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What is THAT? The History, Benefits and Process to Kombucha

I’m sure you have heard people talk about Kombucha or seen it becoming more and more prevalent on the grocery store shelves.  If you don’t know, Kombucha is a magickal brew of fermented black or green tea, usually consumed as a health food. The fermentation process involves a number of microorganisms, including a variety of yeasts and bacteria, and the resultant probiotic drink is slightly effervescent with a mild sour or vinegar flavor. If you haven’t tasted it. It is this light, slightly sweet, tangy drink that I think I love almost more than coffee! Kombucha, although gaining commercial popularity, is often made at home. Making your own kombucha is both fun to play and experiment with, as well as, much more economical than purchasing it (most brand run $3-$5/16 ounce bottle!).  The bonus is that it is really super easy to do.

We don’t know exactly when Kombucha brewing started but we do know it was first documented 2,000 years ago in China, Manchuria to be exact. It was documented in 221 BCE, which is why February 21st is Kombucha Day. It was developed as a medicinal tea called the Tea of Immortality.  A Korean physician, Dr. Kombu, brought the brew from China to Japan as a curative for the Emperor.  It wound its way slowly along the Silk Road until it made its way to Russia and Germany in the early 20th century. It slowly gained popularity in Europe and made its way to the US in the early 1990’s.  Back then it’s spread was a slow grassroots movement of local “booch” lovers sharing their SCOBYs (Symbiotic Culture Of Yeast & Bacteria), a necessary part of the brewing process. From there it has exploded, the kombucha category has grown from $1 million in sales in 2014 to $1.8 billion in sales in 2019, with the total number of brands increasing by about 30% a year annually for the last several years, according to the trade group Kombucha Brewers International.

Kombucha has amazing health benefits.  There are relatively few studies done on it but there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence and, from what I have seen in my own health journey, I advocate adding any type of good, organic, fermented food to your diet.

The claims have been that people drink kombucha tea for its purported health benefits. These include claims for treating AIDS, aging, anorexia, arthritis, hair loss, atherosclerosis, cancer, constipation, and diabetes. Although some of these claims might be outrageous, let’s look at where they might come from.

The fermentation process creates billions of live probiotic bacteria and the base of the drink (green tea) has been studied extensively for many different benefits.  Probiotics provide your gut with healthy bacteria. These bacteria can improve many aspects of health, including digestion, inflammation and even weight loss.

Green tea contains many bioactive compounds, such as polyphenols, which function as powerful antioxidants in the body. Kombucha made from green tea contains many of the same plant compounds and presumably boasts some of the same benefits. Studies show that drinking  green tea regularly can increase the number of calories you burn, reduce belly fat, improve cholesterol levels, help with blood sugar control and more. Studies also show that green tea drinkers have a reduced risk of prostate, breast and colon cancers. Antioxidants are substances that fight free radicals, reactive molecules that can damage your cells. Many scientists believe that antioxidants from foods and beverages are better for your health than antioxidant supplements. Kombucha, especially when made with green tea, appears to have antioxidant effects in your liver. Rat studies consistently find that drinking kombucha regularly reduces liver toxicity caused by toxic chemicals, in some cases by at least 70%.

One of the main substances produced during the fermentation of kombucha is acetic acid, which is also abundant in vinegar. Like the polyphenols in tea, acetic acid is able to kill many potentially harmful microorganisms. Kombucha made from black or green tea appears to have strong antibacterial properties, particularly against infection-causing bacteria and Candida yeasts. These antimicrobial effects suppress the growth of undesirable bacteria and yeasts, but they do not affect the beneficial, probiotic bacteria and yeasts involved in kombucha fermentation.

Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death. Rat studies show that kombucha can greatly improve two markers of heart disease, “bad” LDL and “good” HDL cholesterol, in as few as 30 days. Even more importantly, tea (especially green tea) protects LDL cholesterol particles from oxidation, which is thought to contribute to heart disease. In fact, green tea drinkers have up to a 31% lower risk of developing heart disease, a benefit that may also apply to kombucha.

