Before we delve into Kombucha Brewing Basics, let’s get an overview of just what it is. Kombucha is a fermented drink that is believed to have originated in China around 200 B.C. It has been known in early cultures as “the tea of immortality” due to its alleged health benefits. It is believed to help stiff or arthritic joints due its hyaluronic acid content, support healthy liver function due to its glucaric acid content, and help digestive issues due to its probiotic activity.* It’s low in calories and contains B vitamins. Regardless of any real or imagined health benefits, the pleasant sweet-tart taste makes it an ideal everyday drink.
Kombucha is available commercially in health food stores, but the cost can be prohibitive—around $4 for a 16-oz. bottle. You can make a gallon at home for the cost of a few tea bags and a cup of sugar. In the rest of this post, we will share with you Kumbucha Brewing Basics so that you can make it home, too.
Like most fermented foods—think sourdough or Amish bread—you need a culture to get started. The kombucha culture is called a SCOBY (an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), and is also commonly (but incorrectly) called a mushroom. If you don’t have a friend who homebrews kombucha and is desperate to get rid of extra SCOBYs, you can order one online—or better yet, Grow Your Own SCOBY.
Prior to brewing your first batch of kombucha, it is important to ensure that all surfaces, equipment, and hands be as sterile as possible during the process. The introduction of unwanted, unintended bacteria can spoil your batch and potentially cause serious illness. For additional information, see this article “What is kombucha tea? Does it have any health benefits?” from the Mayo Health Clinic.
- One gallon container with a wide mouth—either glass or non-leaded ceramic (I use glass sun tea jars with a spigot at the bottom)
- Clean linen napkin, handkerchief, old t-shirt, or paper towel to cover the mouth of the jar
- Rubber band to secure
- Drinking straw for taste-testing (if your container doesn’t have a spigot)
- Plastic or wooden spoon for handling the SCOBY
- Glass bottles for storage
- Extra glass or ceramic container to store your SCOBYs
- One gallon of sugar-sweetened plain black tea, cooled (do NOT use decaf, flavored tea, or honey)
- One SCOBY
- One cup of plain kombucha (should be included with your SCOBY if you purchased one) or you can substitute distilled white vinegar
- Brew one gallon of tea, using unflavored black tea. You can use half green tea if you’d like, but at least some of the tea should be black for best results. The oils in flavored teas (including Earl Grey) can harm the SCOBY; so can the chemicals used in decaffeination. So save your flavored teas for dessert and your decaf for bedtime!
- Use one cup of sugar to sweeten. Plain white granulated sugar is fine, as is organic granulated sugar. Honey should be avoided, since it has anti-bacterial properties (remember what the “B” in “SCOBY” stands for?).
- Pour the cooled sweet tea into your glass or ceramic container, and add your SCOBY and the kombucha starter liquid (or vinegar). Never use metal containers or utensils—it can kill your SCOBY!
- Cover the top with a napkin or paper towel (or a clean fabric); use the rubber band to secure tightly at the neck. (Note: I would NOT recommend using cheesecloth. Your SCOBY needs to breathe, but kombucha will attract every fruit fly in the neighborhood, and cheesecloth has too loose of a weave to keep them out.)
- Set your jar in a warm (but not hot) area, out of direct sunlight.
- Wait (the most difficult step)!
Depending on the temperature—and how sweet you’d like your kombucha to be—your brew should be ready in one to three weeks. The SCOBY eats up the sugar in the sweet tea, so the longer you let it sit, the less sweet and more vinegary it will be. You want to aim for a sweet-tart taste with a slight bit of carbonation. In the summer, my house is usually around 75 degrees (I’m a scrooge with my heat pump), and I check the flavor after one week; in the winter, my house is 65 degrees and I check after two weeks. Since I use containers with spigots at the bottom, I check by dispensing just enough for a mouthful. If you don’t have a spigot, remove the cloth covering and very gently insert a drinking straw along the edge, pushing the SCOBY out of the way just a bit, and take a sip. There should definitely be a bit of a vinegary tang, but still just a touch of sweetness. If your brew is too sweet, replace the cover and let sit for a few more days, then check again every few days until it’s ready.
A note about mold:
SCOBYs look weird. They may be slimy or relatively dry, smooth or bumpy, dark or light, and may have the odd patch or two of darker color. All are completely normal. However, mold that is green and fuzzy is NOT normal. If your SCOBY develops mold, I’m sorry—you’ll have to throw everything out, clean your container well, and start again from scratch.
Once your homebrew is ready, remove the SCOBY using plastic or wooden utensils or your own clean hands. You might notice that it seems to have grown an extra layer; this is the baby and it can be gently pulled off of the mother. Store them both at room temperature in an extra glass or ceramic jar with enough kombucha to cover them. Cover the mouth of the container with a napkin, paper towel, etc. and secure with a rubber band. Check every week and add more kombucha (or a cup of distilled white vinegar) as needed to keep your SCOBYs covered.
Decant your kombucha into glass bottles with lids. I use swing top bottles, but you can repurpose old commercial kombucha bottles, empty peanut butter jars, etc. so long as they have been sterilized. Cap tightly. An optional step is to add fresh or frozen fruit, fruit juice, or spices to the bottle for a second ferment, which will infuse your kombucha with flavor. Some of my favorites are strawberry, cherry-lime, pineapple-ginger, and mango. I always keep at least one bottle plain, to use as starter liquid for my next batches and to refill my “SCOBY hotel.”
*Claims made regarding the health benefits of kombucha have not been evaluated or substantiated by the FDA or any other regulatory agency or medical authority. Please seek the advice of your own health care practitioner before discontinuing any medications and/or using kombucha as a treatment for any medical condition. We do not endorse the use of this beverage for any purpose other than as a tasty refreshment. Drink kombucha just because you like it!
- Trendy fizzy drink is mushrooming — from NBC News
- A Strange Brew May Be a Good Thing – from the New York Times
Reena is a widowed mother of two young adult daughters, a farm laborer turned vet tech turned statistical programmer, and an aspiring homesteader. Having discovered herbal teas as a teen, she became interested in herbal remedies and other natural complimentary healing methods, such as homeopathy, EFT (a “tapping” technique that works much like acupressure), and Reiki (which is a type of energy healing, similar to the Christian ritual of the “laying on of hands”). As her interest in a more natural way of living grew, she learned to make many of her own beauty and hygiene products and household cleaners.
Reena embraces the values of the Essene religion: peace, simplicity, and vegetarianism. She is an ordained minister, Reiki master, kombucha home brewer, and farmers’ market addict. In her spare time, she spends time with her children, runs an online radio station, and tends to her numerous pets: two cats, two dogs, a horse, and a potbellied pig.