Ok, so first, let me say, I'm a little bit obsessed with Kombucha. It is so EASY, and so delicious! And of course, so healthy. I used to buy the Kombucha from the grocery store, but then I learned that I could make it myself. So being the curious cook that I am, I couldn't wait to give it a try! So I bought a dried SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) from our health food store...
It was a complete and utter failure. I was so disappointed, heart broken, dejected, ashamed. I had followed all the instructions, babied the brew for 30 days, kept it out of the light, sprayed it with vinegar, I had done everything! Yet it was NOT a success. So I put away my 2 Gallon Glass Drink Dispenser, my tea, and recycled my empty Kombucha bottles, hung my head in shame, and continued to buy my Kombucha from the store. I avoided thinking about it for a long while.
Until a friend of mine (Hi Carrie!) said she had successfully brewed her own kombucha from a store bought bottle as her starter! Of course I had read about doing that online, but I was skeptical that it could actually work. I mean really, if it were that easy, wouldn't everyone be doing it?! And if it really was that easy, why on earth would people be buying dried SCOBYs for $15+? And if it really WAS that easy, how much worse of a failure was I?
So with all of these questions swirling around in my head, she offered me one of her baby SCOBYs which I gladly accepted! I figured, what do I have to loose at this point?
So here are a few things I learned up to the point that Carrie gave me a baby SCOBY of my very own...
Kombucha can be a daunting drink to make yourself if you've never done it, or known someone who has.
Dried SCOBY's aren't the best of the best, although I'm sure some people have successfully brewed Kombucha from them, I have not.
Starting with a live SCOBY is best.
You can actually brew Kombucha using a store bought bottle as your starter. Although I haven't tried that yet.
Making Kombucha doesn't need to be as complicated as some people (I) made it out to be.
So, having had this experience, I was ready to try again. I took my SCOBY home and did some more reading on continuous brew Kombucha (because I didn't want to have to deal with a bunch of baby brews all over the counter) and started again.
I took my 2 gallon glass drink dispenser out of the cabinet, made a little over one gallon of sweet tea and dropped my new SCOBY in the jar. I should note here that Carrie didn't give me additional "starter tea", she just grabbed a scoby out of the jar and plopped it in a ziplock bag. I was slightly concerned that this would affect the brew, but thought I'd give it a shot anyway. I grabbed a tea towel out of the drawer, folded it in quarters and used a rubber band to hold it over the opening. I slid it back on the counter in a dark corner where I was pretty sure no sunlight would reach it, and walked away.
For this first batch, I used Green Tea. I did this because I find that too much caffeine really bothers me, and I wasn't sure how much caffeine would really be left in black tea after the bacteria had done it's job. There is a lot of information out there about how much caffeine may be left, but of course it all depends on the amount in the original tea, the length of time you allow your tea to brew, the size and health of your SCOBY, and about a dozen other factors. So I decided to start with a green tea, which has less caffeine in it from the start.
After a week, I tasted the tea, and found that it was tart, but not vinegary so I cut up some apples, pulled out my pint jars and filled the jars. About 1/4 of an apple, and enough kombucha to fill about 1 inch from the top of the jar. I left these on the counter for about 4 days for the 2nd brew. I left about 4 cups of the brew in the bottom of the container to re-fill with fresh sweet tea.
Let me tell you, after a 4 day second ferment, this was a delicious drink! I loved the slightly tart apple flavor and fizzy drink I had created. At this point, I was pretty much hooked. This first batch only made around 6 pints of Kombucha and those were gone in a few days.
For my second brew, I filled my glass container (2 gallons) to the top with sweet tea. Since my SCOBY was still relatively small, I didn't have any concerns about leaving it on the counter for 2 weeks, the first week of brew, plus a week we would be out of town. It worked perfectly and the resulting tea was pleasantly tart when we came home, but not too vinegary. Once we got home, I started the process again. This time using some mango juice I picked up at the grocery store (all natural, please), and using black tea this time to "feed" the SCOBY. Second fermentation around 5 days results were very good, but I found the mango juice to be a little overpowering this time, I'm sure I added too much to each jar.
