The Basics of Kombucha and How I Learned to Listen to my Gut

January 9th, 2015 Posted by DIY, Drinks, Non-alchoholic 4 comments

Kombucha. It’s that “wonder drink” that is so good for your gut and so tasty and refreshing. I love kombucha. I didn’t always love it or drink it. In fact, I didn’t always care so much about my gut or probiotics at all. Until September of 2012, I didn’t know, let alone pay listen to, what happening in my gut at all. 

I did, however, wake up every morning between 5:30 and 6am with terrible stomach pains. Lying in bed in the fetal postion for about 30 minutes until I could fall asleep again, or finally decide to just get up. When I did get up, I avoided eating anything for several hours, opting instead for strong coffee. At around 11am, when I was starving and hardly able to function running on empty anymore, I would eat breakfast (or sometimes my lunch I had packed with me that day) and right after eating would experience heart burn, gas and bloating. I thought this was just the way my body was. I thought that everyone was experiencing some level of discomfort in the mornings, and that it was probably nothing serious. This had been happening, on and off, for about a year.

In September, my mom offered to make me an appointment with a naturopath. “She’s really great,” she said, “You can just talk to her about anything, it doesn’t have to be anything specific. She has wonderful insight.” Her name was Dr. Nadene Neale, and she was great. I’m in no way paid to endorse Dr. Neale, in fact, she doesn’t even know I’m writing this, but she is a large part of my story and I wanted to include her in this post. After telling Dr. Neale about what was going on, she told me that I probably had a stomach ulcer. Had I been stressed out or going through something? “Uh, yea!” I said. “I just went through a divorce and I’m going back to school.” Bingo. 

She also told me that often times ulcers can start because of a stressful time, or stress on the body, but they can be perpetuated by foods that we actually have an intolerance for. An imbalance that just continues to fester. “Oh great,” I thought, “she’s going to tell me I’m gluten intolerant just like mom” (when my mom found out she was GI, Dr. Neale told her that her children have a 1 in 4 chance of also being gluten intolerant.) But we did the tests anyway and I waited impatiently for the results to arrive in my email inbox. 

In the meantime, Dr. Neale gave me some natural medicines to clear up the ulcer. It was a combination of drops taken in water and pills to be taken before meals, though truthfully I have no idea what they were (I figured they couldn’t hurt me any worse.) I also started researching ways to help out my intestines and my gut on my own. probiotic became my new favorite word. I started taking a probiotic (in refrigerated pill form) everyday, multiple times a day.

A week or two later my intolerance test came back, and it wasn’t gluten. It was eggs. That’s right, eggs. I had never heard of anyone being egg intolerant, and while I was relieved it wasn’t gluten (I love home-made bread, and cold IPA’s!) I wasn’t stoked that I couldn’t have Eggs Benedict, eggs sunny side up, or rich eggy french toast anymore. Not to mention all the lovely baked goods I make every week that rely on eggs for leavening, moistening and binding (though I’ve found ways around all that now). Needless to say, this still rocked my world quite a bit. I went off eggs completely for about 3-4 months. It made a huge difference in how I felt. I was more regular, no longer had embarrassing gas (that I now realized was due to the eggs) and the ulcer was gone.  Now, I only have them occasionally and almost never in their whole form (no scrambled eggs, no omelets). I still can’t resist one half deviled egg, but I know my limits.  

Now that I’ve been off eggs (with occasional cheating) my ulcer is completely healed and my gut has felt worlds better. No more early morning stomach pains, no more heartburn and no more bloating. While I don’t remember to take the probiotic regularly anymore, but I do consume several foods daily or weekly that help my gut. 

kombucha

Kombucha is one of them! I had never thought to brew my own kombucha until my aunt Kathy gave me a scoby (more on scobys later). I actually never even drank much kombucha because it was so expensive at the grocery or health food store and I didn’t understand what all the hype was. One bottle was between $3.50 and $5 dollars depending on the brand or flavor. That’s insane! Did you know you can make your own delicious kombucha for less than 2 dollars a batch? A BATCH! A batch size that I make is about 1 gallon. Right? Time to get on that, sister!

