Kombucha is a delicious, interesting, non-alcoholic, and fun fermented beverage. Here at F.H. Steinbart Company (FHS) we love all kinds of fermented things, so it’s no surprise we’re kombucha enthusiasts. We love the tangy-sweet beverage. We enjoy many commercial examples, but we love making our own too. (And we appreciate the cost savings of making our own too, if we’re being honest.)
Over the years, we’ve sold a lot of kombucha supplies, asked a lot of kombucha questions, and fielded even more kombucha questions than we’ve asked. We decided it’s time to put all our knowledge in one place. That lead us to decide to go out and seek yet more knowledge. And since we know we still don’t know everything, we concluded an online guide was the place for it all.((Some customers may point out that handouts have been more our style, but we concluded an online guide is both easier to share and update.))
This guide will teach you how to make kombucha, of course. But it’s also going to touch on the history and science of kombucha, discuss different methodologies for making kombucha, and dive into other ingredients and equipment. We wracked our brains, combed the internet, and talked to a kombucha researcher for this piece. We believe it will be beneficial to you.
In the end you’ll know how to make the kombucha of your dreams with the help of some science and some creativity. Furthermore, you’ll be saving money doing it and you’ll have a storehouse of knowledge for trivia night. What’s not to love?
What exactly IS kombucha?
Kombucha is a slightly sweet, slightly sour, and slightly-to-very carbonated beverage made via an almost simultaneously occurring double fermentation process.
To get kombucha, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) ferments sweetened tea (Camellia sinensis). The yeast ferments the sugar in the solution to alcohol, and the bacteria ferment the alcohol into vinegar. These two fermentations give kombucha its signature sweet-tang flavor.
This dual fermentation is also what makes kombucha a non-alcoholic beverage, generally speaking. There are some hard kombuchas, but most kombucha has an alcohol content of 0.5% or less. Almost as soon as the yeast in the SCOBY has fermented any of the sugar in the tea into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide (CO2), the bacteria ferment the alcohol into various acids! (This also means kombucha gets more acidic and tart the longer it is allowed to ferment.)
What’s the history of kombucha?
Experts are fairly sure kombucha’s first home was specifically in the area now encompassed by parts of Northeast China, Southeast Russia, and Eastern Mongolia. Though this is where kombucha originated, tea originally evolved in an area far from there – Southeast Asia. Clearly, tea had to move fairly distantly before kombucha was possible!
What’s much more difficult to trace is how old kombucha is and how, exactly, it came about. It’s the sort of drink that seems likely to be thousands of years old, and many people make such claims. Fermentation is certainly that old, so we figure those claims are probably correct. Yet, one of the first recorded discussions of kombucha is only from the 1930s. And it’s from Germany!
We at FHS would dearly love to know how tea traveled from Southeast Asia to Southeast Russia and became kombucha, and then how booch came west from there (and when it did), but none of our research has definitive answers. But while the history is a bit of a mystery to us, we do have a solid handle on some science of kombucha.
Biochemistry of Booch
Ok, so we know that: SCOBY + Sweet Tea + Time = Kombucha. And we even know that the “how” is through a dual fermentation process, but have you ever wondered a bit more of how that works? If so, this section on the Biochemistry of Booch is for you!
Why is tea vital to kombucha fermentation?
Tea is so intertwined with kombucha that many places (even us at one point!) claim the SCOBY cannot survive in and ferment any beverage that isn’t sweetened tea. In researching this guide, we have learned otherwise.((And, in retrospect, we should have realized this wasn’t totally correct. One of our commercial customers, Soma Kombucha and Jun, makes a coffee-based booch!)) What our research has indicated is that tea is probably required for indefinite maintenance of a SCOBY. So, while you can make kombucha out of coffee, juice, or what have you, you will either need to keep a SCOBY hotel or also make a tea-based kombucha too. Which, to be honest, just sounds tasty.
Now, clearly the kombucha SCOBY does need something all these bases supply to work at all, as no fermentation occurs when you place a kombucha SCOBY in sugar water. This is not true of all things that technically are “SCOBYs”; water kefir grains are just fine in sugar water and make an entirely different delicious beverage. What necessary nutrients, specifically, each of these bases is providing is beyond us. However, we must admit we are already planning some interesting non-tea based kombuchas.
Tea is by far the most common base for kombucha, though, and perhaps this indicates other beverages should not be called “kombucha.” Perhaps they need a different name. There’s precedent, as green tea sweetened with honey is called “Jun” rather than kombucha. We would love to know your suggestions for naming things like juice-based booch!
Why is sugar vital to kombucha fermentation?
The simplest answer is that it is food!
As we previously mentioned, “SCOBY” is an acronym meaning “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” indicating that there’s at least two & typically more((A kombucha researcher we spoke with tells us that the number of species may get into the double digits!)) microorganisms living and working within any given SCOBY. Without both yeast and bacteria, kombucha wouldn’t be possible.
The sugar isn’t food for both the yeast and the bacteria, though. It’s only for the yeast.
Yeast is a “facultative anaerobe,” which means it can survive and reproduce with or without access to oxygen. This flexibility is rooted in the two different ways yeast can use sugar to fuel their survival: “respiration” which is more efficient at generating energy for the yeast, but requires oxygen, and “fermentation” which is less efficient, but does not require oxygen.
