By: Wilhelm Von Homburg
When we have people over for our summer dinner extravaganzas, they usually question what that gross, slimy thing floating in the jar of hazy liquid on my kitchen counter is. I usually tell people that it’s either a pickled mushroom or that it’s a very docile jellyfish I tamed from my trip to Myrtle Beach in 2002. But I never tell them the horrifying, earth-shattering truth–that’s my mother in there, floating away, looking gross, and turning sugar into alcohol, and then alcohol into acetic and gluconic acid.
A kombucha mother is a totally weird thing, a nasty, solid floating mass that in a short time ferments sweet tea into a bone dry, refreshingly acidic, almost non-alcoholic, probiotic beverage. The kombucha culture is called a SCOBY, which stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. What that means to you is that there are both yeast and bacteria present, each performing different functions but co-thriving off of each other. The yeast (nerd alert: Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Brett brux are often present) are responsible for fermenting the sugar into alcohol, and then the bacteria (Acetobacter) ferment the alcohol into acetic acid.
The history of kombucha is pretty fuzzy, but most agree that it was discovered in Manchuria around 200 BC, and from there made its way into Japan (where the samurais drank it), Russia, and Germany. Some people believe that Genghis Khan and his army traveled with it, it saved Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s life while he was in exile, and that it was delivered to us by extraterrestrial beings! Regardless, it became very popular throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries up until World War II, when tea and sugar became rationed. It experienced a resurgence in Switzerland and Italy in the 60s, and from there, spread around the world. It should be noted that there is a Japanese tea made from kelp that is called either kombu or kombucha, but it is not related to the fermented tea so don’t be fooled.
There have been some pretty intense health benefits attributed to kombucha throughout the years. People have claimed that it helps in treating issues such as gout, arthritis, constipation, impotence, diabetes, obesity, cholesterol, heartburn, and even cancer. After the Chernobyl meltdown in Russia, people were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Doctors noticed that certain people were barely affected, many of which were elderly women. What they discovered is that most people who regularly drank kombucha survived the radiation. Crazy. Personally, I suffered from heartburn, acid reflux and indigestion my entire life until I started making my own kombucha. I drink one pint a day, and those issues have all but vanished. Kombucha is not a cure-all, in fact I don’t believe it cures anything. I believe that consuming kombucha (like so many other fermented, living, probiotic foods) helps bring your body back into balance so it can heal itself, naturally.
Alright, enough hippy mumbo-jumbo, onto the fun stuff–how kombucha is made. The most important thing you need to know is that making kombucha is super easy! After experimenting for a while, I have found that this recipe works very, very well. This will produce one gallon of kombucha per week. Here’s what you need:
- 1 kombucha “mother”
- 1 pint kombucha (any commercial variety will do)
- 1⁄2 ounce loose leaf tea
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 1⁄2 gallon (or larger) glass or ceramic container
- French press
- Rag or cheesecloth
Kombucha mothers are surprisingly easy to find. I would suggest asking around at your local co-op, community garden, yoga studio, or wherever hippies hang out in your neighborhood. If that fails, there are plenty of places to get mothers on the internet. The type of tea you use is up to you– start with a basic loose leaf green or black tea (not herbal tea) that you like and experiment from there. I use Keemun tea because it’s cheap and tasty, and I have found little difference in the finished product when playing around with different teas. The choice of container you use is very important. It has to have a mouth wide enough for you to be able to pull the mother out. There are plenty of things you can use– just check around your local thrift store or maybe at a yard sale. Or, again, there’s always the internet.
We start by making a strong tea concentrate. Put the ½ ounce of loose leaf tea into a French press and pour a quart of boiling water into it. Stir it around and let it steep for about ten minutes. Some people let it steep for two minutes, while others will leave it overnight. Again, feel free to experiment to see what works best for you. Once the tea is done steeping, press the leaves down in your French press and decant the tea concentrate. Stir the sugar into the tea concentrate. Next, add 3 quarts of filtered cold water to your glass container, then pour in the sweet tea concentrate and stir it around real good. Now, you have one gallon of sweet tea to “feed” to your mother. Finally, add the pint of finished kombucha and (with clean hands) submerge the mother. You always need some finished kombucha in the mix to drop the pH and kick-start fermentation. Cover your container with a rag or piece of cheesecloth, let it sit somewhere warm and peaceful to ferment for a week, and you have kombucha.
Now we need to bottle the finished kombucha and start the next batch. Wash your hands thoroughly and pull the mother out of the container. Decant one gallon of kombucha out of the container, leaving about a pint of kombucha behind. Set the extra kombucha off to the side to add to your next batch. You can bottle the finished kombucha in whatever you would like– I usually use growlers or mason jars. Now, we just repeat the process of making our sweet tea concentrate, adding it to three quarts of water and one quart of finished kombucha, and then put the mother in. Your kombucha is ready to drink now, but if you let it sit for a few weeks in the bottle, it will pick up some carbonation via a secondary fermentation.
A few more things and then you’re ready to do this. Your kombucha mother is a living, breathing being. Make sure you always wash your hands before touching her! Heat will kill your mother, so that’s why we always add the hot tea to cold water, bringing it to room temperature, before adding the mother. Fruit flies love fermenting kombucha, so make sure your rag or cheesecloth is tightly secured. Every time you ferment a batch of kombucha a “baby” will form on top of your mother. This means the culture will continue to get thicker and thicker. About once a month I rip the babies of off the top of the mother (it’s OK to manhandle her a little bit, she kinda likes it) and clean her up by running her under cold water. You can throw the babies away, or give them to other people so they can start to make their own kombucha.
This is the method that works for me, but it is not set in stone. Experiment! There are plenty of different ways to make kombucha, and plenty of ways to add herbs and fruit to make even crazier, healthier tonics. Many books have been written on the subject in the past few years, and I highly recommend picking a couple of those up and learning more. This is just the tip of the iceberg.