WHAT IS KOMBUCHA?
Kombucha is a sweetened tea that is fermented by a community of living microorganisms (mother SCOBY), transforming the tea into a deliciously quenching energy drink and elixir tonic, sometimes compared to a sweet subtle sparkling apple cider, or champagne. Kombucha is typically produced by a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) also known as a Mother, which feeds on the natural sugars utilized to sweeten the tea. The SCOBY takes the form of a rubbery mushroom-jelly-like disk and floats on the surface of the tea as it ferments. The community of organisms can also be transferred via the Kombucha liquid itself, which can generate a new SCOBY Mother. The Kombucha Mother closely resembles a vinegar-making-by-product, mother-of-vinegar, and is composed of many of the same organisms; indeed, some analysts have come to the conclusion that the Vinegar Mother SCOBY and Kombucha Mother SCOBY are exactly the same.
I have been nurturing cuts of the same Mother SCOBY in my wooden Kombucha oak barrels for nearly 4 years, and find it to be a rewarding symbiotic relationship. I harvest something it makes by simply existing and it provides me with nutrition and a sense of connection to even the smallest life in my surroundings. In each new place I inhabit, it integrates me from the molecular level outward. I share pieces of it with friends and acquaintances, which brings me closer to other humans.
Kombucha has enjoyed acclaim in many varied environments, widely promoted as beneficial to health. I first bumped into Kombucha when searching for an alternative quencher to replace canned fizzy drinks and alcoholic beverages, when my acid reflux problems post chemotherapy were rock bottom. It was touted as a general immune stimulant, and claims of Kombucha’s benefits extraordinarily vary and change. It has proven to be a largely beneficial gap-filler in the social lifestyle I live, and I am very fortunate to have come across this ferment in my lifetime. Try some, starting with small servings, and see how it tastes and feels for you. I regard this ancient elixir as something of a miracle soft drink. Kombucha has been used to effectively treat disorders including arthritis, asthma, bladder stones, bronchitis, cancers, chronic fatigue syndrome, constipation, diabetes, diarrhea, edema, gout, hay fever, heartburn, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney problems, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, prostate disorders, rheumatism, sleeping disorders, and stomach and bowel disorders. It has further recorded curing AIDS, eliminate wrinkles and remove liver spots, reduce hot flashes during menopause, and help muscle aches, joint pains, coughs, allergies, migraine headaches, and cataracts. There is no scientific data to back any of these claims; however we cannot expect individual foods to be a cure-all magical formula, all bodies differ and react differently, and the right combinations and quantities are key to successful healing. One common explanation for the healing power of Kombucha is that it contains glucuronic acid, a compound produced in our livers, which binds with various toxins for elimination. Kombucha does not target a specific body organ, but rather influences the entire organism positively by the detoxifying effect of its glucuronic acid.
RAW HONEY KOMBUCHA (JUN)
Raw honey Komboochah, or Jun, is family of the orthodox Kombucha tea and is brewed using raw honey and green tea instead of the orthodox Kombucha, which feeds off cane sugar and black tea. The honey and green tea give the Jun a lovely distinctive golden bubbly champagne flavor. The Jun SCOBY is a rare distant relative to the cane sugar Kombucha SCOBY. The Jun is trained to live off raw honey, making it a special treat to all Komboochah lovers searching for an alternative to cane sugar. The legend of Jun cites its origins as the Himalayas, where it was brewed by monks and spiritual warrior nomads who roamed the high grasslands of Tibet, dating back to 600 B.C. The elixir was valued for its ability to open and release energy (chi) in the body and increase circulation. Jun is shielded behind a veil of secrecy, myth, mysticism and mystery. It is more than a powerful pro-biotic tonic of green tea and raw honey, but rather an ancient spiritual elixir. We take it so seriously that we play rhythmic sounds to it and meditate with it as it brews in our oak barrels!
ORGANIC CANE KOMBOOCHAH
Every Kombucha batch is unique to the brewer’s loving intentions and vessel it is brewed inside. We add local buchu, some rooibos, forrest berries & black tea as a base for the SCOBY to infuse the tea’s ‘essence’ into our Kombucha, emphasizing its physiological effects, and imparting incredibly powerful and medicinal Pro-biotic properties into good gut flora metabolism. The SCOBY feeds on organic cane sugar and as result produce substances like amino acids, vitamins, enzymes and numerous healing nutrients for the body. Questions continually arise as to whether sugars persist in mature Kombucha. The sugars metabolize into acids, the SCOBY feeds on the sugar, and we ferment to a point that there are no sugars left.
We uniquely brew our Kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) in oak barrels, where the Pro-biotics are comfortable and happy at home in their woody environment, mightily multiplying! Kombucha is an ancient fermented elixir, dating back to the earliest records of time. Most records point to Kombucha originating in China or Japan, but there are thoughts that it could have originated in Russia. Regardless of its origins, the mere fact that this healing elixir has lasted thousands of years and is still available to us today is a testament to its power.