Type 2 diabetes affects over 300 million people worldwide. It is characterized by high blood sugar levels and insulin resistance. A study in diabetic rats found that kombucha slowed down the digestion of carbs, which reduced blood sugar levels. It also improved liver and kidney function. Kombucha made from green tea is likely to be even more beneficial, as green tea itself has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels. In fact, a review study of almost 300,000 individuals found that green tea drinkers had an 18% lower risk of becoming diabetic. Further human studies are needed to investigate the benefits of kombucha for blood sugar control.

Cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death. It is characterized by cell mutation and uncontrolled cell growth. In test-tube studies, kombucha helped prevent the growth and spread of cancerous cells due to its high concentration of tea polyphenols and antioxidants How the anti-cancer properties of tea polyphenols work is not well understood. However, it’s thought that the polyphenols block gene mutation and growth of cancer cells while also promoting cancer cell death. For this reason, it is not surprising that tea drinkers are much less likely to develop various types of cancer. However, whether kombucha has any anti-cancer effects in people has not been confirmed. Further studies are needed.

These are the evidence-based claims.  My personal experience that I have had with my own medical journey is that if you are experiencing inflammation and have all the classic symptoms of leaky gut….Booch heals your belly! Your gut microbiome is assaulted these days with toxins,  pharmaceuticals, industrial food, chemicals, bad water, bad air; The list is almost never ending because it is impossible to avoid toxins in our modern-day world. I started with small amounts of fermented foods and the more I incorporated them into my diet, the less toxins I exposed myself to, the better I felt. Your entire immune system starts in your gut. When that heals, you would be amazed at how many symptoms go away. The most important part of kombucha is that it tastes AHHHH-MAZING! It is also really easy to make as long as you follow the rules of fermentation.

Now, for the fun part! Making Booch! You really don’t need much specialized equipment.  I knew that my kombucha habit was entirely limited by its price and that if I made my own, my consumption would outweigh my production in 1 gallon batches because it’s a process, fermentation takes time. I researched different continuous brew systems online and to be honest they are pricey.  If you have the money, its super easy to buy an all-inclusive kit. I, however, didn’t need anything like that.  I needed functional. 

For a continuous brew you need a glass jar (2 gallon works best) with a spigot [you want to make sure the spigot is one that can be removed for both cleaning and replacement] on it so that you can draw from the bottom and continue adding from the top. I got mine at Goodwill for $3 because it was missing the lid (which you don’t actually need for kombucha). I also spent $20 on a heated wrap that keeps the ferment at the right temperature.  There are also thermometers that you can apply to the jar to monitor the temperature but with having the heater, I felt it was not necessary. This will help keep your SCOBY happy. I also needed SCOBYs.  Unless you have a friend that brews and can give you a baby off the mother, I highly recommend getting your SCOBYs from somewhere reputable. (I recommend Kombucha Kamp or Fermentaholics).  SCOBYs need to be living in liquid from the original culture in order to survive and this starter will also help kickstart your ferment. There are 2 types of SCOBY.  The difference between them is what they live on. Yes, just like a pet, you will be feeding your baby SCOBY. Fed well, they grow big and happy! The difference is your typical SCOBY eats regular sugar.  Jun SCOBY only eats honey.  So, depending on your diet, choose the right SCOBY for you.  Me, personally, I don’t eat sugar and I love the light flavor of green tea and honey so a Jun SCOBY was a no-brainer for me.

As far as tea goes, I highly recommend using organic.  You can make traditional black tea, green tea or a blend of the two.  I use the NUMI organic jasmine green tea bags, but you can definitely use loose tea as well to control the flavor profile better. The general rule is 1 teaspoon of tea per 8 ounces.  The flavor of tea is produced by the tannins in the tea plant so black tea has more “tea” flavor but green tea is higher in antioxidants. So, if you’re going for health benefits, I would recommend using green tea in the blend.

The bacteria in the SCOBY feeds on the sugar.  The process of the SCOBY eating the sugar is what allows the fermentation process. This is why you make sweet tea and why the resulting product is not sweet.  The SCOBY consumes the sugar leaving a beautiful fermented taste and relatively sugar free result. You can use white sugar but I highly recommend organic cane sugar due to the chemicals used in refining sugar. If you are using honey, it is imperative to use honey that is raw and organic.  If you use pasteurized honey the product will be flat.

