THE MEDICINAL QUALITIES OF KOMBUCHA, AND HOW TO MAKE IT

Brewing Kombucha is not as complex as it may seem.

Simple directions to make kombucha:

  • Make tea with sugar, and let it cool to room temperature.
  • Add SCOBY and starter (which is already brewed kombucha). Cover with a breathable cover, such as cheesecloth or a coffee filter.
  • Let it sit for 1-2 weeks to ferment. (Usually 8-9 days on average).
  • Drink (or put into fridge for later). Or (optional "second ferment"): pour the kombucha into another bottle with a tight lid; a flip top bottle works well. Add some fruit or fruit juice for flavouring and leave it for about 2-3 days (sometimes more). It will get fizzy and delicious. Drink or put into fridge for later.

Click here to skip past the background info and go directly to brewing instructions.

What is Kombucha?

Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea that has been around for centuries. It is slightly tangy and slightly sweet. It contains high levels of antioxidants, b-vitamins, probiotics and glucaric acid. Drinking Kombucha promotes better health by detoxifying and improving the efficiency of your digestive system which boosts immunity.  It has been reported to have health benefits which include:

  • liver detoxification
  • improved pancreas function
  • increased energy
  • better digestion
  • improved mood (helps with anxiety/depression)
  • kills Candida (yeast)
  • helps nutrient assimilation

Kombucha has so many healing properties because tea already has amazing health benefits. Through fermentation magic, Kombucha makes it easier for the body to absorb those benefits.

A SCOBY is used to help the kombucha to brew. "SCOBY" is an acronym for "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast". Tea and sugar are the main fuel source for the SCOBY (the Kombucha "mother"); it eats most of the sugar in the tea, creating an acidic, vitamin and probiotic rich beverage that now includes a bunch of vitamins and enzymes that weren’t there before. Kombucha is relatively low in calories and sugar, so it has minimal effect on blood sugar. 

The SCOBY is similar to the "mother" used to make vinegar. It is rubbery and slightly spongy, sometimes with brown stringy bits hanging from it. Brown spots, brown blobs, or brown stringy particles are byproducts of the yeast and are normal.

Kombucha contains a little bit of alcohol as a by-product of the fermentation process. It is usually no more than 1%. Unless you drink a lot of it at once, you won't get drunk. But people with alcohol sensitivities should be aware of its presence.

Note that we don't actually need a SCOBY, only the starter, when brewing kombucha (however the process will be slower without a SCOBY). This is why you can grow your own SCOBY from a pre-made bottle of raw, unflavoured kombucha, and why a new SCOBY forms on top of a new batch each time. The SCOBY is a byproduct of the fermentation process. Sometimes you will see a SCOBY growing in your second fermentation!

You don't need to refrigerate the SCOBY.

How to Get a SCOBY?

There are several ways...  .

  • If you know anyone who already brews Kombucha (like me!), they will probably be glad to pass one on. The SCOBY has a “baby” every batch.
  • You can order a SCOBY from an online source. Just make sure the source is reputable. 
  • Grow your own; It can sometimes be done using a pre-made bottle of Kombucha that you can get from a health food store (if that batch is strong enough) - choose raw, unflavoured. 

What Tea to Use

All types of tea – white, black, green, oolong, and post-fermented teas (such as pu-erh) etc. are derived from the the tea plant. Do not use anything with volatile oils such as cinnamon or bergamot (so don't use Chai tea or Earl Gray). The Latin name for the tea plant is Camellia sinensis.  The different types are primarily determined by how they are processed.

Black tea has a long history with Kombucha.  Traditionally, Kombucha has been brewed with black tea (known as “red tea” in China, named for the colour of the resulting brewed liquid rather than the colour of the leaves themselves).

The literal translation of the Chinese word for Kombucha is “red tea bacteria”.

Though it was once thought that black tea didn’t contain nearly the benefits of green tea, it has been discovered that despite a longer oxidization process, it is very healthy.

Black tea is higher in purines which aid blood circulation and encourage warming properties. Women especially may experience poor circulation in their extremities and drinking Kombucha made with black tea can improve that condition.

