Jackie Dana on September 16, 2016 1 Comment Table of Contents: What is Kombucha? How is Kombucha Made? What’s the SCOBY? History & Origin Health Benefits Commercial Products How to Make Kombucha at Home Have you tried kombucha yet? A fermented tea that comes in lots of different flavors, it’s one of my favorite beverages to sip on during hot summer days. Even better, it’s actually good for your health, and offers a fantastic alternative to soda, which is full of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and a number of many other unhealthy additives. What is Kombucha? Kombucha is a slightly sour, fizzy beverage made from sweetened black tea that has been fermented through a process that involves both yeast (like beer or wine) and bacteria (like yogurt and kefir). When made at home or by some commercial producers, kombucha is a “living” beverage with active cultures, like yogurt, although some companies pasteurize their fermented tea. Although it is a fermented beverage, kombucha contains a tiny amount of ethanol (alcohol). While minimal, this may range between 0.5 and 3%, with commercial kombucha at the lowest end of the scale. Despite trace amounts of alcohol, kombucha is not considered to be an alcoholic beverage. How is Kombucha Made? Kombucha begins as ordinary black tea sweetened with white table sugar. To this simple mixture a starter culture (called a SCOBY) is added to tea mixture, and this is allowed to sit for a week to ten days to ferment at room temperature. By the end of the process, the mixture has transformed into kombucha, which is tart due to the presence of acetic acid and gluconic acid. Oftentimes, supplemental sugar, such as fruit, juice or actual sugar, is added after primary fermentation. Afterwards, your batch of kombucha goes through a second fermentation within bottles or kegs, where the residual yeast and bacteria will consume the sugars and create natural carbonation. Kombucha is extremely easy to make at home, and doesn’t require any specialized brewing equipment or knowledge of homebrewing. However, much like any food or beer recipe, you will likely experience a bit of a learning curve. But, with a little bit of practice and refinement, perfecting a kombucha recipe to meet your desired taste is an easy task to accomplish. The first step is to find the right recipe to try your hand at. You can find hundreds of kombucha recipes and flavor variations online. What’s the SCOBY? SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s a white or tan film that forms and becomes a gelatinous mat of cellulose on the top of the brew. Successive batches add layers to the SCOBY, much like a tree grows a new ring each year. In this SCOBY lives a colony of yeast and bacteria that work together to make kombucha. The yeasts eat the sugars in the sweetened tea solution and create alcohol. The bacteria in turn eat these yeasts and release carbon dioxide and acetic acid. As a result, the beverage is low in sugar, low in alcohol, and high in fizziness! The cultures found within a kombucha SCOBY vary depending on the source. Lab tests suggest that there can be a variety of yeasts in a batch of kombucha. Common yeasts include: Saccharomyces cerevisiae Brettanomyces bruxellensis Schizosaccharomyces pombe Candida stellata Zygosaccharomyces bailii There can also be several beneficial bacteria, but most commonly Gluconacetobacter xylinus, which has two jobs: to consume the alcohol the yeasts produce and to create the cellulose mat that becomes the physical SCOBY. The History & Origin of Fermented Tea This popular fermented tea has been around for thousands of years. While the precise history and origins of the beverage are a bit of a mystery, scholars believe it originated in China, where it was praised for its health benefits as early as 221 BC. One legend tells a tale of a Korean physician named Kombu used his special tea to treat the Japanese Emperor Inkgō. According to these tales, the beverage got its name by combining the name of the doctor, “Kombu,” with the Japanese word for tea, “cha.” However, it is worth noting that evidence to back this tale seems to be lacking, so it may be nothing more than a tale. Over the centuries versions of kombucha traveled throughout Asia and Russia, making its way to Western Europe around the time of World War I. In the 1940s we know people in France, Spain and Italy enjoyed kombucha. After World War II, a German man named Dr. Rudolf Sklenar used kombucha to treat a number of ailments ranging from diabetes to cancer. It found its way to the United States by the 1960s and 1970s, where people exploring various “health foods” and sustainable food practices began to brew it at home, along with making yogurt and home-baked bread. Despite its lengthy history, Kombucha didn’t really catch on in the US commercially until the past decade. Ironically it enjoyed a huge growth in popularity after some commercial kombucha had tested over 0.5% ABV. At this point, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau stepped in and required stores to stop selling brands that had tested high. As stores removed kombucha from their shelves, it caused a massive shortage and as soon as manufacturers produced compliant batches, kombucha’s popularity skyrocketed. To learn more about its history, I would strongly recommend giving this book a read: Kombucha Rediscovered: The Medicinal Benefits of an Ancient Healing Tea. Health Benefits of Kombucha When compared to sodas, there’s