For kombucha, the goal is getting the yeast to engage in fermentation. However, because respiration is more efficient, the yeast will use oxygen if it’s available. This doesn’t present an issue when making kombucha, though, for two reasons. First, as the SCOBY grows and floats on the top of the liquid, it will reduce how much oxygen from the air can dissolve in the tea. Second, what oxygen is in the tea, initially, will quickly be consumed by the yeast as they reproduce, and then they will switch to fermentation instead.
Fermentation gives us alcohol and CO2, and it is the alcohol that is vital for kombucha. Since we need alcohol for kombucha, we need sugar. (The CO2 is vital for fizzy kombucha, but we’ll address that later.)
Wait, if we don’t want the yeast to have oxygen, why are we leaving the fermentation vessel open to the air?
Good question! It’s for the bacteria in the SCOBY. They do need oxygen (the technical term for them is “obligate aerobes”).
The bacteria in the SCOBY get their energy from combining oxygen from the air with the alcohol the yeast make. In so doing, they produce the various acids responsible for the vinegary-tang that is one of the hallmarks of kombucha.
The bacteria in the SCOBY are also the creators of the cellulose “mat” that floats on top of the kombucha. Some speculate that this is to keep the bacterial colony afloat, others that selective pressure from humans caused it. After all, it’s easiest to tell if the kombucha is fermenting if one sees the SCOBY growing!
So how much alcohol is in kombucha?
Legally, kombucha cannot be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage if it contains over 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). Homemade kombucha can get higher than that, but rarely contains much more, unless a brewer is intentionally aiming to make hard kombucha. As for unintentionally having more alcohol in the beverage, there’s two ways that can happen.
As long as there’s sugar in the solution for the yeast to ferment, the yeast will generate alcohol. Unintentional alcohol buildup can come about by having a lot of sugar left in the tea and cutting off the oxygen supply for the bacteria, preventing the second of the two fermentations required for kombucha. It can also happen if something kills off the bacteria in the SCOBY before all the yeast has converted the sugar to alcohol. The yeast will continue its fermentation of sugar to alcohol, but again the second fermentation of alcohol to acid will not occur. In the primary fermentor, both scenarios are rare.
More often, if left unattended, both the yeast and bacteria in the SCOBY keep chugging along until all the sugar and alcohol are both gone. This means that a kombucha that’s left to ferment for a long time typically becomes unpalatable and sour. This is usually called “kombucha vinegar” and can be used in a variety of applications instead of other vinegars. It is lower in acidity than store-bought vinegars, which allows it to be gentler in salad dressings but completely inappropriate for applications like pickling or canning, as it will not be acidic enough to prevent Clostridium botulinum from reproducing and potentially causing botulism.
Let’s go back to the fizz. That’s from the yeast?
Yup. Alcohol and CO2 are byproducts of the yeast using the sugar to generate energy for themselves. When the kombucha is fermenting initially, the CO2 is largely lost by the same mechanism oxygen gets in – through the lightly covered top. People who drink their kombucha straight from the fermentor will typically notice a very slight effervescence to the drink. This is some of the CO2 before it’s escaped the container. To get a more fizzy kombucha, typically people employ a technique called “bottle conditioning” which is a form of secondary fermentation.
In bottle conditioning, the kombucha is decanted into bottles that have an airtight seal. A small amount of fruit or sugar is typically added to each bottle, and then the bottles are sealed and left at room temperature for between two days and a week. The yeast in the kombucha is still active and converts the small amount of sugar available into alcohol and, more critically here, CO2. Because the bottle is airtight the CO2 cannot escape and most of it ends up dissolving in the kombucha.
Once the kombucha is as fizzy as desired, it’s vitally important to refrigerate the bottles to slow fermentation down dramatically. Even in the fridge, though, the yeast will slowly continue to ferment any available sugar. Thus, to prevent kombucha from becoming overly sour, alcoholic, or carbonated, it’s vital to consume kombucha in a reasonable time period. Luckily, it’s tasty enough that this is rarely a challenge for most people.
Why Would I Want to Make Kombucha?
There are lots of reasons to make your own kombucha! You get to control exactly what goes into your kombucha, for example. Or you can make flavors you’ve never seen out in the market. It’s fun, which helps. And not only is it cheaper, but you can also make sure you never run out!
Make exactly the kombucha you want.
When you’re buying kombucha, you are limited by someone else’s choices for the final product. We’ll be the first to say that typically those choices are delicious, but they aren’t always what we want to do. Or they are exactly what we want but are only a seasonal offering from the maker. Making kombucha for ourselves allows us to get around these sorts of limitations.
One of the simplest differences is tailoring the sweet-sour balance to exactly your preferences. Commercial makers have to make what sells, and while that means it’s always going to be delicious it doesn’t mean it’s perfect for your tastes. Heck, while making your own you get the joy of learning exactly what balance suits you.
Another thing you get to control when you make your own is the carbonation level of your beverage. Almost all commercially made kombuchas are relatively fizzy, and this is off-putting to some people. For those who prefer a still or almost still booch, making it themselves is the perfect way to achieve that.
When you are the maker, secondary kombucha fermentation is also under your control. This means you can make exactly the flavors you want. Chili mango kombucha? Pumpkin spice kombucha? You can use flavoring agents, fruit (fresh, frozen, and more), herbs and spices, and more. If you can imagine a flavor, you can probably achieve it.