At the writing of this post I'm on about my 6th week of continuous brewing and I have had several successful batches. For the first several batches, I was trying to be "conservative" in my drinking during the week. I would add 2 cups (1 pint) of Kombucha to my green smoothie each morning and sometimes had a pint in the evening, but I wanted to be sure I had enough to last the whole week, plus a few days until the next batch would be ready.
I started my current batch a few days ago and can now say that I have enough Kombucha in the fridge to satisfy my cravings for a couple weeks at least (if I stopped brewing today, which I did NOT!!!). I estimate I drink about 4 cups of Kombucha a day, 2 in my morning smoothies and 2 with dinner, or in the evening. Keep in mind, Tommy likes my Kombucha, but I'm really the only one drinking it. If you have a large family, you may have to look into a larger jar, or multiple continuous brew jars. If you're looking to save time, you can drink the Kombucha straight with no fruit/juice or second ferment. Just use the beverage dispenser just as intended and drink your tea straight up. Or you can add some fruit juice at this point to sweeten it with no 2nd ferment. Keep in mind that the Kombucha you drink today will be sweeter than the Kombucha you drink a week from today. I find leaving about 1/2 gallon at the bottom of the 2 gallon dispenser works well as starter tea. Really the variations are endless!
The things I've learned about successful Kombucha Brewing:
Start with a "live" baby SCOBY from a friend. If you're a trend setter you can try using a store-bought bottle as your starter tea, let me know how it goes for you! Or you can get a baby SCOBY from someone off craigslist, or post a request on Facebook, you might make a new friend over a jar of Kombucha!
You don't need to use/add distilled vinegar to your tea, the dried SCOBY said to do this, and I've seen other web sights that suggest adding vinegar to your brew. I have never needed to do this and don't know why you might.
SCOBY's aren't as sensitive as some people imply. Yes, you should wash your hands when handling the SCOBY, and wash your containers thoroughly, but I haven't found a need to rinse every container with vinegar, or be obsessive about "sanitizing" everything the tea or SCOBY might touch. If you have a healthy SCOBY it will take pretty good care of its self.
For some reason, bottles with a narrow neck do a better, more fizzy second brew than bottles with a straight side. Think wide mouth jars vs regular mouth jars. Beer bottles make the fizziest Kombucha EVER, use caution when opening your flip top bottles or you'll have Kombucha on the ceiling (which wouldn't be fun for anyone). Who knows why this is... just a strange thing I've noticed.
The larger your SCOBY the faster your Kombucha brews/the faster it gets tart. As your brewing skills progress, you will figure out what size SCOBY works best for the flavor you want and when you should separate the mother and start a SCOBY hotel, more on that in a minute. I separate my SCOBY about every 5 weeks.
You can use just about anything to flavor your Kombucha, dried fruit, crystallized ginger, fruit juice, frozen fruit, whole or cut fruit, herbs I'd love to try chocolate mint (I haven't tried this for my own Kombucha, but I have tried Basil Pear Kombucha from a local restaurant. I wasn't fan, but you might be), you could even go savory with garlic tomato (?). Who knows, it could be good!
Don't be paranoid about your SCOBY. If you think it's off, start by smelling it. It should smell like yeast, or sour dough bread, it should not smell like mold. It might look ugly, but don't judge, it's probably still doing its job. Brown spots or stringy things dangling from it are normal. Your tea will color your SCOBY, so it isn't imperative your SCOBY be a perfect uniform off white color. A lot of the pictures you might see online are of perfect SCOBYs. I don't know how they get their SCOBYs to look like that, but mine never has... ;-P
If your SCOBY has somehow gone bad, the mold will be black, green, or blue, and will be on the top of the SCOBY where it is exposed to the air.
