How to Make Kombucha
In case you need to hear it from me
This is Clouds Form Over Land, a weekly newsletter about life at sea and going ashore.
Google returns 24.4 million results in .48 seconds to the query “how to make kombucha”. Here’s my take after a year of experimentation and delight:
Choose a SCOBY acquisition strategy: order online, receive a hand-me-down from a friend, or grow our own from a bottle of store-bought kombucha. The third option worked wonders for me. I had lackluster liquid from a dehydrated SCOBY ordered online. A friend has launched and maintained her own colony from one of my spare SCOBYs.
Gather fermentation vessels. Kombucha fermentation has two stages. We begin in a large glass jug and separate into smaller vessels with added flavorings to increase carbonation and tastiness. My current setup is a large glass vessel that a friend had already drilled a hole into, but wasn’t using. I stopped it up with a cork until a friend tucked this spigot in his suitcase and visited in Panama. The top is a dishtowel from the grocery store in Bocas del Toro, held in place with a hair tie. This setup has not spilled throughout 400 miles of sailing. Any old glass bottle or jar will suffice when bottling it for the second.
Start the first batch. Gather up black tea bags, sugar, and the SCOBY starter. This free video from Mike G at Pro Home Cooks was my companion for getting comfortable with this and it joined me on the kitchen counter during the first few batches. He recommends the distilled tea method, which means heating a smaller portion of water to melt the sugar and brew the tea. This cuts down the time waiting for a large volume of water to cool before adding the kombucha. Let rest for 10-14 days.
Separate and flavor for the second fermentation. Reserve the SCOBY and recommended volume of the kombucha to start the next batch. Pour the rest into smaller bottles and add flavors. Anything goes - fruits, herbs, spices, even vegetables. Carbonation will be higher when favoring fruits, but I have hacked this by adding honey when leaning on less sugary flavorings. My favorites are ginger, passionfruit, mangosteen, lulo, hibiscus flower, and pineapple.
Do it all again. Repeat the steps in the large vessel for the first fermentation after sorting out the second. Stow these away. Return in 10-14 days to move the second fermentation bottles to the fridge for enjoyment and repeat the process again.
To borrow from Ku'ku'lkán, the Mayan God in the new Black Panther movie, “how is never as important as why”. I gave this a try because we were living in a very hot climate with limited access to the grocery store. Our supply runs were every other week, with 60-90 minutes to complete the errands before the communal powerboat left the dock. Liquids are heavy to carry through the hot town and up the big hill. We also had an abundance of new-to-us tropical plants to use for flavoring. I was tired of drinking alcohol but couldn’t deny the refreshing nature of a cold beverage in the tropics.
This developed into a practice because the results tasted great and my process got easier. It may be in my head, but my gut seems to feel better too. Switching over the batches has become a ritual of sorts: putting on the kettle, getting out the tea, sugar, fruits, and previous batches. Adding a new piece of masking tape and seeing the locations and times of my last brews. Placing the finished products in the fridge to enjoy in the coming days. Sprawling out in the galley is one of my favorite ways to relax.
I also took heart in a few lessons from this ferment.
First, it doesn’t matter what our SCOBYs look like. This has been repeated by many more experienced folks, but it seems it’s natural for us beginners to be a bit stressed when growing something that looks decidedly unappetizing. Take heart, the pH is so low in kombucha that it is highly unlikely for mold to grow. Holes, dark brown strands, and uneven thickness are all totally normal. Maybe it’s totally normal for us to have some lumps and spots?
Next, don’t be too precious with the timelines and taste along the way. One of my batches sat for five weeks when we were unexpectedly caught in the US due to protests in Panama over the summer. After a certain amount of time, the kombucha will turn to vinegar. If the taste is tasty, it can be used as a salad dressing or anywhere else in place of apple cider or other vinegar. If not, the liquid is still sufficient to begin a new batch and try again.
Lastly, to borrow from adrienne maree brown, “what’s easy is sustainable”. I stock up on ingredients so that when it’s time to brew there’s less to do. Here it’s easy to find inexpensive boxes of 50+ tea bags, but elsewhere it may be more economical and waste-conscious to buy tea in bulk and use a strainer to remove the leaves. I use whatever is on hand for the flavorings and lean on ginger as a pantry staple. Swapping batches has gotten easier with practice, taking perhaps twenty minutes these days.
If there are any rules in kombucha, it’s the ratio of tea, sugar, and starter tea to water. I started with a half gallon and have worked up to 2 gallons of water, 16 tea bags, 2 cups of sugar, and 2 cups of starter tea. I saved the image below from Kimberley Nettles to reference as I grew my batch size.
All of the videos on kombucha by Mike G from Pro Home Cooks built my confidence and the one below inspired me to start fresh with a bottle from the store after a first attempt with a dehydrated SCOBY fell flat.
This one on Mexican-inspired meal prep was a favorite of mine during 2020 and I have returned to it while preparing for our next ocean passage.
Dahlia gave me The Art of Fermentation when this hobby was running away with me and it was a delightful read to quench my curiosity. I also made mead and tepache and had a failed attempt at sourdough.
I’ll be checking into the SCOBY hotel soon to pause my ferments while sailing to Mexico. I learned the basics from this video:
For more of my style of recipes, check out these posts on yogurt culture and rag rugs.
Find an ingredient in your pantry that hasn’t been used in a month or so. Try a new recipe featuring it this week.
Spend time clearing space in your home for spring. Go through the mail pile, use up odds and ends in the pantry, and tuck away or donate items that aren’t in use.
Get more familiar with the traditions and techniques of a ferment in your diet, like chocolate, coffee, sauerkraut, or sriracha.
Written in the spirit of not letting what we can’t do get in the way of what we can.
Did you try any of these? I’d love to hear about it.
My meditation teacher and friend Dahlia chimed in with a few more tips from her FIFTEEN YEARS of tending kombucha. She agreed to me sharing below:
My great flavor secret is green jasmine tea. It makes a delightful light, flavorfull booch!
I am not prioritizing the "hotel" link this morning as I have much on my wishlist for doing today, but my experience is: you just make a fresh batch of starter, put the SCOBY in without any starter, and leave it. I always have a backup stored this way in my fridge and I've left my SCOBY over hurricane season like this with friends. It's usually fine even after six months! It might take some time to wake up; sometimes a long first ferment doesn't seem to go anywhere, but a second round then does just fine. The biggest thing folks say about not wanting to brew is they can't keep up with drinking it, and popping the SCOBY in the fridge is so easy!
My favorite late afternoon pick-me-up right now is a kombucha spritzer, which is a mix of kombucha and sparkling water. This is also nice for folks who find the full strength stuff a bit much; you can go 1:5 booch:water or 1:1.... totally up to you. Yesterday I made one with an orange La Croix James left behind and it was delicious, tee hee!
My other tip is: fermentation time can vary by 100% in different temperatures and the result is entirely subjective. You do you! I just dip a straw under the SCOBY and taste it until it gets to where I want.
To follow Dahlia's work, check out beloved.org
Let's give sauerkraut a try on one of our future visits. Great Granny Gremel would be so proud!