Finally, some people enjoy fermented food and beverages in part because they enjoy tasting how flavors change as each fermentation continues. For those people, making their own kombucha (especially via the continuous brew method explained below) is a perfect way to experience this with kombucha.
Experiment with your kombucha.
It won’t take many batches of kombucha for you to have a large SCOBY formed, and you’ll need to reduce the size for the best results. (And, frankly, to make sure it never outgrows your fermentor.) This allows you to do two things: make SCOBY hotel (see below), so you always have a healthy SCOBY, and start experimenting in small and large ways.
Most commercial kombucha is made with a base of black tea and sugar (often cane sugar), and flavorings added after the initial fermentation. Once you have a healthy SCOBY going, and a SCOBY hotel set aside, there’s all kinds of possible changes you can make. One of the simplest (and most likely to succeed) changes is changing up the tea. Want something a little more interesting than black tea and sugar? Why not do half black tea and half green tea? A more delicately flavored kombucha can result from white tea. Almost any unflavored C. sinensis variety will work fairly well. And, as mentioned above, you can play with all kinds of flavors in secondary fermentation.
Beyond simply changing up the flavors you can create in secondary, though, there’s a variety of other things you can do. Once you have a healthy SCOBY hotel, experiments that may or may not kill off your SCOBY are more possible. Earl Grey tea, for example, is possibly the most popular tea in America for the flavor the bergamot oil adds to the blend. But bergamot oil, the defining characteristic of Earl Grey tea, can be tough on a SCOBY as it has several antimicrobial characteristics. But once you have enough SCOBY grown and stored, there’s no reason not to take a shot at it. Maybe you’ll end up with something extra delicious. And if it doesn’t take, you are still able to make kombucha with your backup SCOBY.
Flavored tea (C. sinensis) isn’t the only possible experiment, though. Once experimentation is possible, why not a chamomile booch? Or even try fermenting your favorite juice into kombucha, rather than just adding it to the bottle in secondary?
Changing out the sugar source is also a possibility. Many people appreciate the taste of honey, but honey isn’t an easy fermentable for your first SCOBY. However, once you have a healthy and growing SCOBY, attempting to make the change is straightforward. And that’s true of any new sugar source you’d like to try! (Maple or agave syrup, anyone?) We’ll explain the best practices of how to introduce new sugars in “Ingredients” below.
Some things will work, and some things will not. And that’s the fun inherent in making your own kombucha!
Control your costs.
We will be the first to admit that making something for ourselves doesn’t mean we stop buying commercial examples. There’s simply too much out there that’s new, interesting, and tasty! It does, however, allow us to drink more kombucha than we otherwise would. In our neck of the woods, kombucha can cost between $3.00 and $5.00 per bottle or can. Assuming a 12 oz package, that’s $0.25 to $0.42 per ounce. Making kombucha is approximately $0.03 per ounce, using our tea and sugar.((Of course, you may choose to buy other tea or sugar – this just makes the math clear and verifiable.))
That kind of savings speaks to us.
It’s fun and it’s all yours.
There’s a lot of reasons a person might want to make their own kombucha, but we think the best ones come down to fun and control.
When you’re making the kombucha, you have the opportunity to see the SCOBY grow and change. You get the chance to do all the experimentation you’d like to, and you get to save a lot of money (some of which, admittedly, may go into that experimentation part). As far as we’re concerned, every last part of this is a blast.
The control of making your own kombucha also is something we appreciate. We like knowing exactly what is going into our booch and getting to use less common bases. Having the ability to make exactly the flavors we want is pretty great too. But most of all, we like knowing that we control the production schedule. When you make your own kombucha, you can avoid ever running out.
Okay, I’m Ready! How do I Make Kombucha?
Kombucha is one of those things that’s incredibly simple to make, and typically rather easy. The instructions might literally be able to fit in a nutshell((Walnut, to be precise.)), if distilled down to their essence: Make a gallon of sweetened black tea, pour the tea into a glass container, gently add the SCOBY, cover lightly with cheesecloth, and allow to ferment 5-8 days (to taste). Bottle with fruits or flavorings if you’d like, especially if you’d prefer fizzy kombucha.
However, as with anything, the “nutshell version” elides a number of details that can make the process easier and/or warn a person of potential pitfalls. We want you to be able to make the best kombucha you can on your first try, so we are going to give you plenty of information.
In this section, we will go over:
- Making a SCOBY hotel
By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll have a good hold on exactly what you need to acquire and/or do to make a great batch of kombucha on your first try.
We are going to assume you are making approximately one to one and a half gallons of kombucha at a time. If you’d like to scale up, this guide will still work, but some pieces of equipment might need to be bigger. (Ask us about a nice setup for brewing three to four gallons at a time, if you’re interested in that!)
The Basic Requirements
For starters, you need a pot to boil water in and a heat-proof spoon to stir the sugar and tea into the boiling water. You can boil the full gallon of water, or you can boil as little as a quart. The important part is to make sure you have a pot that’s double or more the volume of water you’re heating. We assume most people already have these tools for this size batch but if not, we are happy to help with that too.