Use common sense caring for your SCOBY, don't put it near the garbage, don't smoke around it, don't set it by the AC vent or the fire place, and don't expose it to direct sunlight. Try to keep it comfortable (between 65-80 degrees), if you're comfortable, your SCOBY will be too. The warmer the room temperature, the faster your Kombucha will brew.
Empty Grolsch Beer bottles work very well for your second ferment! You can also use quart or pint canning jars, or empty Kombucha bottles from the store.
Update June 2018: So I've been working on making my own kombucha for almost a year now and here are some more lessons I've learned in that time.
Your SCOBY doesn't need to be separated every week. In fact, I let mine go for several months before I pull part of it out. In fact, the bigger your SCOBY the faster it brews, and I'm bottling/drinking ~3 gallons a week, and the faster it brews, the more I can drink.
Grolsch bottles make the best (fizziest) Kombucha, but they can be a pain to fill. Quart jars are the easiest to fill, but can leak if you don't make sure the lid is super tight, plus require extra investment in plastic lids/seals. Empty kombucha bottles from the store are the best containers, the lids don't leak and they seal tight to get a good fizz in your second ferment.
I find I currently drink between 6-8 cups of kombucha a day plus, ice, and it helps prevent bladder infections. Anytime we go out of town I stop drinking so much and end up at the doctor. Not fun. Water is ok, but makes me pee more often (TMI? Sorry!).
Large glass drink container with spout towards the bottom, mine is 2 gallons
Enough sweet tea to fill your container:
1 Gallon sweet tea ingredients:
16 bags of black or green tea
1/2 gallon hot water - filtered non chlorinated, we are on a well so I don't think about these things, but if you are on city water, be sure to filter it before using.
1 cup white sugar
Allow tea to brew 20 minutes, remove tea bags and add sugar, stir until dissolved, add cold water + ice to make 1 gallon of tea
Pour your sweet tea into your continuous brew container and add your SCOBY. Be sure your sweet tea is cooler than body temperature before adding your SCOBY, you don’t want to boil the poor thing.
Cover your container with a tea towel and secure with a rubber band. Keep out of direct sunlight. I drape mine with an additional kitchen towel just to keep it out of the under cabinet lighting as much as possible.
Depending on the size of your starter SCOBY, and the amount of sweet tea you are brewing, you should brew your first batch for 1-3 weeks. My first batch was about 1 1/2 gallons sweet tea and medium size starter SCOBY, and I brewed it for 1 week.
Start tasting your tea after 1 week, it should be slightly sweet/tart with a vinegar-esque (is that a word?) flavor. Timing for bottling your second ferment will depend on your personal preference as far as flavor goes. If you like it sweeter, bottle sooner, if you like it more tart, wait a few days and test again. If you accidentally let it go to long and it has too strong a vinegar flavor for you, you can drain off about 1/2 of your brew, add more sweet tea wait one more day and go ahead and bottle your drink. You can use the vinegary Kombucha to make salad dressing, or as a marinade, or in any other recipe that calls for vinegar.
2nd Ferment The options here are endless, but you will need some containers for your second ferment. They should be glass, and between 2 - 4 cups each. You can use anything with a tight fitting lid: Empty Kombucha bottles from the store, empty Grolsch Beer bottles (these work very well), quart or pint canning jars, empty juice bottles, even empty spaghetti sauce jars (as long as they are cleaned thoroughly), or if you want to go really fancy, you can order bottles with a flip top especially for bottling beer/Kombucha. The only requirement is that the bottles be glass, with a tight fitting lid and no exposed metal.
Some flavor suggestions:
Pretty much any fresh or dried fruit
Crystalized or fresh ginger
Spiced apple cider
Any fruit juice (all natural please)
To bottle your second ferment, again, this depends on preference, add juice to your containers, start with about 1/4 of the total amount and adjust from there. Then add your Kombucha brew until almost full, leave some head space. Affix lid and set on counter for 2-5 days. Again this depends on your personal preference, the longer the 2nd ferment the more fizzy and less sweet your final result will be.