How to Make Kombucha That Isn’t as Good as The Kind You Buy, But Still Works, Almost

I’m not a scientist, but I support a theory shared by many people who are also not scientists: Kombucha is super good for you, and you should drink it every day. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink full of floating particles that are cultures of bacteria and yeast. I’m certain that the more I drink these cultures, the closer I am to becoming the person I want to be (which is to say, Lena Dunham’s writing partner/best friend/muse).

I swear I am physically and mentally unhealthy if I’m not constantly ingesting it, so when GT was forced by the FDA to take their Classic Raw Kombucha off the shelves because of the “alcohol” content (there are trace amounts from the fermentation process), I was devastated. The ban was a joke, considering you’d have to drink tanks of kombucha that would lead to regretful diarrhea long before you got drunk off it, but I digress. Classic Raw is the brand I love—it gives you a slight buzz that makes you feel like your blood is being detoxed or whatever it is that kombucha allegedly does to your body. Kombucha costs about a billion dollars a bottle, which I was happy to pay to feel like I was floating, and less happy to pay when I had to go with a subpar, less-”alcoholic” brand. So, I decided to start brewing my own.

The way you make kombucha is by combining the aforementioned special bacteria culture with tea, a little bit sugar and then letting it ferment. You only need six things:
1. Water

2. Tea you like to drink

3. A dish towel/some sort of porous cloth

4. A large rubber band or tie

5. A boyfriend who is thoroughly amused by your ambitious plan and willing to procure your big glass jar…

6. …and who will also find you a SCOBY and starter tea!

First, some background: SCOBY is an acronym that stands for “Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.” This culture looks like a tan portobello mushroom cap and is what gives your kombucha the tangy, vinegar taste that makes your eyes water. (Fun fact: You’re eating a SCOBY cousin every time you eat sourdough bread!) The “starter tea” is just previously brewed kombucha the SCOBY sits in to keep hydrated.

Obtaining your own should not be difficult. SCOBYs multiply all by themselves because they are secretly little alien hermaphrodites, so those who have a SCOBY mother always have unwanted babies. People often give theirs away on Craigslist—though to be honest, that sort of scares me. Where has it been? What have they been brewing with it? What if they put it in their bathtub?!?! If you, too, have these irrational fears, ask your hippie-est friend (preferably the one who homebrews everything with an aura) and see if they have one. Or stop by a farmers’ market and ask those hippies. I guarantee someone will have one!

Whatever you do, do not pay money for a SCOBY. There are websites that try to trick you into doing this, and they charge upwards of $100! Scam alert! In my opinion, SCOBYs should always be free, and I think most people who brew share this opinion.

Now that you have your SCOBY, pick a tea you really like to drink. Caveat: It must be a black, green, oolong, red, or white tea. More simply: It must not be an herbal tea. If you use an herbal tea, your SCOBY will hate you and make you pay, but more on that later.

Onto the fun part—brewing! First things first…

1. Grab your kitchen’s biggest pot and bring four quarts of water to a rolling boil.

2. Add one cup of white sugar and let it boil for five minutes.

3. Turn off your stovetop and add your tea—7 tea bags or 4 teaspoons of loose leaf tea. Let it steep for 15 minutes.

4. Pull out your tea bags and let the tea cool down COMPLETELY to room temperature. This will take at least an hour, so go catch up on a couple episodes of Game of Thrones and then come back.

5. Once you’re extra super sure your tea is at room temperature, transfer it to your glass jar and dump in your SCOBY with its starter tea.

6. Seriously, don’t do step 5 until the tea is cool! SCOBYs are very sensitive about their temperatures and if they get too hot they will roll over and die.

7. After you’ve successfully not sent your SCOBY to a fiery grave, secure your dish towel to the top of your jar with your rubber band, then shove the jar in a cabinet and forget about it for one week (though if your house is really warm, you should check on it after four days).

8. Pull your tea out of its hiding place and taste it using a plastic or wooden spoon. Not enough tangy bite? Put it back in the cabinet for a couple more days!