Once your sweet tea is ready, you need a fermentor to put it into with the SCOBY. We strongly recommend glass for this, as any vessel you are fermenting kombucha in must be non-reactive with relatively high acid exposure over time. We sell a few possible fermentors, for example, and all are clear glass. There are people on Etsy and similar sites that sell kombucha fermentors; if you go this route, please make sure you are fully confident that every part of the vessel is acid safe. If you find a beverage dispenser in a thrift store or at a garage sale that you just love, please do not use it as your fermentor. There’s no way to verify what paints and glazes and so on are in that vessel, and thus no way to know if it will react with the acid in your kombucha.
This set of unknowns is why we so strongly recommend glass for your fermentor. There are a variety of different choices out there. There’s a variety of benefits and drawbacks to every possible choice. To help demonstrate the things to remember, we have below two of our products to list pros and cons.
With the jar to the left, batches as large as 1.5 gallons are possible. The spigot means bottling is easier, and continuous batch brewing is a breeze. While it is substantially more expensive than the bottle below, the overall ease of use often reduces the chances of giving up home kombucha making. Neither the glass nor the spigot will react with kombucha’s acidity.
The jar on the right is incredibly inexpensive and versatile, allowing many uses beyond kombucha making if you decide to move to a bigger vessel or find you don’t enjoy the hobby. However, it only allows you to make about three quarts of kombucha at a time. The lack of spigot increases the difficulty of bottling, and almost completely prevents continuous batch brewing. Like the previous product, it is glass and will not react with your kombucha.
Once you’ve figured out your fermentor, you’ll need something to cover it. The cover needs to allow air flow around the beverage but prevent fruit flies and other bugs getting at your kombucha. The most common choices we’ve seen and heard about are: cheesecloth, coffee filters, and old t-shirts cut to fit the fermentor.
Cheesecloth is an excellent covering for your kombucha fermentor because it allows plenty of air flow, is easily cut to fit any container, isn’t damaged by liquid, is food safe and non-reactive with acid. (Cheese making is acidic, so it’s designed for that.) It can also be washed and reused a number of times if needed.
A coffee filter is inexpensive (if you already have them), allows air flow, is food safe, and is more finely woven than cloth. The downsides are that it is easily torn and damaged by liquid. Depending on the filters you own, they may not fit the fermentor you’ve chosen. And a coffee filter is a one-time use item.
A old t-shirt cut to fit is also inexpensive, reusable, and will allow air flow. However, clothing may not be food-safe or acid-resistant (especially if it is dyed or has any decoration). Because it is old and worn, it may also be more prone to tearing than cheesecloth (though less than coffee filters).
The extras we include in our kit.
As we mentioned above, kombucha making is pretty simple and does not require a lot of equipment. You don’t really need more than what we’ve already covered to make good kombucha. However, there’s several other things that can be quite helpful.
One of the most important things for any fermentation is making sure the temperature is consistent, and appropriate. The best temperature for kombucha fermentation is on the warm side of “room temperature,” 68F-70F (20C-21C). A stick-on thermometer to monitor fermentation temperatures right at your fermentor is a cheap and easy way to make sure your SCOBY is nice and comfortable.
Because kombucha takes a lot more tea in one go than a cup, a pot, or even iced tea you’re either using gobs of teabags or tons of loose-leaf tea. As loose-leaf tea is often higher quality and cheaper per ounce than bagged tea, many kombucha makers find themselves moving away from teabags. But that sacrifices ease of clean-up. Many people get around that by using a tea steeping ball, but often these do not allow the tea to unfurl fully costing you some of the quality gains of switching to loose leaf tea. This 4” x 7” nylon bag is a reusable way to steep loose tea, allow it to unfurl fully, and is almost as easy to clean as bagged tea.
One of the nicest things about kombucha is how easy it is to make. Because it is left open to the air, sanitation concerns are less than they are when making a ferment like wine. However, “less” concern isn’t none. There are ways to sanitize your fermentor(s) at home, such as with dilute bleach. However, many of these require rinsing off your fermentor after, and many people find them off-putting. Star San is a food-grade, no rinse sanitizer, making it an easy solution for this as well.
Further useful equipment
If you really want to go wild with kombucha, there’s a few other things that could really take your brewing to the next level.
The pH of your kombucha is important not just for that delicious flavor kombucha has, but also because that’s part of what makes the environment hospitable to the microorganisms in the SCOBY and inhospitable to potential illness-inducing ones, such as molds. A great way to confirm your initial brews are acidic enough are pH strips. Furthermore, if you’re a bit of a numbers nerd, you can take readings regularly and possibly discover exactly the pH that makes your tastebuds sing.
Then there’s the easiest way to experiment with fermentation in smaller batches: the kombucha lid for wide-mouth canning jars. This is a great way to experiment with fermenting non-tea kombuchas, or to fine-tune a brewing technique. These lids are all safe for kombucha, are easily washed, and endlessly reusable. It’s also a great way to experiment with more expensive ingredients without breaking the bank. These lids plus the excess SCOBY generated by making kombucha in the first place can allow you to develop your own kombucha pilot brewing program.
First things first: We aren’t going to tell you that only the highest-quality ingredients will make kombucha. There’s a lot of information on other sites that imply or flat-out say your brew will fail if you don’t use whatever they believe to be the best ingredients. This is incorrect. We have opinions on what’s best, which we will share in detail below, but if you’ve been avoiding making your own kombucha because ingredients can be pricey, we encourage you to consider it anyway. Your SCOBY will absolutely survive and make a tasty beverage even with the least expensive teabags and sugar you can lay your hands on.
