The first time I tried kombucha, I hated it. I cringed at the vinegar-ey smell and could not understand why my friend, Lily, was so obsessed with this weird drink when she could be drinking water, soda, or beer. You know, like a normal human.
Fast forward a decade, and now I drink kombucha every day. Usually I take a shot of my own home brewed “booch” first thing in the morning. If I have an upset stomach, a headache, or I feel a cold coming on, then I’ll drink an extra shot or two that day. When I’m not at home in my normal routine, you can find me frantically seeking out the nearest health foods store or hipster bodega in search of my fizzy fix.
I think my body might actually be dependent on the stuff at this point. The last three times I’ve gotten a cold have directly followed periods where I neglected my daily dose. On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I experienced food poisoning-like symptoms that nobody else suffered from, and I am convinced that it’s because my stomach was ill-equipped to digest new foods without the aid of kombucha’s gut-healthy probiotics.
So how did I go from hating this funky, fizzy drink to swearing by it?
When I first tried kombucha I was decidedly not eating healthy (I lived on a pizza and pot diet like most college students). As time went on I learned about the problems caused by the conventional food system, prompting me to make some lifestyle changes. I transitioned to a vegetarian diet and started eating more fresh produce (click here to read what I eat in a day now), which not only made me feel great about my carbon footprint but also made my especially sensitive stomach a lot happier.
While I was figuring this all out, kombucha was slowly gaining traction as a trendy health drink. As it turns out, the weird, fermented, fizzy drink is actually a great source of probiotics (aka good bacteria that your tummy loves and needs). Getting probiotics keeps your guts flora and fauna strong and balanced, which has been linked to improved mood, increased immunity, and glowing skin.
So, when my nerd of a boyfriend won a DIY kombucha kit at an all-weekend hackathon we decided we should give it a shot. Our first home brewed booch was an amateur affair - we accidentally forgot about it for three months and ended up with a HUGE scoby - but it was enough to get us hooked.
Ever since that first home brewed batch, Jeremia and I have been avid kombucha drinkers and we’ve spread the probiotic gospel to pretty much anyone who would listen. Our DIY kombucha game has been positively on point at times, yet there have also been batches when the NYC fruit flies got the better of our brew. We’ve tried as many different store bought bottles of kombucha as we’ve been able to get our hands on, and we’ve even overdosed when we discovered that 61 Local in Brooklyn has it on tap.
Kombucha is expensive to buy and can be pretty hard to find in some places. Luckily, making your own kombucha at home is a fairly easy and affordable affair. I know the recipe looks long and arduous at first glance, but I promise that once you get started, it is incredibly simple. So, without further adieu, let’s get you brewin’!
How to make your own gut-friendly kombucha at home
Step 1: Acquire a SCOBY
A symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) is the key ingredient for brewing kombucha. This slimy, mushroom-esque disc is what turns sweet tea into the bubbly, probiotic beverage we all know and love. There are a number of ways to acquire your starter SCOBY:
Get it from a friend (just ask your hippie or health freak friends, I bet they have one)
Get it from a store bought bottle of booch
Buy it online (here)
Step 2: Find a vessel
There are plenty of options for the type of vessel you can use to brew booch at home. Think about how much kombucha you want to end up with; will it be consumed by you and only you or will you be sharing large portions with friends & family? You can always start small and transition to a larger container at a later date, so I suggest a 64 oz mason jar for beginners.
A mason jar (as opposed to a ceramic vessel) makes it easy to keep an eye on your SCOBY. I have a 1 gallon glass jar with a spigot that I love because it’s clear, it’s a great size for my consumption, and that nifty spigot makes the whole process a lot easier (you’ll see).
Step 3: Brew tea
Your SCOBY is like a pet, and caffeine and sugar are the food it needs to thrive. Pretty much any caffeinated tea will work for this - I’ve had great results with earl grey, jasmine green tea, black tea chai, green tea chai, and red rooibos. I usually just reach for whatever I happen to have on hand, so don’t feel like you need to buy special teas just to feed your SCOBY baby. Do take note of which flavors you like best, though, so you can experiment and improve upon future batches!
The amount of tea and sugar you need will depend on the size of your brewing vessel. In my 1 gallon vessel I use 5 tea bags (or 2 large strainers full of loose leaf) and ½ cup of raw sugar. The measurements are not an exact science, so I say experiment with the concentration of both tea and sugar in your first few batches and take notes of what works best.