9. Does the taste burn so good? Grab two Ziplock bags and pour one cup of this new kombucha (which is now acting as starter tea) into each. With clean hands, take what should be your now very swollen SCOBY and gently pull it apart – just like that, you have two SCOBYs! Put one in each bag, making sure they are completely covered by tea. You can throw them in your fridge, or start another batch!

10. Drink your kombucha; revel in delight.

(Sort of) easy, right? Of course, I encountered some trials and tribulations while figuring this process out. Firstly, I bought way too much ginger peach loose leaf black tea. By the end of my umpteeth batch, I was so sick of it I wanted to puke. I was determined to make a new flavor without abandoning (then inevitably forgetting about and thus wasting) the black tea, so I creatively mixed it with some Earl Grey herbal strawberry something or other. This is when my relationship with my SCOBY turned sour—literally. I found out later that herbal teas do not provide SCOBYs with the nutrients they need to survive, and that when SCOBYs are dying, they become toxic. But I didn’t know this and still stubbornly drank half of the batch before giving up because it tasted so bad. In short, I unwittingly drank half a gallon of poison! Which brings me to…

How to make yourself kind of sick and also kill your SCOBY: Furious my kombucha did not taste like GT Kombucha and even more furious I had to buy Pepto Bismol and Preparation H for chafing (yes, it makes you that kind of sick, ya’ll), I threw my SCOBY in the fridge to wallow in noxious juices. My boyfriend found it stuffed behind the Brita filter months later, grown to the size of a small pizza and covered in mold. I tossed it disgustedly into our green waste bin, where it was carted away to the San Francisco Recology Center. I’m not sure what my SCOBY is doing now, but I imagine it is still multiplying into more alien hermaphrodite babies that will certainly come after me to brew my blood when they’ve built a strong enough army.

No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to recreate the same buzz from my homebrew (even when I was slowly poisoning myself). When GT re-released the Classic Raw Kombucha, rebranding it as a 21 and over drink, I starting paying for my buzz again. Did I save any money during my homebrew stint? Hard to say with all the Pepto, Prep H, and time logged in the bathroom.

Photo: flickr/brockamer

Rebecca Pederson is an editor at Yelp. Her Aunt Leslie loves her blog.

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18 Comments / Post A Comment

Is the gauzy white stuff in that picture cloth or bacterial flocculence?

@wallsdonotfall That would be the SCOBY. So cute!

melis (#42)

And here I thought nothing could horrify me more than that story about gilded, roasted fetus smuggling. Hell of a lineup for a Friday, Billfold.

I homebrew kombucha and I think it is sooo much better than the storebought stuff. You need to let yours ferment longer. Mine sits for like, 3-4 weeks. Then after it’s bottled it needs to sit at room temperature (airtight) for another day or two to get more fizzy. BUT NOT TOO LONG or it will explode your glass container all over your house, or so I have heard! And then you put it in the fridge to stop the fermentation process and you have delicious kombucha to drink.

I also use organic sugar, no idea if that helps anything, but it sounds nice.

@down the rabbit hole Yeah, that secondary fermentation is crucial! I use Grolsch-style flip-top bottles that vent the extra pressure.

e (#734)

Guys! Be careful! Home kombucha is at risk for infiltration by various bacteriaand fungus including strains of penicillin, candida yeast and botulism.

Be really careful to always work with sterile tools and containers, read up on the risk factors, don’t use honey as a sweetener because it often has spores that can turn into botulism, keep your mushroom thing from exposure to air, and absolutely do not give to kids or anyone with weakened immune systems. You are taking a risk when you make kombucha, and I think it’s an acceptable risk to take for yourself, but I would never let someone else drink it without warning them that it’s a raw bacteria culture that doesn’t get any kind of inspection or test. It’s not like wild sourdough, or homemade cheese because sourdough gets cooked in the oven, and that kills the cultures, and cheese cultures come with specific strains and are inspected by the FDA. Kombucha isn’t as regulated. So just be careful.