Some other health benefits of black tea are:

  • improves beneficial intestinal microflora
  • provides immunity against intestinal disorders
  • prevents tooth decay due to the presence of fluorine
  • normalizes blood pressure

Green tea is unfermented and delicately processed using sunlight, heating & rolling, which releases its essence. It is rich in catechin polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Here are some of the healing properties attributed to EGCG:

  • inhibits the growth of cancer cells without harming healthy tissue
  • lowers LDL cholesterol levels
  • naturally anti-bacterial
  • boosts immunity

Kombucha cultures LOVE green tea and grow thick, healthy SCOBYs. According to Michael Roussin’s research, green tea turns Kombucha more sour in a shorter period of time making it an ideal tea for those who prefer a shorter brewing cycle.

Research has shown that green tea produces the healthiest looking culture. The most common recipe for brewing Kombucha includes a combination of green & black tea.

Each type of tea has been shown to demonstrate specific healing properties which Kombucha’s fermentation process helps to unlock. With Kombucha’s help, the polyphenols & anti-oxidants become more bio-available, which just means they are easier for your body to absorb: kombucha is working  with nature’s own systems to improve their efficiency. 

Black vs Herbal Tea

You may hear or read that kombucha needs black tea for the caffeine, and if you choose to use a non-caffeinated tea to make kombucha, that you should switch back to black tea every few rounds. Some people say that The Kombucha culture requires certain nutrients that are only provided by Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, in order to thrive. (Herbal teas contain much lower levels of these nutrients, sometimes none at all). However, my friend Judith Windover from The Vegan Vegetarian Foodie Network has had about 20 gallon-sized jars of kombucha brewing (all in different herbal flavours) at any given time. Based on her experience - she's brewed herbal teas for over a year and has had no problems with her SCOBYs - herbal teas work. 

Judith explains that Kombucha does NOT need caffeine, but requires tannins - which herbal teas contain.

From Judith:

"When I first began making kombucha from fruity teas I used white tea as the starter for one simple reason. Fruits and herbs are medicinal when consumed in large amounts. They no longer are supplemental but are classified as 'medicine'. If you've ever been to a doctor and received a prescription for pharmaceutical medications, either the doctor or the label on your prescription will tell you not to take your meds within an hour of consuming caffeine. The reason for this is also scientific. 

The molecule of caffeine is much larger and stronger than the molecule of any other substance we ingest into our system, meaning that when you take medication with caffeine or within an hour or ingesting caffeine, the caffeine molecule forces the lesser molecule out of your system treating it as if it were toxic and forcing it to be excreted. Thus, taking medication with caffeine is like you never took the medicine in the first place. The meds are quite simply and immediately excreted from the body. Interesting, huh?
 
When you make kombucha, you are essentially making healing medicine for the body. Black and green tea are medicines in themselves, as are non-caffeinated herbs. But put the two together and suddenly you lose all the medicinal qualities of the non-caffeinated herbs: when you combine black or green tea with non-caffeinated herbal tea, the medicinal qualities of the non-caffeinated herbs is immediately evacuated from the body because of the caffeine
."

That is why Judith suggests to use white tea as a starter for your fruity and non-caffeinated medicinal herbal teas. White tea does not contain caffeine.

White tea is harvested from the youngest, most delicate buds & leaves which are covered in fine white hairs and located at the top of the tea plant.  Once picked, they are allowed to lightly wither in the sun and then are gently dried to prevent further enzymatic oxidation (meaning to turn darker from exposure to the air, kind of like an apple).

This gentle drying process protects the delicate flavour of the tea and ensures that the highest amount of anti-oxidants are present in the beverage.  White tea produces a milder tasting Kombucha that is high in catechins. 