The quality of ingredients isn’t about SCOBY survival, but about what your preferences and price tolerances are. And again, if you like kombucha then making your own is by far the most cost-effective way to acquire it, even if you splurge on ingredients. The ingredients in our kit, for example, are all organic and carefully selected yet making kombucha with our recipe and these ingredients still renders the per ounce price of homemade booch more than five times cheaper than the cheapest commercial product (in our area).
For your very first batch of kombucha, you probably would do best to use the same or rather similar tea to what the SCOBY was grown in. If you’ve bought a kit, the kit may include tea for the first batch or two. (Ours certainly does.) However, this is in no way required for a healthy batch. Mostly, it’s about making the SCOBY “comfortable” as you start getting it growing and healthy.
Beyond that, just about any tea that makes you happy will also make your SCOBY happy. Bonus: that tea you got at a gift exchange? That one you hate and is shoved to the back of a cabinet while you drink other teas? It likely will also make your SCOBY happy. Importantly, one of the magical things about fermentation is how dramatically it changes the flavor of the base ingredient(s), and kombucha is no exception. There’s a good chance the tea you hate as hot or iced tea will make some stellar kombucha.
It is important is to be careful with using flavored teas, though. Many of the flavoring agents that make some of the best teas unique are also antimicrobial in nature and may hinder fermentation. Earl Grey is the most common example of this kind of tea; the bergamot makes it tasty but is hard on the SCOBY. Thus we recommend that you keep a SCOBY hotel or regularly brew kombucha with unflavored tea as well.
The single most important thing to remember about your sugar source is that it IS food for the yeast in your SCOBY. “Zero calorie” sweeteners may appeal to you, but they will starve your SCOBY. (This includes “sugar alcohols” such as xylitol and sorbitol – humans can gain some calories from them, but yeast cannot.) If you’re worried about sugar content, remember that the amount you put into your tea is not the amount you will get out. Depending on how sour you like your kombucha, some to most of it will have been twice fermented into the delightful acidic kick that defines the drink.
Beyond that, sugar sources are largely up to you. The main thing to consider is how difficult each source might be for a yeast to ferment.
What we typically think of as “sugar” is a molecule called sucrose, which is two other forms of sugar, bonded together. The yeast in the SCOBY starts by breaking the sucrose down into these two sugars, glucose and fructose. Yeast can and will ferment either into alcohol, but they use glucose preferentially over fructose. This means glucose will be more quickly consumed by the yeast than fructose. If for some reason you want an incredibly fast fermentation, your best bet would be to use dextrose (another name for glucose).
The most common alternative form of sugar people ask us about using in making kombucha is honey, and it can be very tasty indeed! However, honey is more fructose than glucose or sucrose, and is thus one of the more difficult things for yeast to ferment. The best way to go about using honey is to either acquire a SCOBY that is already regularly fermenting honey, or to “train” a SCOBY that’s regularly fermenting sucrose into fermenting honey. This is done fairly simply by slowly, over several batches, replacing some of the sucrose with honey in ever increasing amounts until the sucrose is fully replaced with honey. This is a good way to introduce any new sugar source.
This is another area where having a SCOBY hotel is helpful. If a sugar source doesn’t work and the SCOBY you are experimenting with dies, it’ll come in handy.
If your tap water is tasty, most likely it will be a fine base for your kombucha. One kombucha researcher told us that their research and home experience indicate that SCOBYs are pretty resilient and can handle a lot of what the world throws at them. Hard and soft water definitely included.
Some people are concerned about chlorine and/or chloramines added to their water by their municipality to help control water-born microbial diseases. The levels added to the water should not have an impact on the health of your SCOBY. If they do, or if they cause an unpleasant taste in your kombucha, there are a few ways to remove them from your water. If your municipality uses chlorine, the easiest way to remove it (at least in kombucha making) is to boil all your water for 10 – 15 minutes. Since you’re already going to boil water to steep the tea adding some time is a piece of cake. Chloramine, on the other hand, is more stable and requires a bit more effort to remove. We recommend the use of potassium metabisulfite. Add a tiny amount to your water, allow it to sit and evaporate for 24 hours, then continue with kombucha making.
The last thing we want to mention about water is that the solid form can be extremely convenient in kombucha making. Boiling or near boiling water is required for kombucha making, both to steep the tea and because sugar dissolves so much more easily in it. But water that hot most likely will kill the SCOBY. Typically, people simply allow the sweetened tea to come to room temperature before adding their SCOBY and starter kombucha. This can take a while and potentially allow contaminating microbes to colonize your proto-booch. One solution is to not boil all the water. One thing some of us like to do is only boil half the water for the steeping of tea and dissolving of sugar. After the tea is fully steeped, we remove it and then add the other half of the water in the form of ice. This rapidly cools the tea, making it hospitable for your SCOBY. A pound of ice is a pint of water, so it’s fairly easy to figure out how many pounds of ice to use to bring the kombucha to full volume.((A pound of ice/water is an American pint, to be clear. But since we’re working in gallons, we hope that’s obvious.)) We recommend buying ice for this, mostly because it’s not easy to make several pounds of ice at home for most people. Purchased ice will be made from filtered water, so you also won’t have to worry about chlorine/chloramines or anything else.
