Beginner's Guide to Kombucha: Part 1

June 17, 2015

You’ve probably seen the stuff at grocery and health food stores in your neighborhood. Bottles in all different sizes, colors, flavors. You’ve tried it once and it was carbonated, like soda, but tangier. More of a kick and a punch to it. Not enough to be vinegar, but not too sweet either. And it was delicious. It’s kombucha!

maddys_kombucha

Kombucha is essentially a fermented tea beverage, full of probiotics, beneficial yeasts, and acids. If you make it yourself, you can flavor it however you want, by creating a base blend of tea and then adding in fruity or herbal flavors on top. I will explain my entire kombucha-making process in my next post, but for now, here’s an introductory breakdown to what kombucha is.

Let’s back up for a second. Kombucha is fermented, but what is fermentation? Fermentation is a process that happens on the molecular level by converting sugar to acid and alcohol. We can’t exactly see the process happen before our eyes, but you can notice it slowly after a few days when the odor and color of your fermentation starts to change. Many delicious foods and beverages are fermented, like sauerkraut, kimchi, (vegan) cheese, and beer and wine. Kombucha is fermented by letting brewed tea sit with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) for about 10 days.

So what’s a SCOBY? It is a patty of cells made up of bacteria and yeasts. It feels slimy, almost like wet leather. Sometimes SCOBY’s are referred to as “mushrooms” because, well, they kind of look like weird giant mushrooms. No one really knows the exact origin of where they came from. What we do know is that it originated somewhere on the eastern side of the globe, as there have been historical tales of kombucha as far back as the Qin dynasty in China, Japan, and Korea around the year 400 (from Eric and Jessica Childs’ Kombucha book! Penguin, 2013).

In a sense, kombucha is alive with the good kind of bacteria that you want in your body: the kind that helps regulate your gut and keeps your stomach feeling good. Currently, there isn’t much scientific evidence to support kombucha’s claim as a health and superfood extraordinary beverage, so we mostly have people’s own experiences and testimonials. Take this story on Inc. about the mother of the owner of GT’s Kombucha, a very popular kombucha company that is now available nationwide, who believes her routine drinking of kombucha helped to battle cancer. Because of the lack of scientific evidence, the only way to really know if it will make you feel more energized, healthier, or what have you, is to try drinking it for yourself.

So where can you get a SCOBY?

If you know someone who already brews kombucha, the chances are they have a bunch of SCOBY’s that they don’t know what to do with. Every time you brew a new batch of kombucha, a new SCOBY forms on the surface. If you don’t know anyone that brews their own kombucha, you can order SCOBY’s online. I went to the Kombucha Brooklyn headquarters in Bushwick and picked one up in person, but they will ship out to just about anywhere. Aside from the SCOBY, any kitchen supply store will sell the supplies you need to get started, and you can get really good bottles from places that sell home beer brewing gear, too.

Why brew your own?

It’s way cheaper, and more rewarding. I love kombucha, but it can get expensive to buy it at the store. When you make it at home, you are only paying for the cost of tea, plus whatever flavorings you choose (and there’s the initial start-up cost of supplies, like a glass crock and bottles, but it will all pay off after a few batches.) I barely knew anything about kombucha when I started making it, except that I liked how it tasted. But fermenting at home opened up a whole new realm of possibility with what I could create in the kitchen. My partner and I now have an entire shelf in our apartment dedicated to our fermentation projects. Right now, we are currently fermenting our kombucha, habanero peppers that we might make into a slaw or chutney, two different kinds of miso, beets, ginger, and vinegar. For those interested in doing home fermentations, a good starting point to check out would be Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, a guidebook that includes recipes for all types of fermentation projects. Keep on the lookout for my next post, which will detail step-by-step how I brew my own kombucha at home.

Related: Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

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Photo: Maddy Strassler; (cover) latisha (herbmother) via Flickr

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Maddy is a vegan baker who lives in Ridgewood, Queens. She holds a B.A. in sociology from Bard College. She has worked for vegan bakeries in New York City and Washington, DC. She enjoys cooking just as much as baking and loves to experiment in the kitchen. Outside of the kitchen, she likes to bike, and spends her time playing guitar with her band, The Meltaways. Follow Maddy on Instagram @madstrass.

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