So what does making kombucha entail and what the heck is a scoby anyways? Scoby is actually an acronym for Symbiotic Colony (aka Culture) Of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s an ugly looking disc (though I now think it’s a thing of beauty) that contains all kinds of bacterias and, you guessed it, yeasts that ferment the kombucha. It’s kind of like having a sourdough starter. 

healthy looking scoby

The scoby works to ferment tea that is brewed with water and a moderate amount of sugar. Over the course of 7-10 days, your tea is fermented and turned into kombucha. Then you bottle the kombucha into smaller vessels so it can carbonate. After two to three days, you have fully carbonated kombucha and you can store it in the fridge. 

There are a couple tricks to kombucha (though they are still easy as all get-out): 

1. Start off your kombucha with black or green organic teas. The tea actually affects the health of your scoby and of course affects the final flavor. For more on how tea affects the scoby and overall brew, check out this Cultures for Health article. According to the book True Brews by Emma Christensen, you should always use the same kind of tea for the health of your scoby when you are first starting up your culture. Your culture is going to be a unique blend of all the bacteria that typically make up a scoby. Therefore, no scoby is created equal. Your scoby will like certian teas and not like other teas. To allow your scoby to thrive, keep the environment the same as much as possible. And use organic tea when you can—you don’t want to expose your scoby to pesticides. ***UPDATE 5/25/15***While I agree, I don’t always have organic tea or want to use that particular flavor of organic tea that I do have, so you will see me using teas that are not organic.*** Christensen recommends messing around with flavorings after the tea is already fermented (this process is called secondary fermentation.) 

2. Allow your brewed tea and your starter and scoby to come to room temperature before introducing them to each other. This reduces shocking the scoby with hot liquid and killing good bacteria. After you brew the tea, let it cool to room temp. I usually brew in the evening and leave the tea sitting out overnight. I then take out my scoby, which is stored in two cups of previously brewed kombucha in the fridge, and set that out on the counter also. By morning, the two are ready to meet! 

3. Collect some small jars, bottles or leftover, cleaned beer bottles with corks that fit tightly in the top to bottle your kombucha in. There are several cute styles of bottles out there, you can find tons online. I like this website, but jars and other containers you have around the house will work fine. The main thing is, it has to have an airtight seal. Canning jars and “new” lids are a great option. 

botteling kombucha

The only other equipment you’ll need is a large pot or a gallon sized glass jar (my vessel of choice), a wooden spoon, a pot or teapot to boil water in, and a large liquid measuring cup (and yes, liquid measuring cups are different then dry measuring cups.) See this article for more about the kind of brewing containers you can use. 

kombucha equipment setup

One final tip: try not to use anything metal when brewing/tasting/bottling your kombucha. Metal reacts with the fermented tea, and I don’t know all the science, but it’s better to use wood, plastic or glass utensils, vessels and measuring devices.  Metal is known to be generally detrimental to kombucha. You could try stainless steel, but I recommend sticking with glass. For continuous brewing you can use a glass jar with a spigot on the bottom, just make sure the inside of the spigot is rubber or plastic, not metal. 

I love these gallon sized jars for my kombucha: One gallon size with a plastic lid, though you don’t need the lid that comes with it.

Those items, plus tea, sugar, and a scoby (and water) is all it takes! See below for the whole process and recipe I use.  

Strongly recommended sources: 

True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home, by Emma Christensen < a great resource for how to make kombucha, plus a ton of other stuff. Christensen is great about helping you troubleshoot kombucha and what normal and healthy looking scobys look and smell like. 

Mountain Rose Herbs < excellent source for dried herbs and teas.

Kombucha Revolution: 75 Recipes for Homemade Brews, Fixers, Elixirs, and Mixers by Stephen Lee and Ken Koopman < for great recipes to make vinegar with kombucha, so much more! A really inspiring book. 

http://www.specialtybottle.com/

For natural tea bags: Regency Spice Bags  You can reuse them, wash them in the dishwasher or the laundry, and they hold a good amount of tea.

