September 19, 2016

Toil - Boil - Bubble: Fermented Drinks

It may not quite be October, but as I mentioned before, I can feel Fall crisping its way in and I'm super excited about some bubbling fermentations in my future.

I've only had one or two Cokes over the last couple of weeks and if you know me at all, you know I can't hardly stand to go even one day without at least one for a little pick-me-up at some point. They're my weakness and I'd blame my mother but I'm an adult now. I've been drinking a lot more hot tea throughout my work day as a replacement, and some fizzy store-bought probiotic drinks (or an occasional alcoholic beverage) or lemonade at home. I have this problem with not really drinking much water, even if it's sitting in front of me - if something has flavor I'm more likely to pick it up and take a sip without thinking about it. My point being I can't just replace Coke with water, but I can replace it with my own flavored, fuzzy drinks - ones that are actually good for your gut.

What's Kombucha? 

If you're not familiar with Kombucha, it's a fermented black or green tea that, legend has it, originated in the far east centuries ago. To brew it, one must obtain a SCOBY (I've never tried making my own SCOBY but it's supposed to be possible - but not exactly fool-proof and the consensus is that it's far easier to slice a piece off of someone else's).

SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeasts - it is also called a "Mother" or even a "mushroom" - but while similar, it is not technically a mushroom. I will warn you: if you've never seen one, they're kind of gross to newbies. They're slimy little pancakes that don't particularly smell the best. And when your tea begins to ferment, your virgin eyes may have difficulties deciphering between what looks healthy and what could be a sign your SCOBY's gone wrong. They're not particularly pretty unless you're one of those free love folks. And SCOBY's, when given love, grow more SCOBY's - to share with friends, to put in a SCOBY hotel, or if you're feeling really adventurous, to make some nutritious jerky.
Kombucha with painted plastic spigot on the far left. In the middle I'm hydrating some water kefir grains and getting my sourdough starter ready on the right - stay tuned for posts on both of those items! I love the cloth cover that came with my sourdough starter from Yemoos so much that I plan on it being my first project with the sewing machine I bought myself... I bought those ridiculous huge hipster head-sized hair bands a while back and never wore them. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Benefits? Side effects? 

Now, before I go any further: Don't get me wrong. I am not a "drink the kool-aid" kinda gal, and hopefully never will be. There are some people that boast that kombucha can, you know, cure cancer and AIDs and stuff. I don't buy into all that. But I am trying to introduce more fermented foods into my diet because fermented goods provide some great probiotics, or good bacteria - which are great if you have gastrointestinal issues (and I have Crohn's). Most people are familiar with yogurt's benefits - this is the same concept, just spreading out into other options such as kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh - and drinks, like kefir and kombucha. These are all acquired tastes.

In addition, if you're going to choose the homebrewing option over the expensive store-bought option (which is generally the main reason people choose to homebrew) you must do so safely. While adverse effects are rare (and not even necessarily proven to be more than a correlation rather than causation), they are certainly possible if you don't take proper care during the brewing process. Follow any instructions carefully and listen, listen, listen, don't let anything metal touch your ferments.

What kind of brewing vessel should I use? 

Speaking of metal, you'll want to decide whether you want to continuous brew or not. I always choose the continuous method because it's a bit less work not bothering with different jars, plus I never run out and have to wait for new ferments. Any nice big glass jar (I recommend at least 1/2 gallon, minimum) will suffice for non-continuous, but you'll want a jar with a spigot at the bottom if you choose continuous... AND NO METAL CAN TOUCH YOUR FERMENT. If it has a metal spigot, make sure it doesn't actually go into the inside of the jar. The nice thing is that most companies are cheap these days and produce jars with plastic spigots painted to look like metal. I bought mine in store so I'm afraid to link anyone to jars that might have metal spigots - it's difficult to tell from the online pictures whether or not any will work.

It's also really important your jar be sterilized before using, just like you do with other homebrewing equipment. I scrubbed mine pretty well with hot water and a little Dawn before thoroughly rinsing and getting rid of all the soap. Then I shook around some distilled white vinegar in the jar for good measure.

What supplies will I need? 

  • Brewing vessel/jar
  • Thin, breathable but tightly woven cloth (think tea towel)... alternatively you could use a coffee filter or paper towel, but do not use cheesecloth - it's too loose and allows for fruit flies, etc. 
  • Rubber band or something (I use extra large hair-ties I already have on hand) to secure the cloth as the "lid" of your jar.
  • Long plastic or wooden spoon
  • Activated SCOBY (if yours came dehydrated, follow the instructions it came with)
  • At least one cup of Kombucha from a previous brew or a bottle of store-bought (some how-to's are now saying you can use distilled white vinegar, but I have no history of trying this)
  • Organic tea - black or green: I've always used black, but some people even choose a mixture of both. How much depends on how much you're wanting to brew (and if you have a particularly small SCOBY to begin with, don't try to overwhelm it with more than a 1/2 gallon until it grows larger). For instance, a good amount for a 1/2 gallon batch would be 4 tea bags or one tablespoon of loose leaf tea. 
  • Sugar - again, ratios matter, but 1/2 gallon would need a 1/2 cup, and organic is best (but secret: I didn't have any on hand so I used the plain cheap stuff) but whatever you do, do not try to substitute with a sugar replacement. Your SCOBY is fueled by sugar for the fermenting process. 
  • Water - filtered is best if it's an option, otherwise, just bring your water to boil for at least five minutes before turning the heat off for tea-making. About seven cups for your 1/2 gallon (you're adding at least one cup of Kombucha to reach a full 1/2 gallon). 


You could choose to buy a kit for ease and peace of mind, but it's almost always cheaper to gather your own supplies, as it is with most things. I can't vouch for any particular kits as I've never gone that route but I'm sure any with decent reviews will do just fine. 


Brewing Process Steps

Now, I recommend following the instructions from whoever you received or purchased your SCOBY mother from, but the general process is:

  • Make your tea normally - bring your water to a boil, turn heat off, put in your tea and let it steep for at least ten minutes. You can leave it in much longer - I left mine for a half hour or so, making a stronger tea. Just don't forget to add your sugar while it's hot enough to dissolve. 
  • Once the tea has cooled off to at least 85 degrees (I don't have any tools for monitoring the temperature, so I just forget about it and come back when it's lukewarm or room temperature), pour it into your vessel, add your starter tea and give it a good mix. 
  • Gently add in your live SCOBY and cover the jar, placing it in a dark place no cooler than 68 degrees. I have a little cabinet in my kitchen dedicated to my ferments. 
  • After waiting at least seven days, up to 30, taste your ferment until you like the sweetness level. The longer you wait, the dryer it will become. If you're not continuous brewing, be very careful not to disturb the SCOBY when retrieving your hard-earned juice. 
  • You can drink it as is, or you can bottle it (preferably in a Grolsch-styled bottle) to give it more carbonation or add flavoring like berries - which I always do because, as I mentioned, Kombucha is an acquired taste. Cultures for Health has a ton of recipe ideas (as does Pinterest) including Pumpkin Spice, Chocolate Raspberry, or one that works with any fruit juice.   

I plan to stay on top of my SCOBY this time around! Eventually I get lazy and accidentally kill them by not caring for them... I hope to do some of my own recipe experimenting with Kombucha & Kefir flavors that I'll share here should they be successful.

Be sure to stay tuned for my next posts on water kefir and on the sourdough starter I bought from Yemoos - I was going to include them on this post, but it's already too long!

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