There’s three ways to acquire a SCOBY. You can attempt to cultivate one from a commercial kombucha you like, you can get one from someone you know, or you can buy one.
Generally speaking, we recommend against attempting to cultivate your own from a commercial kombucha. It’s not that it isn’t possible, but it may take long enough that your sweet tea will become contaminated by other microorganisms. Many commercial kombucha makers have to have some way to keep the yeast in their kombucha from continuing to ferment any residual sugar, as to allow it to continue fermenting might result in more than 0.5% alcohol (remember the hubub around Lindsay Lohan?) or explode the packaging. We do not know precisely how commercial makers do this, though we do appreciate the lack of explosions that results. However, we suspect whatever treatment(s) any given commercial maker uses may result in small amounts of yeast or stressed yeast that doesn’t ferment well and/or expresses off-flavors. If you wish to try it, however, add the entire bottle or can of kombucha to your sweetened tea in lieu of a SCOBY. This gives you the most microbial density you can get, and also acidifies the tea the most.
The most traditional way to acquire a SCOBY is probably also the most fun: get it from someone you know who makes kombucha! Since kombucha making is, in effect, SCOBY farming, most people who make it are happy to find a good home for one of their SCOBY “babies.” There are two important things to remember in acquiring a SCOBY from someone you know. First, don’t just get a chunk of the “blob.” You will need about a cup to a cup and a half of their finished kombucha as well, to acidify your sweet tea. Secondly, the microbial composition of the SCOBY influences the exact flavors you’ll get in your kombucha, so make sure you get your SCOBY from a person whose kombucha you enjoy!
Finally, there’s the increasingly common method of buying a SCOBY. This is best for a number of people, at least for now, as many folks who enjoy kombucha don’t currently know anyone who makes it at home! Plenty of online shops (including ours) sell SCOBYs, and prices vary fairly wildly. It’s not unheard of to see prices as high as $30 for a SCOBY, and that doesn’t include any shipping that might be required. We recommend buying a SCOBY from a reputable seller and making sure it includes a goodly amount of starter tea (aka finished kombucha). We, of course, suggest purchasing from us in particular, and point out that our prices are quite reasonable.
Typically kombucha makers talk about two different types of kombucha fermentation: “traditional” and “continuous brewing.” The process is fairly similar for both; the difference is in any steps you do or do not take before you consider your kombucha “finished.” We’ll explain each in turn, though the step-by-step directions we will leave for the recipes below.
Continuous Brew Method
This method is ideal for anyone who doesn’t like or want a truly fizzy kombucha, and enjoys tasting the process of kombucha fermentation, from sweeter to tarter. This is also good for anyone who wants kombucha without having to use bottles. However, it does not lend itself to any flavorings other than what one might put in their glass.
Simply put, the continuous brew method is rooted in drinking kombucha straight from the fermentor, whenever desired. In the beginning, it will be sweeter and at the end, more acidic. This slowly depletes the level of kombucha in the fermentor. When there’s just about a cup or two left, one adds more sweetened tea. The fermentation never ends, and is thus “continuous.”
A fermentor with a spigot makes this method so much easier as to almost be required, as one can just open the spigot and let kombucha flow into their glass.
Most people prefer carbonated kombucha, and so go the traditional route — initial fermentation followed by bottle conditioning. This method is more work overall, but allows a person to be wildly creative with the booches they brew.
It starts five or so days after fermentation began (sooner if the fermentation is in a particularly warm place), with tasting a small amount of the fermenting kombucha. You’re tasting for sweetness and sourness, of course, but specifically for kombucha that is just a tiny touch sweeter than you prefer. Once it’s at that point, it’s time to bottle the booch! This allows the yeast in the SCOBY to continue to ferment sugar in the tea to exactly the place you want it, while building up CO2. The reason to go for slightly sweet is that the bacteria in the SCOBY will continue to convert alcohol made by the yeast into acid until the oxygen in the bottle is consumed. Too much residual sugar, however, can cause a few problems. First, the beverage might just be too-sweet for you. Secondly, it might become too alcoholic for your taste. Third, and most importantly, the pressure inside the bottle could build up to dangerous levels as the yeast consumes the sugar and generates CO2.
If you are not drinking your kombucha directly from the fermentor (as in continuous batch brewing), you’ll get to a point where you want to bottle your kombucha. At bottling, there’s a few things you’ll need to decide: if you want still or sparkling kombucha, if you want flavorings, and if you do, what flavors and what sources for those flavors. You’ll also want to decide on what types of bottles you want to use. This section addresses all of it, starting with bottles.
It’s important to use bottles that can withstand pressure, even if you do not want carbonated kombucha. This is because the sugar in kombucha is almost never fully fermented out before we want to drink it. If it were, we’d be effectively drinking vinegar with the flavor of unsweetened tea. And if there’s sugar available, the yeast in your SCOBY will keep eating, and producing CO2. If you aren’t using a pressure-tolerant bottle, there’s a much greater risk of the stopper being pushed out of the bottle. Or, much worse, the bottle exploding. We understand the temptation to use mason jars, but please don’t risk it.
Reusing commercial kombucha bottles with twist tops is appealing, easy, and environmentally friendly. You also can be fairly confident they take pressure well, because they have already held kombucha. However, many do not seal as tightly after being opened the first time. This makes them fine for anyone who wants still kombucha, but iffy for anyone who wants fizz. And losing the cap to a bottle is easier than anyone would like to admit, rendering the bottle useless.