Here are just some of the health benefits associated with drinking white tea:

  • reduces atherosclerotic plaques
  • reduces carcinogens and eliminates free radicals
  • reduces risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer (including tumor formation), diabetes
  • protects the skin from damage caused by UV light

Judith's journey of making fruity and non-caffeinated medicinal kombucha began with black tea. She then made green tea kombucha using black tea starter. After five or six batches of green tea kombucha, she used the green tea starter to make white tea kombucha. After another five or six batches she used the white tea to make fruity and other herbal tea kombuchas. In following this routine, she ensured there was no caffeine in her fruity or herbal kombucha.

If medicinal qualities from the herbal tea are not important to you but flavour is, then by all means go ahead and use whatever caffeinated starter you have. 

How to make Kombucha!

What You Need

  • Brewed, sweetened tea (see chart below)
  • Starter tea from last batch of kombucha or store-bought (unpasteurized, neutral-flavored) kombucha
  • 1 scoby (per fermentation jar)

If you choose to do a second fermentation, you will want flavouring extras: 1 cup chopped fruit, 2 to 3 cups fruit juice, 2 to 4 tablespoons fresh herbs or spices

Note: For your very first batch, take note of how much starter you were given. If you have 1/2 cup of starter, for example, adjust the ratios (ie. you would use a quart sized jar, 2 teabags or 1 1/2 tsp loose tea, 1/4 cup sugar). For the following batch you will have enough kombucha to make a larger batch if you choose. You will soon realize that a gallon sized jar makes sense, because of the brewing time and because you always need save some brewed kombucha for the next batch.

Instructions

  1. Prepare the sweet tea: Bring water to a boil. If you are using tap water, boil the water for at least 5 minutes to allow the chlorine to evaporate. Remove from heat pour it into your jar; leave enough space to allow for the addition of the kombucha starter and the SCOBY. Stir in the sugar to dissolve (There’s no need to fear this sugar because it’s basically just food for the yeast). Drop in the tea and allow it to steep until the water has cooled. This may take a few hours. You can speed up the cooling process by placing the jar in an ice bath. I usually make the tea in the morning, leave it on the counter for the day, and proceed to the next steps in the evening. 
  2. Add the Starter Tea: Once the tea is cool, remove the tea bags or strain out the loose tea. Stir in the starter tea. (The starter tea makes the liquid acidic, which prevents unfriendly bacteria from taking up residence in the first few days of fermentation.)
  3. Add the Scoby:  Gently slide the scoby into the jar with clean hands. Cover the mouth of the jar with a few layers of cheesecloth, paper towels or a coffee filter secured with a rubber band.
  4. Ferment for 7-14 Days: Keep the jar at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and where it won't get jostled. Check the kombucha and the scoby periodically. 
     

It's not unusual for the scoby to float at the top, bottom, or even sideways. A new SCOBY should start forming on the surface of the kombucha within a few days. It usually attaches to the old scoby, but it's ok if they separate. You may also see brown stringy bits floating beneath the scoby, sediment collecting at the bottom, and bubbles collecting around the scoby. This is all normal and signs of healthy fermentation.

After seven days, you can begin tasting the kombucha daily by placing a straw in the jar carefully (slide under the SCOBY), put your finger over the top of the straw, pull out the straw and it should have tea in it. Hold the straw over your mouth and release your finger from the top so that the liquid drains into your mouth. It should taste tart but still very slightly sweet also. When it reaches a balance of sweetness and tartness that is pleasant to you, the kombucha is ready to bottle. Usually 8-9 days is a good length of time.

You should also have a second SCOBY, or a "baby". You can use either SCOBY to make a new batch of kombucha. You would store the extra SCOBY in a "hotel" - another glass jar in which you cover the SCOBY with already brewed kombucha. You will get a "baby" every batch you get, and you can store them all in the "hotel".  You can put a tight lid on the hotel to slow the fermentation process. If you run low on liquid in the hotel (maybe because you are passing on SCOBYS with starter to friends) you can either add in more brewed kombucha so that the SCOBYs are covered, or brew some tea with sugar and add it - but know that you may grow yet another SCOBY on top!