AND: A friend to share a scoby and kombucha with! You will start to have a large scoby soon after you begin brewing regularly, so it helps to have someone to give a scoby to. Plus, a free scoby is what got me started, so it’s like passing the favor along. If you don’t have a scoby see notes at the end of this post for how to make your own, or where to buy one online.

plain kombucha

So here’s the process: 

The Basics of Kombucha and How I Learned to Listen to my Gut
 
Recipe Type: Drink, Home Fermentation
Author: Sugar Pickles
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 1 gallon
Ingredients
  • 14 cups water (I use tap water, but many people say to use filtered water. If you like the taste of your water, try it. If your water has heavy chlorine or chemical treatments, use filtered water.)
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar (I use evaporated cane sugar, but do use sugar here, don’t try honey, agave or any other sweetner)
  • 8 bags black tea or 2 tablespoons loose tea put into a natural tea bag (see sources)
  • 2 cups starter tea from your last batch of kombucha, or store-bought (unpasteurized, neutral flavored) kombucha
  • 1 scoby per fermentation jar
  • Optional additions and flavorings:
  • 1-2 cups chopped fruit, 2-3 cups fruit juice, 1/4 cup honey, or 2-4 tablespoons fresh herbs and spices.
  • Equipment
  • Stock pot or tea pot to boil water in
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Long-handled spoon
  • Cloth tea bags (see sources) or a strainer to strain out the tea
  • 1-gallon size glass jar (see sources) or 2-quart sized jars
  • Additional jars to add flavorings (optional)
  • Cheesecloth or paper towels
  • Rubber bands or string
  • Bottles for bottling and storing kombucha (2-liter soda bottles, canning jars, cleaned beer bottles with corks that fit)
Instructions
  1. Bring the water to a boil. Usually I fill a tea kettle to the top and put it over high heat. I feel that a tea pot brings the water to boil faster then one pot, but I have to boil the water in batches.
  2. Place your tea and sugar in the gallon container or split equally between the quart sized containers.
  3. If using a tea pot, measure out 4 cups at a time and add it to the gallon glass jar (this would be about 3 times of filling up the tea pot, and watch out for hot steam when filling!)
  4. Stir together tea, hot water and sugar and allow to steep until the water has cooled to room temperature. I let mine sit out overnight, loosely covered. If using two cups of kombucha and a scoby that is stored in the fridge, remove them from the fridge now and set them on the counter to come to room temperature.
  5. In the morning, or when the tea has cooled and the scoby and starter tea is at room temperature, remove your tea bags (or strain out loose tea, reserving brewed tea). With clean hands, remove your scoby from it’s storage jar, and place it on a clean plate.
  6. Pour the starter tea into your brewed tea, then gently place the scoby on top.
  7. Cover the mouth of the jar or jars with paper towels or cheesecloth and secure with rubber bands (this keeps out dust and insects). If using two jars, peel a layer or two off the bottom of your scoby and place one scoby in each jar.
  8. Allow the kombucha to ferment, out of direct sunlight, at room temperature for 7-10 days, checking it periodically. Keep it somewhere it will be undisturbed. In the summer it will ferment faster, in the winter, keep in the warmest room in the house. It may take a little longer in the winter. You will probably see a new scoby form on the surface of the kombucha within a few days. Typically it will attach itself to the old one, but it’s okay if they stay separate. You may also see some brown stringy things floating, or sediment or strange blobs around the edge of the scoby. This is also normal.
  9. After 7 days you can taste your kombucha by pouring a little into a small cup. When it tastes slightly sweet and slightly sour, or otherwise pleasant to you, the kombucha is done. With clean hands, remove the scobys to a clean plate. Find a jar or glass container to hold your scoby, plus two cups of your newly brewed kombucha. You can store your scoby in a container with the kombucha poured over it in the fridge. This becomes your next “starter tea.” Store in the fridge until you are ready to brew again, or start another batch right away.
  10. If you want to add flavorings, you would do so at this stage, also known as Secondary Fermentation.
  11. To add flavorings:
  12. After removing the scoby and two cups of starter tea, combine newly fermented kombucha in a clean 1-gallon jar with 2-3 cups juice, the 1/4 cup honey, or 2-4 tablespoons herbs and spices. A great flavoring to try is 2 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers or tea, which can be found at Mediterranean stores or online. Cover with cheesecloth or paper towels again and let ferment for 2-3 more days.
  13. To bottle, strain out any tea, cut up fruit or spices, and pour in to smaller bottles, with 1 inch of head space and seal tightly.
  14. Allow bottles to sit on your counter to further carbonate, usually about 1-3 days, depending on the temperature of the room. Taste periodically (everyday is enough) to see when they are carbonated to your liking.
  15. Refrigerate to stop the carbonation and consume your kombucha within the next month or so.
 