Plastic “soda” bottles are inexpensive (even if you buy them brand new), visually show when carbonation is built up, and are the least likely to cause injury or damage in the event they do explode. They also tend to seal tightly even with repeated use. Their caps are also rather easily lost but are much easier to find a replacement for. However, they can easily be damaged (punctured, cracked, etc) and will need replacing more often than any other type of bottle mentioned. They are also more prone to internal scratching, which reduces the effectiveness of cleaning and sanitation. This scratching is fairly likely if any fruit or other additive gets stuck to the inside of the bottle and needs to be scrubbed out. Finally, some people also have concerns about the acid reacting with the plastic and leeching out unwanted compounds. We have not learned enough about the acid tolerance of such bottles to speak on if such leeching could occur.
You can also use capable beer-type glass bottles (not twist tops), though we do not recommend them for kombucha bottling at home. They are designed to hold in pressure, infinitely reusable, inexpensive (even if purchased new), and familiar to most people. They also come in a variety of sizes, from single serving to sharing size! But for kombucha making they have two major disadvantages. First, crown caps are not reusable and require a specialized piece of equipment to apply. Bottle cappers don’t have to be expensive, and they are easy to use, but it is another piece of equipment to purchase and store. The combination of needing a capper and to regularly buy new caps is off-putting to some. The bigger disadvantage to these bottles is that you cannot “burp” them.((Beer brewers do not need to “burp” their product because it is typically bottled with no residual sugar, only sugar added to carbonate the beer. Kombucha, on the other hand, is almost always bottled with both residual sugar and some form of added sugar (such as fruit). This can lead to substantially more pressure in the bottle than it is rated for, and the bottle may burst.)) This can make them more prone to exploding if the internal pressure builds too much. The somewhat increased possibility of “bottle bombs” is why we do not recommend them for home kombucha making.
Finally, there’s the most popular bottle for making kombucha at home: the swing-top bottle. There’s a lot of advantages to these, and only two disadvantages. First downside is that not all swing-top bottles are actually safe for pressurized liquids, so it’s vital you buy them from places that supply pressure-rated bottles. A homebrew supply shop (Hi!) is a great option, but your local grocery store or a big online seller of everything under the sun probably is not. The second is that they are expensive compared to the other options (at least the pressure-rated bottles are). Individual beer and soda bottles, brand new, both run no more than $1.00 each. Swing tops, brand new, are more than double that price. They’re the most popular, though, because these disadvantages are strongly outweighed by their many advantages. Swing-top bottles are easy to use and infinitely reusable. For sealing, they have a built-in lid, only one part that wears out (the rubber gasket, which is easily and cheaply replaced), and require no special equipment. Finally they are usable for both still and sparkling booch. We strongly recommend swing-top bottles for home kombucha.
Please be aware that an excess of internal pressure can cause any type of bottle to explode, even pressure-rated ones! Caution is warranted; if you aren’t sure of an individual bottle do not use it.[/vc_column_text]
[vc_column_text]Still or Sparkling
Still kombucha is extremely easy to achieve. Once your kombucha has fermented to exactly your liking, bottle it in your preferred bottle style and put it straight into your fridge. The cold of the fridge will dramatically inhibit any further fermentation, though it will not stop it entirely. Thus, you will still want to “burp” your full bottles every couple of days by opening the lid briefly to allow any built-up CO2 to escape. This is especially important if you decide to flavor your kombucha with fruit or anything else containing sugar, as the yeast will ferment any added sugar and produce CO2.
Which leads to making sparkling kombucha!
The first step will be deciding if you want flavored or unflavored sparkling kombucha. Unflavored is delicious and easy, though your first couple of batches will be working on dialing in your preferred carbonation level. Simply get your kombucha into the bottles of your choice (a funnel is extremely helpful here) and seal. Leave at room temperature for a couple of days. After two days open one bottle to determine if it’s carbonating. Depending on how warm “room temperature” is in the room and how much sugar was in your kombucha at bottling time, it may or may not be at all fizzy. If it is, leave it at room temperature for about four days, then refrigerate. If not, a small amount of added sugar will be necessary to get the yeast making CO2 again. You can add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar to each bottle, or you can use something like carbonation tablets to get things going. After you’ve added sugar in some form, leave at room temperature, and check again in a couple of days. Once it’s carbonating, leave for four or so days, then refrigerate.
You may wonder why we do not advocate adding sugar immediately. This is because we do not know how sweet or sour any one person likes their kombucha, so we do not know how much sugar will still be available to the yeast at bottling time. We advise you to play it safe at first. If your kombucha has enough sugar to carbonate itself at bottling time, added sugar would likely cause unsafe amounts of pressure in a bottle.
If you want flavorings, bottling is the time to add them (typically). Most kinds of flavorings contain varying levels of sugar, which will influence whether or not you need to add extra sugar in some way. As mentioned above, do not add extra sugar immediately. It’s better to have slightly less fizzy kombucha than it is to have sticky glass shards all over the place. (And, yes, we speak from experience.)[/vc_column_text]
We’ve put “flavoring” under “bottling” and not “ingredients” for a couple of reasons. First, and most simply, flavoring agents are not a required ingredient for kombucha, while tea, sugar, water, and SCOBY are absolutely necessary. Secondly, most flavoring agents are added at bottling, not during the initial fermentation. There’s a variety of reasons to do it this way. The flavoring might get muted or dramatically changed if fermented with the sweet tea. Or it might damage the SCOBY in some way, potentially preventing fermentation entirely. Or the added sugar might simply throw off the balance of sweet and sour the kombucha maker is seeking, making it less palatable to them.