Kombucha is either cane-sugar-sweetened tea, or raw honey-sweetened green tea (Jun), fermented by a specific community of bacteria and yeasts. We get creative and give the Kombucha exiting new twists by adding herbs and fruits. These flavourings are added to Kombucha for a secondary fermentation following a primary fermentation of just tea and natural sweetener. By tea, I mean an infusion made from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), not the infusions of other plants (such as chamomile or mint) that in the English language we also describe as teas. You may use black tea, green tea, white tea, or other styles of tea, but in general stay away from Early Grey or heavily flavoured or scented teas, as the added essential oils may inhibit fermentation.
We use green tea for our raw honey Kombucha (Jun), and black tea for our organic cane-sugar Kombucha. You may use tea bags or loose tea, and brew the tea strong or weak, as you like. I typically brew a very strong concentrate, which is diluted and cooled by adding spring water, so that I can add the Mother SCOBY without having to wait for the tea to cool. Or I’ll brew the tea to a boil in a pot, turn the heat off and let it soak overnight, ready to strain the next morning.
To sweeten the tea, add organic cane sugar to the orthodox SCOBY, or raw honey to the Jun SCOBY. Some people have reported excellent results making orthodox Kombucha using coconut sugar, agave, maple syrup, barley malt, fruit juice and other sweeteners; others have had their SCOBY shrivel up and die. I stick to feeding the Jun SCOBY purely raw honey, and the orthodox SCOBY purely organic cane sugar. Similar to Sauerkraut and Kimchi, there are a multitude of differing ways in which people brew their Kombucha – just as some people, animals, and plants can adapt better than others to altered conditions, some Kombucha Mother SCOBY’s exhibit greater flexibility and reliance than others. I would encourage you to experiment with different sweeteners and flavourings if you like, but don’t use your only Mother SCOBY. Use one layer of the SCOBY to experiment, while maintaining the other in traditional cane sugar and black tea medium, or for the Jun SCOBY, in raw honey and green tea. Try a few generations of batches, to make sure the mother grows strong and continues to thrive, before thinking of getting creative with alternate sweeteners. The amount of sweetener may vary according to your taste, or strength of the mother SCOBY. Personally, I never measure the sweetener, and rather add to taste. Try about 200g of organic cane sugar per 3 Liter of spring water tea. Stir well to dissolve; this is easiest if the cane sugar is added to the tea while still hot. Taste and adjust the sweetness as desired, remembering the mother SCOBY is going to eat away to sweetness as it slowly ferments.
Cool the sweetened tea to below body temperature. As described earlier, making a tea concentrate and diluting it with cold spring water is a fast way to do this. Strain out all the loose tea leaves. Place the sweetened tea into a wide-mouth fermentation vessel, ideally glass or ceramics with a non-lead glaze. Avoid metal vessels, even stainless steel, which may corrode in the prolonged presence of acids. Because Kombucha is an aerobic process, in which fermentation occurs on the surface where oxygen is available, it is best to use a wide vessel only partially full, so as to maximise surface area as relation to volume.
To the cooled sweetened tea, add some of the previously fermented batch of Kombucha, at a ratio of about 5 to 10 percent of the volume of the sweet tea. This both acidifies the tea and contributes Kombucha organisms. Acidification is important for maintaining a selective environment that favors the Kombucha organisms and prevents potential contaminants from developing. If for some reason you don’t have any mature Kombucha to use as a starter acidifier, use apple cider vinegar, but in a much smaller proportion – about 2 table spoons/30ml per litre. Once you have combined cool tea, sweetener (cane sugar or raw honey for the Jun), and mature Kombucha in the fermentation vessel, then add the Mother SCOBY.
Ideally, the Mother SCOBY will float at the surface like a mother ship. Sometimes it will sink at first, and then slowly float back up. Other times one edge of it will float to the surface and generate a new film over the surface. If your mother SCOBY fails to float or generate a new film after a few days, it is no longer viable. If your SCOBY is a different size or shape from the surface of the Kombucha in your vessel, it will generate a new film that is exactly the size and shape of the surface. Always cover the vessel with a light porous cloth that allows air circulation while keeping flies and mould spores off the Kombucha (we use muslin cloth).
You can find a mother SCOBY via online from another home Kombucha brewer in excess (visit Culture Exchange South Africa on Facebook), or grow one from a commercially available live-culture Kombucha. To grow one, simply pour a bottle of plain Kombucha, without any particular flavoring – into a wide mouth jar, cover with a cloth, and wait for about a week (longer in cool temps) for a skin to form on the surface. This skin is a Kombucha SCOBY. As you make more Komboochah with your SCOBY, it will get thicker, generally growing in layers that you can peel off and use to start additional batches of Kombucha, or share. I have seen Kombucha Mothers as thick as about 15cm, although there are no particular benefits to a large SCOBY, so most people peel away the layers and share them. Other uses for the SCOBYs include blending them into paste and using them for facials – spread the paste on your face and leaving it to dry there.
