Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea drink. It’s a little sour, a little sweet, and usually effervescent. It is a probiotic beverage, which means it contains lots of living microorganisms which are really good for your digestion and overall health. It also costs quite a bit if you buy it at the store, and you can save a fortune by brewing your own. Following my directions, you can very affordably brew around 40 bottles of Kombucha for around 10% of the cost of store-bought. And you’ll know exactly what is in it!
The biggest challenge will probably be finding your mother. I picked up my Kombucha “mother” for around $10 at a local homebrew shop. This biofilm is sometimes referred to as a “mushroom” out of tradition, but it is not actually a mushroom by any definition. It’s actually a “symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria,” or SCOBY for short. It’s a big, slippery noodle like thing that will magically turn your sweet tea into Kombucha over the course of several weeks. You can order them online, and sometimes find them in homebrew shops, as I did.
To make Kombucha, you’ll need some pretty basic kitchen equipment: a pot that can boil a gallon or so of water, a strainer that can strain out your tea if you’re using loose tea, and a 5 gallon container to hold your tea in. For the container, I highly recommend spending $30 or so for a 5 gallon glass carboy with stopper and airlock.And a carboy cleaning brush and funnel, if you go this route.
You can also use a food grade bucket with an airlock, such as a homebrew beer/wine bucket which will be cheaper, but there is some controversy about whether fermenting in such a vessel can introduce undesirable chemicals into the brew. Kombucha will have a PH of around 4 when it’s done, which is quite acid. If you’re going to worry about it, go with the glass carboy- it is completely inert.
Oh, and don’t use one of those blue drinking water bottles you can pick up for $10 or less. They contain antimicrobial compounds in the plastic which will inhibit and possibly kill your mother. Be nice to your mother, and she will look after you too.
5 Gallon Raspberry Kombucha Recipe
- 4 cups of evaporated cane juice, organic. You can replace this with other sweetners, but avoid using honey as it has antibacterial properties.
- 1 kombucha mother (bigger ones are marginally better than smaller ones)
- 4 Tbs loose Darjeeling tea (any tea works, as long as it doesn’t have oils- such as Bergamot in Earl Gray)
- About 5 gallons of spring water
- About one pint (~1lb) of raspberries. If you use fresh ones, like I did, rinse them off and freeze them first. The flavor will permeate the drink much more easily after it’s been frozen, and it will kill off the more fragile organisms that might be hitching a ride.
- Something to put the finished product in: 40 used but very clean 16oz Kombucha bottles with screw-on lids, or ten half-gallon mason jars are inexpensive choices.
I began by brewing the tea with about one gallon of water. Bring the water to a boil, shut off the heat, and add the tea just as the water stops bubbling. This is the “Douglas Adams” English method of making tea- and gets the most out of your leaves. If you make tea with rolling boil water, it’s foul, and if you make it with cooler water, too few of the rich flavor compounds are released and you have a wet cardboard drink instead.
Pour off a little bit of the tea into a separate cup and see if it tastes alright. It should just taste like very strong tea. If it doesn’t- add more tea to the main batch, steep, and repeat. But do not even think about tossing what’s left in the cup after your taste back into the rest of the tea- your mouth is covered in bacteria which could easily turn your batch into a funk fest of nastiness. If you want the best outcome, be extremely cautious about sanitation.
Put three gallons of cool water into the fermentation vessel, followed by the one gallon of hot tea.
You’ll have one last gallon of water to work with now, and it’s this final gallon that goes into your pot. Bring it to a boil, and then slowly stir in all the sugar. It will all dissolve slowly, and you should continuously stir it as you boil your sugar/water mix for 10 minutes. This ensures that there are no surviving microbial hitchhikers from your sweetener which could spoil the batch.
Carefully pour that boiling sugar water into your four gallons of tea and water in the fermentation container. If your container is glass, use a funnel and avoid letting the hot liquid contact the glass; it should go straight into the tea/water mix instead. If you were careful with your measurements, there should still be some space left in the fermenter for more liquid. Don’t top it up with water, because we have to introduce it to our mother now.