no question that kombucha is a healthier choice. Not only does it have a significantly lower amount of sugar, there’s ~41g of sugar in a 12 oz. can of Coke, versus 5-18g in a similar amount of most commercial kombucha teas, but it also contains acids that help balance digestive pH, and may contain various other micronutrients. Scientists and doctors continue to research kombucha, and while most people find additional health benefits from regular consumption, there is no consensus on what produces these benefits. Many proponents say kombucha contains glucuronic acid, which helps the liver clear out toxins. Others say it’s actually keto-gluconic acid. Either way, while many researchers do believe kombucha plays a role in supporting natural liver functions, this specific claim has yet to be substantiated. There are a number of independent reports suggesting kombucha also has analgesic effects, reducing arthritis and joint pain as well as headaches. It is believed to help settle an upset stomach. Some studies indicate it might even help regulate blood pressure and diabetes. However, all of these claims continue to be researched and, at the time of this publication, there are no conclusive evidence that kombucha or fermented tea will treat or cure these ailments. Commercial Produced Options & Considerations In the world of super foods and fad diets, its no wonder why kombucha has exploded in popularity among consumers. From grocery stores to gas stations, pretty much any business that sells a variety of beverages likely have some sort of fermented tea options available. In fact, it is estimated that total sales in 2014 was just shy of $400 million, and estimated to hit $500 million in 2015 (No update as to whether that estimate hit the mark.) When it comes to buying a bottle of kombucha, you have a wide range of options, brands and flavors to choose from. While the price is generally about $3 to $5 per bottle, there are a number of factors that will vary considerably between brands. These may include: Origin of the SCOBY. Some come from traditional brewers, while others are formulated in a lab. These factors can affect many elements of the final beverage. The type(s) of tea used. Commercial brewers may use black, white, or green teas as well as other types. Fermentation time. The longer the fermentation, the more sour the beverage and the lower the sugar content (unless supplemental sugar/flavors are added). Bottle conditioning vs force carbonation. How quickly kombucha is refrigerated after bottling. Addition of sugar during the bottling process for flavoring purposes. Fruit or other flavorings added. Another thing to consider when buying a bottle of kombucha, is that many brands pasteurize their product. If this is the case, it is no longer a “living” beverage with beneficial organisms. If this is important to you, be sure to take a close look at the label and do your research on each brand. How to Make Kombucha Tea at Home You can buy commercially produced bottles of kombucha for $3.00 to $6.00 for a single bottle. But, why? It’s super easy to make your own kombucha at home. You don’t need any special equipment and, at least I believe this to be the case, it tastes better when you make it yourself. If you can brew a pot of tea, you can make kombucha. It is that easy. And you have the ability to tailor the flavors to accommodate your specific taste-buds, all for pennies per serving. Kegging vs Bottling: Now that you’ve made your kombucha, you have to decide what to do with it. For the mot part, you have two options: Kegging or bottling. Both options come with their own set of pros and cons, and neither one is inherently better than the other. The decision will come down to what works best for you, how quick you plan on consuming it and how much time you have to spend on packaging your creation. Bottling — Bottling is going to be more time-consuming and labor-intensive, as well as a little more complicated than kegging. You will also have quite a bit more materials you will need to sanitize beforehand. However, taking a few bottles is going to be far easier if you want to take it with you on the go. Kegging — Kegging is going to be an easier process and take far less time to complete. Sanitation is still key here, but you have less variables to worry about. Add your kombucha after the first fermentation stage. From there, you can add additional sugar or fruit to naturally carbonate in the keg, or you can use your kegerator to add carbonation from a CO2 tank. The downside of kegging is that you will have a more difficult time taking it with you on the go. This is an easy problem to solve, but a problem nonetheless. Whichever method you choose, be sure to remove the SCOBY. It would also be a good idea to run the batch through a fine mesh strainer to help remove strands of yeast (or flavorings) so these particles don’t clog your hoses, lines or dispensers. If you consider yourself to be a connoisseur of kombucha and find yourself drinking it often, then we would recommend going with kegging over bottling, as this will save you a ton of time and you don’t have to worry as much about contamination. To solve the challenges of transporting it with you somewhere, we would suggest filling up a growler, which allows you to retain the carbonation and flavor. Other options include bottling a small amount before you keg, or trying your hand at using a counter pressure filler and bottle directly from your corny keg.