The water you use it also important.  Most tap water is dirty, chlorinated and not great for you.  You want to choose spring water, purified water or distilled water.  The chemicals in regular water will ruin your SCOBY. Your water can be chlorinated even though it doesn’t taste like it so I would err on the side of caution and buy bottled if you are unsure.

You will also need a rubber band and fabric to cover the jar.  This keeps fruit flies and other bugs out while allowing the airflow needed for fermentation.  You can use cheesecloth but the weave is very loose, so you would need to use several layers.  I use a reusable produce bag as it is designed to keep bugs out and allow air in. You can also use any scrap of natural fabric that is tightly woven so don’t feel that you need to go out and get something special. 

A word on spigots.  Fermentation creates an acidic environment.  Plastic spigots will work but the regulating parts will wear out eventually.  A stainless steel spigot is recommended and can be purchased from Kombucha supply houses like Kombucha Kamp for a reasonable price.  I highly recommend avoiding the plastic spigots that are made to look like stainless steel.  It is a plastic overlay that will flake off into your booch over time.  Also, the yeast and consumed bacteria will live on the bottom of the jar and as you drain out your kombucha, over time, you may have flow issues.  This is why it is important that the jar has a removable spigot so when you do your maintenance (about every 3-6 months depending on how much you use) you can remove it and clean it out.  There are videos on Youtube regarding how to do maintenance on your continuous brewing system.

Equipment List

White vinegar

2 gallon glass jar

Jar heater (optional)

Fabric cover

Rubber Band

Ingredient List

1.75 gallons unchlorinated water

12 teabags or 12 teaspoons of loose tea

2 cups of sugar or honey

2 SCOBYs  with starter liquid (usually sold singly for 1 gallon batches)

MAKING KOMBUCHA

  1. Make sure everything you are using is very clean.  I wipe down the inside of my jar and all utensils with white vinegar to protect the process.
  2. Put 1 quart of water  and tea bags in a pan and bring to a boil.  Turn off and let steep for 15 -20 minutes.
  3. Add sugar or honey and stir well until dissolved.
  4. Add your sweet tea to the jar and add the rest of the water.  You do this to make sure that the water temperature is between 68-85 degrees.  75 degrees is ideal for Jun SCOBY.
  5. At this point, you want to open the SCOBY packages but don’t touch the SCOBY until you have rinsed your hands in vinegar. Gently, place your SCOBYs in the jar and add the starter liquid as well.  The SCOBY may initially sink but it will eventually float to the top, either way it will be fine.
  6. If you are using a heater, either wrap the jar or set the jar on the heating mat.
  7. Cover the jar and rubber band the cover on. Set the jar someplace out of direct sunlight.  I cover mine with a flour sack towel because my kitchen gets direct sun all day.
  8. You are ready to go.  The tea will ferment over the next 3-7 days.  I smell the booch regularly the first few days to make sure that all is good.  It should have a slightly sour smell that kombucha normally has.  After day 3, I taste a small amount to make sure it doesn’t get to sour.  If left too long, it will ferment into alcohol.  Kombucha traditionally has about 0.3-0.5% alcohol but left to long it can develop much higher.

CAUTION: Fermentation is a very old process of preserving.  Our ancestors have done it for thousands of years but it does come with some hazards. PREVENTING CONTAMINATION FROM OTHER MICROBES INCLUDES PROPER TEMPERATURE CONTROL AND THE USE OF CLEAN EQUIPMENT DURING BREWING. Trust your nose, we all know what bad food smells like, if your brew smells off be very careful if you decide not to toss it and start over.

SECOND FERMENTATION

Here’s where the real fun begins.  When you fell that your first fermentation is ready, it is time to flavor and bottle your kombucha. When it comes to flavors, you are limited only by your imagination.  You can use flavored fruit syrups, flowers, herbs, pretty much anything you can imagine.  I have a friend who make strawberry jalapeno booch. It really is all up to you and there are plenty of recipes online to keep you busy for years.  I am going to share with you how I do it. I developed this myself and it works for me. 

