It’s breaking my little fermentation (and writer) heart that I can’t link back to a story I wrote about making your own kombucha back in 2009, but my web team tells me that I can just republish it on my blog. So, as part of a wave of fermentation stories in honor of the first-ever Austin Fermentation Festival this weekend, here’s column about one of my first forays in at-home fermentation.
Kombucha, a tea that is brewed and fermented with yeasts and bacteria, is a mysterious drink. The symbiotic organisms that live in kombucha can’t survive by themselves in nature; they require humans to cultivate them. The drink’s supposed healing properties aren’t verified by the Food and Drug Administration, but its reputation as a healing elixir is well-known in cultures around the world.
Kombucha predates written history, says Scott Webel, who for four years brewed what he and wife Jen called Doc Chowder’s Revivifying Tonic. They would brew up to five gallons at a time and sell to friends and visitors to their East Austin Museum of Ephemerata, including to my then-roommate, Vince Hannemann, the artist behind the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin. Hannemann passed along a bottle to me. The tingling, sweet and satisfying kombucha was the first I’d ever tasted, and I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I liked it and I liked how it made me feel.
Apparently I’m not the only one. Although the first recorded use of kombucha was in China in 221 B.C., it’s just now widely available in grocery stores across the country. In Austin, several companies brew and sell kombucha, including Buddha’s Brew, which co-owner and brewmaster Kimberly Lanski says will make its debut in local Whole Foods Markets in March.
The company has quickly grown in just a few years. Lanski says she sells 130 cases a week and that the past two weeks of sales have been the best yet. “When times are hard, people want to feel better, ” she says. But does kombucha really make you feel better?
Kombucha‘s role as a health elixir is as debated as its origins. People have claimed for centuries that it can cure everything from colds to cancer. None of the claims is supported by the FDA, but then again, neither are many of the natural home remedies we treat ourselves with regularly. Here’s how I imagine it: The kombucha‘s millions of microbial scrub brushes enter your intestines and, under the watchful eye of the good bacteria in your digestive tract, soak up and carry out toxins and bad cells. It’s logical that this would improve your overall health because the digestive tract plays a vital role in your immune system, and a healthy immune system fights ailments.
In 1995, the FDA warned that kombucha brewed at home under non-sterile conditions could lead to contamination, so brewers need to take precautions to make sure that equipment and hands are clean.
In 2007, a year of record rainfall in Central Texas, mold contaminated the Webels’ kombucha culture, which they say came from an elusive traveler named Doc Chowder. Chowder supposedly collected the culture in Mongolia in the late 1970s, and that kombucha strain went on, it is claimed, to treat Ronald Reagan during his bouts with cancer. As you can tell, every kombucha comes with a tale, and even if it’s a tall one, it adds to the drink’s allure. Another story I like is that in certain villages in Russia, when women get married, the elder women in the community present a gift of a kombucha starter with which the new bride will brew tea for her family for decades to come.
Don’t believe it? Lanski says she hears every week at her booth at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market how her kombucha tea is improving the health of her customers. Customers tell her stories of scars healing faster after surgery, or say that giving it to their kids at the first hint of a cold can prevent the whole family from getting the sniffles.
“One guy says his hair was going gray and now it’s going back to its original color, ” she says.
Scott Evans, an Austin Homebrew Supply employee who is putting together a kombucha starter kit that will be available for sale soon, says he’s noticed physical changes since he started brewing and drinking kombucha four months ago.
For Scott Webel, whose ginger kombucha in a recycled green beer bottle welcomed me to Austin, it is the complex taste as much as the feeling of well-being that he misses now that it’s been a year since he brewed his own.
The wonderful taste of kombucha is like a tangy, fermented cider. Each batch tastes a little different, depending on the recipe and how long it brews and ferments in the bottle.
Evans, who has been brewing beer for 15 years, says that the differences between beer and kombucha are few. Some beers, especially Belgian beers, include a bacteria similar to the one used in making kombucha during the beer brewing process. Kombucha contains less than 1 percent alcohol and is brewed with tea and sugar. Beer is brewed with hops and grains and usually contains about 3 percent to 6 percent alcohol. Evans is even attempting to make a beer kombucha.
Just like Amish friendship bread, when you brew kombucha, you always end up with extra starter, which means that every kombucha culture in existence is descended from the first strain, whenever and wherever it first formed, and contains imprints of the thousands of hands through which it has passed.
So, the next time you enjoy kombucha, no matter if it’s your first taste or if you’re a longtime brewer, think of the stories you’re drinking.
How to make kombucha
Here are basic directions for making kombucha, but visit online kombucha forums for detailed instructions. As with beer, recipes vary widely from one home brewer to the next. This recipe and technique comes from Cloud McCleod, an Austin flute maker who used to teach kombucha-making classes in Austin.
Steep a gallon of tea using six bags of basic black tea, and add one cup of white, unrefined sugar. In a wide-mouth gallon glass jar (the kind that bulk pickles are sold in), let the tea and sugar mixture cool. Combine with a kombucha starter or SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that you can get online or from someone locally who has cultures to spare. Cover the jar with fabric such as linen or a square cut from a clean T-shirt and secure with a rubber band.
Place the jar in a closet or other place where it won’t be disturbed or get too much light. Over the next week to four weeks (I’m told the recipes vary), a layer of the yeast and bacteria called a zoogleal mat should form on the top. Beware of contamination in the form of little fuzzy mold spots. Kombucha is so acidic that it is difficult for foreign organisms to survive. Many people make kombucha without any molds spoiling their tea, but it is possible.
Don’t be afraid to taste your kombucha. The longer it brews, the more it will develop a vinegar smell, but it is still OK to drink.
After at least a week (the shorter kombucha sits, the more sugar and fewer enzymes it will have), pour the liquid into jars or bottles, filling up the container a little less than three-quarters full. Fill it the rest of the way with any kind of non-citrus juic e but leave a little air at the top. Cover with a cap or screw-top lid, and let it rest at room temperature for three days to two weeks. With the container capped, the liquid will ferment and become carbonated.
To start your next batch, leave the zoogleal mat and a little of the brewed kombucha in the big jar and add another gallon of the black tea and sugar mixture.
Refrigerate the bottled kombucha (cooling it down will slow the fermentation) until you’re ready to drink.