So, what can you use to add flavor to your kombucha? The sky is the limit! This is one of the best parts of making your own kombucha. Chipotle-gingerbread kombucha((We have never made this, nor are we sure we’d want to do so. But we could if we did.)) may not be found on store shelves, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have it!
Fruit is, by far, the most common additive to kombucha. This is because it’s readily available, tasty, and adds fermentable sugars that help make the delicious fizz happen. And when we say “fruit,” we mean fruit in all possible forms, not just fresh fruit. Dried fruit, frozen fruit, fruit juice or purees… Heck, you can probably even use jams but be very careful if you try them since jams contain so much sugar.
Spices and herbs are other common additions. Ginger, for example, is an extremely common flavoring. Rosemary is also often delicious. These are done best as infusions in the bottle. Fresh and dried herbs are both usable, just remember that dried ones are much more potent than fresh.
There’s also flavoring agents, such as the natural flavorings we sell, that don’t add any sugar but can add flavors that are otherwise difficult to add for some reason. Or to allow you to get a combination of flavors without adding an excess of fruit sugar.
Finally, there’s one of our favorite additions: hops. Not only can hops bring a variety of subtle and interesting flavors to the party, the small spike of bitterness the contribute can round out the flavor and make a truly complex kombucha. However, hops are definitely somewhat antimicrobial, so this is a flavoring to avoid for sure in primary fermentation. See our recipe below if this intrigues you.[/vc_column_text]
It’s a good idea to have a backup SCOBY in case of some sort of problem with your kombucha brewing, or to be able to experiment further. Also once a friend you wants some of your SCOBY to make their own kombucha, the hotel is how to transport SCOBY.
It’s an extremely simple process. You’ll want a clean, small jar (in this case, a mason jar is fine) or other sealable, non-reactive container. Sanitize the container, then place a chunk of your SCOBY into the container. Then fill with finished kombucha, making sure the SCOBY is fully covered. We typically recommend that the SCOBY fill about half the container’s volume, but less is fine. More isn’t terrible, but it reduces the amount of liquid the container can hold. Since the liquid is vital for acidifying a new batch of kombucha, a sufficient amount is important.
If you purchase a SCOBY, reusing the jar is a great choice for your SCOBY hotel. Afterall, it has already done the job once before! If you are using a mason jar, we recommend a non-reactive lid, such as silicone ones.
Got Any Recipes?
We sure do! And we’re going to add more recipes here as we develop them. Or if someone shares something that we love, we’ll put it here too. (Please feel free to share in the comments or via email!)
F.H. Steinbart Company and Lion Heart Kombucha’s Original
It all starts with making sweet tea!
This recipe is for a gallon of kombucha, but is easily scaled up or down.
- One ounce of tea (any kind you like)
- One cup of sugar
- One gallon of water((As we mentioned above, though, you can boil less water to steep the tea and dissolve the sugar, then use ice to make up the volume.))
- Bring water to a rolling boil, then remove from the heat.
- Add one ounce of tea and steep for a minimum of 15 minutes.
- While the tea is still warm, stir in one cup of sugar.
- Allow the sweetened tea to cool to approximately body temperature.
- Pour tea into the fermentor.
- Gently add the SCOBY and the starter liquid it is in.
- Cover the top of the fermentor such that air can get in, but fruit flies cannot.
- Decide if you are going “continuous” or “traditional” with your kombucha. (See above.)
- Bottle (or not!) and flavor any which way you like, following the above guidance.
Joe’s Hoppin’ Kombucha
Kombucha and hops are an exciting mix, giving you a nonalcoholic beverage with a complex hops profile. There’s two ways I use to hop kombucha, depending on if I want hop flavor in the full batch of kombucha or just a part of the batch. For either, I brew in a two-gallon glass container with a spigot; it makes the decanting and bottling steps easier.
How to Make the Whole Batch Hoppin’:
Note: This method requires a couple of pieces of special equipment.
- Decant finished kombucha into a second glass container((This is a place where a gallon jar would work just fine, but a spigot does make the tasting and bottling easier, so I tend to use that.))
- Place the ounce of hops((I like pellet hops for this method.)) in a 4” x 7” reusable nylon bag
- Gently submerge the bag of hops in the kombucha, then cover the new container with cheesecloth.
- Let the hops steep for a few days to a week, depending on what you like. Start tasting after about three days, and taste daily.((Be careful. If you go too long, it can get bitter.))
- Bottle when perfect.
This method lets you control the exact amount of hop flavor. You also won’t get hops particles in your kombucha.
If you want to make a variety of flavors from a batch, hops can be added at bottling. Simply add a few hop pellets or whole hope cones((Whole cones work better to keep your kombucha from getting too cloudy, while pellets are easy to drop in but leave a bit of a sludge.)) to each bottle then continue bottling as normal.
Hoppin’ Serving Suggestion:
While hops alone contribute a great flavor to kombucha, adding muddled strawberry at bottling and/or in the glass provides an interesting contrast to the hops.