Notes
The longer your kombucha hangs around, at any of these stages, the more vinegary it will taste. Kombucha is a “live” thing, so it does change as time goes on. If it is ever too strong for you, simply cut brewed kombucha with a little water to soften the vinegar flavor. You can also make vinegar and many other things with kombucha. See my “sources” section for references and resources.

Check out http://www.culturesforhealth.com/kombucha-ingredients for some really awesome information about kinds of tea to use, sugar in kombucha, and how to get your first batch going with out the gift of a scoby. I’ll explain that process here briefly, but there are other really great resources out there that have been brewing longer then me, so I’ll stick to what I know here. 

If you don’t have a scoby: 

Buy a 16oz bottled kombucha from a natural grocery store or health foods store. It should be unflavored, raw (unpasteurized) and organic if possible. If you see a little disc or blob floating in it (in some cases it looks like a booger, hehe) that’s even better. That is a little scoby.

One thing I didn’t mention yet, in each bottle you make of kombucha, over time (1-2 weeks) of the bottle hanging out in your fridge, it will develop it’s own scoby. These little scobys can be used to grow a larger one (by brewing smaller batches of tea with sugar to feed it, or you can simply discard them. But what is important to know is that they are a sign that all is well. The thing about kombucha, and other home fermented foods, is they don’t often look like what we buy in the store. So we need to change our perception of what is “normal” here. For instance, it’s normal to see things floating around and on top of your tea, in fact, it is perfect. 

So, once you have your store bought bottle of kombucha, take it home and brew a batch of tea. You will use the same process as brewing kombucha, substituting the store bought kombucha for the “2 cups of kombucha from your last batch.” If you want to use this process to make two scobys, you can split your tea and store bought kombucha between two quart sized containers or jars instead of one gallon sized container. 

Keep the containers covered with cheesecloth or paper towels and secured with a rubber band or string tied around the neck of the jar. Store out of direct sunlight, in a room that is roughly at least 67 degrees or room temperature. Check the kombucha after 5 days. You should start to see a light gel like layer form on the top of the jar. If you don’t see it yet, check again everyday. The liquid will start to smell vinegary and the gel layer will start to get a darker beige color. It may look bubbly, puckered, spotted, thin in some areas and thick in other areas. This is all fine! This is your new scoby growing away.

When the scoby has formed a thick jelly layer 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, it’s ready to brew with. Throw away the liquid that you used to make the scoby with and start fresh. With your young scoby, it may take a little longer to brew the first batches, or longer to carbonate, but as you keep brewing it will get larger, and start to look like a smooth beige colored pancake. 

If you would rather buy a larger scoby on its own and bypass the time it takes to grow your own, there are several resources online. I can’t endorse them, because I haven’t purchased them, but look around for a kombucha starter or a scoby and choose one from a company you feel you can trust. I just discovered Cultures for Health, and they happen to be in Oregon, so if I were to buy one I would probably start there. Check out their Kombucha starter

Happy brewing, and happy health! Cheers!

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4 comments

[…] I suggest you read this post, where I give you the low down on making my favorite kombucha.  Then you should read this post, […]

[…] If you don’t like wine OR beer, what are ya doin’ here? This is happy hour! (aka, have kombucha or some iced […]

[…] know that I’ve been making kombucha for awhile now. I love experimenting with flavors and techniques. This one came out of making a […]

[…] kombucha goes off the method I describe here: The basics of kombucha. I also only used 1/2 a fermented gallon batch to make this because I wanted to save the other 1/2 […]

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