5. Remove the Scoby from your kombucha: Before proceeding, prepare and cool another pot of tea for your next batch of kombucha, as outlined above. With clean hands, gently lift the scoby out of the kombucha and set it on a clean plate. As you do, check it over and remove the bottom layer if the scoby is getting very thick. Make sure to measure out your starter tea from this batch of kombucha to use for the next batch.  Combine this starter tea with the fresh batch of sugary tea. Slide the SCOBY on top, cover, and ferment for 7-14 days.

If you don't plan on making a new batch right away, you can put your SCOBY into your SCOBY hotel and leave it in the cupboard until you are ready to use it. 

You can now drink your first batch of kombucha, you may bottle it and put it in the fridge to drink anytime, or you may want to do a "second fermentation" which makes it fizzy:

6. Bottle the Finished Kombucha:  Pour the fermented kombucha into bottles using a small funnel. If you want to do a "second fermentation",  add any juice (about 1/4 of the total amount of liquid in the bottle), herbs (mint is yummy) or fruit. Cover with an airtight lid and leave about a half inch of head room in each bottle. Store this at room-temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 to 3 days to allow for the kombucha to carbonate.

7. Refrigerate the Finished Kombucha: Prior to putting the bottles in the fridge, you may want to "burp" the bottle to let out some of the built-up gas - this will help prevent possible explosions in the fridge.  

Additional Notes:

  • Batch Size: To increase or decrease the amount of kombucha you make, maintain the basic ratio of 1 cup of sugar, 8 bags of tea, and 2 cups starter tea per gallon batch. One scoby will ferment any size batch, though larger batches may take longer.
  • Putting Kombucha on Pause: If you'll be away for 3 weeks or less, just make a fresh batch and leave it on your counter. It will likely be too vinegary to drink by the time you get back, but the scoby will be fine. For longer breaks, store the scoby in your "SCOBY hotel".
  • Tea Options: Black tea or Green tea tend to be the easiest and most reliable. White tea, oolong tea, or a even mix of these make especially good kombucha.  Avoid any teas that contain oils, like earl grey (bergamot) or cinnamon (chai) or anything that may have anti-bacterial qualities.
  • Avoid Prolonged Contact with Metal: Using metal utensils is generally fine, but avoid fermenting or bottling the kombucha in anything that brings them into contact with metal. Metals, especially reactive metals like aluminum, can give the kombucha a metallic flavour and weaken the scoby over time.  
  • ombucha will not over-ferment. The longer it sits, the more "vinegar-y" it will become. If you think you left it too long, and it tastes like vinegar, use it like you would use vinegar (ie. in cleaning solutions, as a hair rinse, in salad dressing, etc). 

Troubleshooting Kombucha

  • It is normal for the scoby to float on the top, bottom, or sideways in the jar. It is also normal for brown strings to form below the scoby or to collect on the bottom. If your scoby develops a hole, bumps, dried patches, darker brown patches, or clear jelly-like patches, it is still fine to use. Usually these are all indicative of changes in the environment of your kitchen and not a problem with the scoby itself.
  • Kombucha will start off with a neutral aroma and then smell progressively more vinegary as brewing progresses. If it starts to smell cheesy, rotten, or otherwise unpleasant, this is a sign that something has gone wrong. If you see no signs of mold on the scoby, discard the liquid and begin again with fresh tea. If you do see signs of mold, discard both the scoby and the liquid and begin again with new ingredients.
  • A scoby will last a very long time, but it's not indestructible. If the scoby becomes black, that is a sign that it has passed its lifespan. If it develops green or black mold, it is has become infected. In both of these cases, throw away the scoby and begin again.
  • To prolong the life and maintain the health of your scoby, stick to the ratio of sugar, tea, starter tea, and water outlined in the recipe. You should also peel off the bottom (oldest) layer every few batches. This can be discarded, composted, used to start a new batch of kombucha, or given to a friend to start their own.
  • If you're ever in doubt about whether there is a problem with your scoby, just continue brewing batches but discard the kombucha they make. If there's a problem, it will get worse over time and become very apparent. If it's just a natural aspect of the scoby, then it will stay consistent from batch to batch and the kombucha is fine for drinking.