me sit up and take note.

A Disclaimer on the Health Benefits

To date, as I have read in many articles, scathing or otherwise, there is no real evidence to suggest health benefits from drinking Kombucha. Kombucha can ferment down to very low (acidic) pH levels, at which point that is like saying vinegar will go bad and make you sick. This is my own common sense talking here. I have no scientific background or knowledge. Fermenting foods at home, one should always be aware of cleanliness, but anyone who cooks should also be aware of cleanliness. Again, this is simple common sense. Using dirty hands to put the SCOBY into your tea will probably be introducing some interesting bad bacteria. It is debatable that the SCOBY can eventually kill all of that off, before the brew is finished. Clean containers, clean utensils, clean towels and clean hands are always required. Common sense. 

Health "officials" make no claims that Kombucha has any kind of health benefits either. However, as I am fermenting so many other kinds of foods, I thought this could certainly be another source of some probiotic action. 

Anyone wanting to start brewing their own Kombucha should read carefully all the information out there, particularly form people who have successfully been brewing for years. I have spent countless hours online reading, reading, printing instructions, notes, memos, pictures and what I can get my hands on. Be well acquainted with the process, the whys and wherefores, make sure you have the proper utensils and only then venture into buying (or finding someone with lots of baby SCOBYs) your first SCOBY culture.  

Vessels for Brewing Kombucha

It is stressed everywhere I have read to use glass for fermenting Kombucha. From a small, one-quart batch in a mason jar to large 2-gallon beverage jars, they should be glass meant for food. Crystal will leach lead. Most metal vessels will leach metals into the brew. No matter how great the ceramic, it is still advised against using ceramic vessels as it is possible to leach lead from the glaze. So, glass it is. Plastic containers, unless they are specifically made for long-term food storage are advised against. Myself, I would not use a plastic container anyway. That said, I did buy a large jar yesterday at Target. It has a spigot, which is plastic. I pray this little bit will not be a problem. The reason I got this kind of jar is that I want to start a Continuous Brew, draining finished Kombucha from the spigot, and adding fresh sweet tea to the top.  

My First SCOBY

I ordered my first SCOBY and received it in the mail yesterday. It arrived in a sealed plastic pouch, inside a very sturdy small mailer envelope, inside another larger mailer envelope. Well protected. Inside the plastic pouch was the SCOBY and about a half cup or so of Kombucha. The SCOBY itself is generally a pancake shape, can be very thin, or grow to be very thick as it forms new SCOBYs.  It is usually a brownish yellowish, can be uniformly colored or blotchy. It may have raggedy bits hanging off of it, which are yeasts, a by product of the fermentation process. These come off easily, with clean hands. It kind of looks like a weird jellyfish. It feels somewhat like squid; pliable, smooth. 

I had my tea brewed, sweetened and cooling hours before it arrived. IT is important that the SCOBY be added to tea that is not too hot - or even very far from the same temperature as itself. My tea was still a full 10 degrees warmer than the SCOBY when it arrived. I set them side by side to acclimate. I added the SCOBY to my tea late yesterday afternoon. Most places state to let it brew for about 7 days, in a warm dark place. Some say on top of the fridge - where it certainly is not dark, in my house. I covered the mouth of the jar with a tea towel, held in place with a rubber band to discourage insects. Then I used a large flour sack towel to cover the jar from light. I will taste it at around 6 days to see how the ferment is progressing.

And that is where things stand around my house!