Kombucha does best in a warm environment, from 24 degrees to 30 degrees. The length of fermentation will vary depend specifically on temperature, and how acidic you like it. Taste it every few days and evaluate whether you want it to continue to ferment and get tangier. In a cool space, or in winter, sometimes I have left mine for 3 to 4 weeks before going tangy and to my liking. Once Kombucha has become as tangy as you like (only you can be the judge of that), empty the Kombucha into bottles from the tap at the bottom of your continuous brew vessel, reserving some to start and activate your next batch. Or if you don’t have a tap at the bottom of your vessel, remove the SCOBY, transfer the Kombucha to bottles, also reserving some for the next batch – and brew more sweet tea to begin the process anew. Kombucha works best as an ongoing rhythm, because to remain alive, the SCOBY needs continual nourishment. If you go away, you can simply leave the SCOBY in Kombucha for as long as several months, and then resume feeding it fresh sweetened tea upon your return.
When your Kombucha is pleasantly tangy and past the sugary stage, you have several options, the simplest being to bottle and refrigerate it. If you wish to further flavor your Kombucha you can decant it and add creative fruit and herbal mixtures, or vegetable juice, for a secondary fermentation. The most exiting Kombucha’s I have made are ones that have gone through a second fermentation. The second fermentation may be aerobic in an open wide-mouth vessel like the primary fermentation, or in a sealed or air-locked vessel. In an open vessel, the sweetened Kombucha will likely develop a new mother on the surface, and growth will continue to be dominated by acetic acid organisms. In a sealed vessel (which could be the final quencher bottle), the secondary ferment will yield more alcohol, as well as lactic acid. Even if you don’t care to incorporate additional ingredients in a secondary fermentation, you can carbonate Kombucha in bottles. Simply decant it into sealable bottles while it is to your perfect sweet to tangy ratio; seal the bottles; and allow it to continue to ferment in the sealed bottles for a few more days so carbonation can develop. Add a fresh natural sweetener or fruit at bottling to speed or increase carbonation, but be aware of excessive carbonation, I can’t caution readers enough on this subject.
Questions continually arise as to whether sugar and caffeine persist in mature Kombucha. The sugars do metabolize into acids, so you can ferment the sugars to the point that there is no sugar left. However, at this point, your Kombucha will taste very tangy, like subtle fruity vinegar. This is the mastery of Kombucha brewing, getting the ratio of tangy to sweet, and always in the medicinal healing range! As for caffeine, much less is left in the end of the fermentation cycle, only a tiny amount is present – with a totally different compound structure far different to a cup of green or black tea. If you wish to totally remove caffeine from you Kombucha, brew it using a weak tea. Another issue that has come up in relation to Kombucha is its alcohol content. Kombucha will most likely always contain small traces of alcohol, as do nearly all fermented foods. Typically, the alcohol content of Kombucha is somewhere below 0.5% by volume, which is considered a non-alcoholic beverage by law. Sometimes, especially in secondary fermentation with fruit, Kombucha’s alcohol content can rise above 0.5% legal limit.
Finally, a word of caution about the moulds that may develop on Kombucha SCOBY’s. I have experienced mould developing on my SCOBY, and I simply removed the SCOBY from the Kombucha, scrape or peel the mould away and rinse the SCOBY. I then proceeded to ferment the Kombucha, ensuring that the taste has not been affected, and reused the SCOBY, without incident. However, it is very important that if mould occurs and affects the taste of the Kombucha, it is advised to discard this batch of Kombucha, as well as the SCOBY. Moulds can be avoided by remembering to acidify each batch with mature starter Kombucha from the previous batch, or in the absence of Kombucha, use apple cider vinegar.
Many people have observed that the Kombucha SCOBY is identical, or almost so, to the mother-of-vinegar that often forms of the surface of fermenting vinegar. Some have even described Kombucha as immature vinegar. Fermenting Kombucha vinegar is incredibly simple and delicious! All one has to do is to continue brewing the Kombucha past the sweet and tangy drinking stage, into the sour alcohol phase, and then further into the vinegar phase. The length of time required for fermentation will vary with temperature, oxygenation, and proportions, although typically from 2 to 4 weeks. Once the alcohol is fully converted into acetic acid, vinegar must be transferred to a sealed vessel, because if the vinegar continues to be exposed to oxygen, acetobactor will metabolize acetic acid into water and carbon dioxide. Whereas the presence of air was crucial in the acetification process, it is now, to the same degree, undesirable. Tasting when the Kombucha has gone past alcohol and into vinegar, is very much practically done through tasting along the way.