I love floral herbal flavors in my kombucha.  I feel the light flavor of the Jun tea is well complimented by the light floral herbal flavors, in addition to fruit.  My last batch that I bottled yesterday I made 3 flavors.  Raspberry Blackberry Rose and Lavender, Peach Elderflower and Spiced Pear.  The whole reason you do a second fermentation is to add carbonation and flavor. By removing the tea from the mother jar, you stop the sour flavor where it’s at. When you add fruit to the mix it gives additional sugar to the good bugs, but in a closed environment it builds carbonation rather than sourness. 

I use the glass grolsch type brewing bottles.  They come in various sizes but I like the 16 ounce because I like being able to add more flavor in mine.  The rough measurement is ¼ -1/3 C of puree per bottle.  Some people just shove whole fruit and herbs in their bottles but I like a smoother product.  The first time I bottled I did not get it smooth enough and, let me just say, chunky kombucha is not a good thing in my opinion.  Nothing a strainer couldn’t fix but that is how we learn.

 IMPORTANT NOTE, if you like a sweeter booch, DO NOT ADD MORE SUGAR TO THE BOTTLES. The fruit has plenty and unless you want fruit puree on your ceiling, I highly recommend NOT doing it.  You can harvest it from the mother sooner if you like it sweeter.  (Yes, I did that so trust me it’s a bad idea!)

My basic formula for flavor puree is :

2 cups fruit

½ cup of flower tea (or water if you’re doing a plain fruit)

This will make about 1.5 cups of puree, depending on if you need to strain out solids. Which will flavor about 4 bottles depending on your flavor preference and bottle size.

  1. After washing my bottles  with soap and water, I place them in a baking pan in the oven on 225 degrees for 20 minutes to sterilize.  This is standard if you do home canning.
  2. While they are sterilizing, I place a ¼ cup of flowers in a tea cup and add boiling water to steep about 15 minutes. Then strain the tea and discard the flowers.
  3. I add 2 cups of fruit to the blender and add about half the tea and puree it smooth.  If you need it thinner add more tea gradually. Some fruits require longer time to puree. Frozen fruit is generally smoother but must be defrosted unless you want a smoothie.
  4. Strain the mixture through a wire sieve to remove the solids.
  5. Using a clean gallon pitcher, fill the pitcher with enough completed kombucha to fill your bottles almost full, allowing enough space for the puree and headspace for carbonation.
  6. Using a funnel, add 1/3 to ¼ cup of puree to each bottle being careful not to get it all over the sides and rim of the top. I like a longer funnel stem for this reason.
  7. Next, add kombucha from the pitcher to each bottle.  The finished level should be right at the rounded edge below the neck of the bottle.
  8. I wait for any carbonation foam to go down to make sure the level is right. It helps to pour slowly into the funnel as splashing increases the amount of foam.
  9. Wipe the rims of the bottles with a paper towel or clean rag wet with white vinegar and seal your bottles. If you are doing several flavors label your bottles.
  10. Place your bottles in a place to cure for a few days at room temperature. The more days you let them cure will increase the carbonation. I usually leave mine for 3 days.
  11. IMPORTANT: YOU WILL NEED TO BURP YOUR BOTTLES ONCE A DAY TO OFFGAS CARBONATION. FAILURE TO DO SO CAN RESULT IN EXPLODING BOTTLES. I usually taste my booch when I burp the bottles to get a good idea of when they are ready.
  12. When your bottles have reached the perfect booch, place them in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation/carbonation process.

Your kombucha is now complete and ready to drink!

If you are doing this process in a single batch and not continuous brewing, you will need to make sure that you save at least 2 cups of tea to store your SCOBY with for your next batch. Store your SCOBY  and liquid in a glass bowl with a lid. Do not refrigerate.

If you are doing a continuous brew, you will need to refill the brewer. To do this, simply brew a new batch of sweet tea as directed above.  Before adding the new tea to the brewer, you will need to sterilize your hands in vinegar and remove the SCOBY to a bowl. Add the tea and replace the SCOBY. Cover and resume brewing.

 CONGRATULATIONS!! You are now the proud owner of a brand-new mother SCOBY and on your way to enjoying your own healthy Kombucha tea.

I would love to hear how this process works for you or how you do your booch in the comments below!

By Stargazer

I am a lifelong learner. I have lived experience in many, many forms but what I hold dear is my connection with the land, my spirituality, my ancestors and teaching others that there is another way to live besides the current offering!

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