Step 4: Add the SCOBY
Once your tea is cool to the touch (if it’s too hot it can kill the bacteria in your SCOBY) it’s time to add the SCOBY. If you got a SCOBY from your hippie friends or bought it online, go ahead and toss that baby in. If you are working from a store bought bottle of booch, drink most of it first and then throw the last ¼ cup or so into your freshly brewed tea. You’ll notice that the dregs of the bottle are a bit murky and might even have a slimy SCOBY bit hanging out in there - that’s good ;)
Step 5: Cover with double cotton muslin or a tea towel
Your SCOBY needs to breathe as well as eat, so it needs a lid that will allow air flow. Most DIY kombucha kits will tell you to use cotton gauze or cheesecloth - DON’T LISTEN TO THEM! Those materials have much too big of holes and will not keep the aforementioned fruit flies/gnats out of your precious brew. I use a scrap of cotton muslin (a tea towel will work, too) folded in half so it is double layered, and I use THREE rubber bands to keep it secured to the top of my brewing vessel. I’ve been burned by those dang gnats one too many times, y’all….
Step 6: Wait
The standard amount of time needed for this first fermentation is 10 - 14 days, but that will fluctuate depending on the temperature of your space, the amount of caffeine/sugar in your tea, and the strength of your SCOBY. Generally, warmer temps will encourage fermentation, making your booch brew faster. It is also typical for a first-time SCOBY to take a few extra days as it is still getting used to its new environment and needs to build its strength.
I like to keep my brew on a visible shelf in my kitchen, so I can check on my SCOBY daily, just like a plant. You don’t have to be quite as strange as me, though - just make sure you start monitoring your brew after about 7 days. By then your SCOBY should have expanded to touch every wall of your brewing vessel, forming a layer on top of the liquid. I find that I like my kombucha best when it’s SCOBY is about ½ inch thick (this is why I like brewing in a clear vessel), but you can also do a taste test each day to figure out what stage is most yummy to you (and this is where a spigot comes in handy).
Step 7: Bottling (or as I like to call it, “the harvest”)
Now that your SCOBY is looking healthy and the booch beneath is tasting funkified, it’s time to add some bubbles. During the first phase of fermentation (in your brewing vessel), your SCOBY has been snacking on caffeine and sugar, converting them into bacteria, yeast, and cool flavors. During the second stage of fermentation (in the bottle) we will add a little more food but take away the oxygen, creating carbonation as the bacteria basically burp and fart a lot (here’s more info on how fermentation works if you’re curious).
For the second stage of fermentation you will need pop-top bottles, a funnel, and juice. Using a funnel, pour the kombucha from your brewing vessel (that handy dandy spigot is great here, too) into the pop-top bottles, filling them up until where the bottle starts to curve inwards. You should have about ¼ - ½ cup of space left at the top for your juice. You can leave more room if you prefer a sweeter brew, and less if you like it on the sour side.
You can fill the rest of the bottle with pretty much any kind of juice, but I’ve had my best results with concentrates (you know those dusty glass bottles at the grocery store that you always wonder WTF they’re for? Turns out they’re great for kombucha!). Make sure you leave about a half inch of air at the top of each bottle. My favorite flavorings to date are mango and cherry. You can also sub sweetened tea for juice here if you don’t want to alter the flavor of your kombucha. Try whatever is available to you and take notes on how things turn out so you can replicate or avoid certain results in future batches!
Step 8: Wait again
Now that you have your booch in bottles, you just have to stick them in a dark(ish), cool(ish) location and wait. You can drink your finished kombucha after about 10 days in the bottle.
Since the kombucha doesn’t really change much after 10 days of the second fermentation, you can store it in the same dark(ish), cool(ish) location for some time. I am not sure how long is too long, but I’ve opened bottles anywhere up to 2 months of storage to great results. There are cautionary tales out there involving exploding bottles of kombucha, so I try not to let them sit for too long. I label each bottle with the flavoring and the date that it was bottled and line them up on my shelf with the oldest bottles in the front, so I will always be grabbing the oldest batch first.
Step 9: Refrigerate before opening (and after)
This fizzy probiotic drink is best enjoyed cold, so do refrigerate your bottle when you’re ready to drink it. Another reason for doing this is to prevent explosions - carbonated beverages are more wont to expand when warm, so you could very well end up with kombucha foam flying all over your hands/counter/floor/face/ceiling when you first open a warm or shaken bottle. Refrigeration and careful opening should help you avoid a big mess, though.
Step 10: ENJOY!
Congratulations on your first home brewed batch of kombucha! Crack open a cold bottle and enjoy ;)