But first, wait for the temperature to come down. If the vessel is warm to the touch, it’s too warm. Once it seems about the same as room temperature, you can add your mother and starter tea*. Don’t kill your mother by scalding her to death- be patient with her.
You’ll note that we haven’t added the fruit. Don’t worry, we’re not going to do that for weeks. Put it in the freezer!
At this point you want to take measures to prevent any outside air (bugs, dust, mold spores, etc) from getting into your fermentation vessel. The cork and airlock approach is one of the easiest ways, but you can also use a rubber band and (very clean) lint-free cloth in a pinch. Just don’t let it get wet.
Now, your mother has to ask you to be patient once again, because making five gallons of Kombucha takes time. In my case, I found that it required a month to make a moderately zingy drink. Six weeks would have probably made one that was even tastier. It is possible that my mother was weak, and yours may work faster, so I suggest sampling it every few weeks in a sanitary way. The best method I found was to use a clean, new drinking straw, dip it in, put your finger on the top to seal it off, and then lift out the tea and drop it in a cup, or your mouth if you don’t plan to have a second dip. If it still tastes very sweet, it’s not ready.
Once it tastes sufficiently sour, you are ready to bottle it. In my case, I kegged it, with the raspberries all together in a tied-off brand new porous polyester bag. I imagine a brand new nylon stocking could work just as well. The keg approach, however, is probably more of an investment than you are interested in for your first batch of Kombucha!
So I will assume you’re going to use bottles or jars. The trick is to blend the fruit or fruits, and then mix it all evenly into the finished Kombucha. But you don’t want your mother to mix with the fruits. Either find a sanitary way to fish her out first, or dump the batch into a separate container or bucket, keeping the mother behind with a little leftover unflavored Kombucha which will be the starter tea for next time. A jar in the fridge is a good place for her and her starter tea to hang out for now.
Mix your blended fruits into the motherless Kombucha evenly. With raspberries, the color will change to a nice rose. You can use a funnel, siphon tube, or if you’re really getting creative, a clean measuring cup with a fluted edge to pour it into the bottles.Seal them up, but don’t neglect to read the next section for your own safety.
The new sugars from the fruits combined with the suspended SCOBY critters will cause the fermentation to kick off a second time in the bottles. This will produce a little CO2 as a side effect, which will be trapped in the bottles, and as a result, forced into the liquid. This is how carbonation happens- and you’ll have a fizzy drink after it’s sat on the shelf doing its secondary fermentation for a few weeks.
But this can also get out of hand, particularly if you have a particularly sweet fruit addition. Sweeter fruits should be used more sparingly, and less sweet fruits can be used in a higher proportion. Just remember, if you haven’t done the calculations for appropriate fermentable sugars to achieve a correct pressurization, you have a genuine risk of having your bottles explode on the shelf. Doing the math is difficult without special equipment to measure the sugar content of your fruit. So I just check them every few days, crack the cap to hear how much of a hiss it lets off, and re-seal. This is called “burping the bottles” and I would strongly recommend you do it to every bottle on the shelf at least every other day until you decide that they’re bubbly enough and refrigerate them.
The same goes for jars. Just let off the pressure regularly.
You can repeat the recipe routinely, and probably ought to do so at least every 3 months to keep your mother from starving to death in the fridge. If you are going to keep her on ice for awhile, you should feed her a teaspoon sugar once a month, as she is still alive in the fridge, albeit living life in the slow lane. Don’t forget to “burp” her jar a week or so after you feed her. But brewing is both fun and saves a lot of money for the Kombucha enthusiast, so I suspect you’ll keep your mother working and growing for many years to come.
Finally, don’t forget to share your mother with your friends. Sure, she can’t bake them cookies, but she can sure whip up a mean bottle of ‘bucha.
* Hey, wait- Matt, you didn’t mention starter tea! Sorry- the starter tea is what your mother was swimming in when you got her. If she didn’t come in a jar with starter tea, don’t worry about it, she will most likely still be alright.