Just a heads up: kombucha brewed with real tea (camellia sinensis) will NOT grow Botulinum clostridium (the deadly kind)! Clostridia bacteria require a relatively long time under anaerobic conditions at a higher pH to produce its toxin.

That’s why the tea is so important – it lowers the pH to make the liquid unfriendly to that and a whole bunch of other non-lethal but stomach unfriendly stuff. The idea is that the yeasts and acid-bacteria in the “SCOBY” get a head start on digesting the sugars and producing their acids and other antibiotic metabolites to push anything else out of the way.

All Botulinum species are not completely evil though, since a lot of rum and tequila fermentations use some to produce butyric acid to flavor the final product, like Bacardi. I think it tastes like puke myself.

@e Yeah, and don’t use a ceramic crock unless you know for sure it has a food-safe, lead-free glaze. The acidic tea can leach minerals and metals from the glaze, and nobody wants that.

Siets@twitter (#932)

Kombucha is definitely not ‘super good for you’ and you shouldn’t drink it every day (seriously, who writes this crap?) I like how you started off with ‘I am not a scientist’, which kinda-sorta absolves you from the fact that every responsible study ever done on kombucha indicates that the best possible outcome from drinking it is that nothing happens (worst case ranges from lactic acidosis to botulism). Also, kombucha could severely harm or even kill people with weakened immune systems, like people undergoing chemotherapy. Seriously, there is no reason to drink this crap ever and shame on you for promoting it so uncritically.

@Siets@twitter Meh, I drank during my chemo treatments (though I don’t credit it for kicking my cancer) and I’m not dead. So, yeah.

Siets@twitter (#932)

Oh and just to make it clear I’m not talking out of my ass, here’s a review that says that kombucha has no benefit: http://content.karger.com/produktedb/produkte.asp?typ=fulltext&file=FKM2003010002085

From the abstract: “Results: No clinical studies were found relating to the efficacy of this remedy. Several case reports and case series raise doubts about the safety of kombucha. They include suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections. One fatality is on record.”

@Siets@twitter Oh, but you are. You understand neither science nor statistics.

Siets@twitter (#932)

@Bus Driver Stu Benedict Please enlighten me.

@Siets@twitter You know what else is fatal in large doses, especially when brewed in unsafe home environments? Wine. Don’t get all chicken little on the tea. Just buy it from a commercial brewer that has to account for its sanitation practices.

I prefer pickles.

Not to mention the anthrax was because people in IRAN were rubbing kombucha ON THEIR SKIN and it was grown in unhygienic circumstances. I could go on.
Oh, and the fatality?
“During April 1995, cases of unexplained severe illness (including one death) occurred in two persons in a rural town in northwestern Iowa who had been drinking Kombucha tea daily for approximately 2 months.”
Again, what is essentially kombucha moonshine. So you see, you were talking out of your ass. Anything that is fermented improperly can harbor bacteria that can potentially be harmful to humans. ANYTHING. Key word: improperly. This is in no way related just to kombucha, so I’m not sure why you’ve gone all “don’t drink this crap” on it.

lemons! (#384)

I keep reading the comments and getting all sad that people think they can’t make some food. This is like cooking a turkey. Follow directions and you too can enjoy something delicious that you prepared yourself. Do it wrong and you might have a bad dinner or a trip to the ER. I’d rather have home-brewed kombucha from a good cook then store bought. I have friends who make beer, cider, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles. You can’t buy that level of deliciousness on a budget.

Siets@twitter (#932)

I think you’re all missing my point. If you want to drink kombucha as a food that you enjoy, go ahead, but use safe practices, don’t get hurt, don’t drink it if you have a weak immune system, etc. etc. etc. My point is that kombucha is not a medicine, it is not ‘super good for you’, it is not a replacement for chemo or AZT or what-have-you. There’s no reason to brew it yourself and risk injuring yourself or to pay a billion dollars a bottle unless you personally enjoy the taste. There is no health benefit to it.

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