Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Mighty Booch: Home Brewing Kombucha Tea

This is my kitchen on brewing/bottling day. As I've mentioned, I have a newfound love of home-brewed Kombucha. There are lots of real experts out there (links to follow), but I can give you a quick and dirty beginners guide to starting up a brew, and why on earth you might want to do such a thing! 

The first thing people usually ask, of course, is 'what is it??' Kombucha is simply fermented tea. Why would you want fermented tea? Well, check it out:

It's probiotic. Yes! We don't need yogurt, dairy or otherwise, or supplements to get our daily dose of the good bugs. 

It's low-sugar. Sugar is one of the main ingredients, but it is mostly fermented out, leaving you with a fruity, refreshing sweet-tart tonic.

It has some pretty outrageous health claims associated with it. I'm not going to list them all - for one thing I think they may be a bit overblown, but worth a quick google nonetheless? One study that stuck out to me claimed that drinking Kombucha boosted absorption of non-heme (plant-derived) iron. Well, that would be nice. 

The Samurai used to drink it. I just think that's cool.

It's delicious. As above, fruity, sweet-tart soda that's good for you? Yes please. 

Ok, so how do you make this magical stuff? 

First you will need to obtain a Scoby.  What is a Scoby you ask? It's the culture you brew with, similar to a mother of vinegar. Scoby is simply an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. Cute, right? You can either get one from a friend who brews Kombucha, or from a reputable company. Not knowing any other yeast farmers myself, I ordered mine online from the friendly folks at Happy Kombucha. I can't recommend them highly enough. If you're in the U.S., there are several companies that supply Scobies, but I can't vouch for them personally. It should come in strong starter tea to start your first batch.

How to Brew:
It's so easy. You make some tea, in the ordinary way, and add lots of sugar. The ratio that was recommended to me was about 90g of sugar per litre of tea, 3 teabags worth or the equivalent. It must be plain, real tea (camellia sinensis) - so black tea, green tea, white tea. I use green tea. Don't use herbal or flavoured teas, especially ones that contain oils like Earl Grey. Once it's cool, or room temperature, you add your Scoby and starter tea. Then leave it covered with a clean cloth. It's important not to seal it with a lid, because it will be 'breathing', but it's also important to cover it with something, or you can get fruit flies (yuck). In about 8 days, or longer depending on how tart you like it, it should be ready for bottling. When it's ready, simply, it will taste like Kombucha and not sweet tea. In the summer it will brew faster.

The Second Fermentation:
When you bottle up your tea, it doesn't stop the fermentation process - that continues as long as it is stored at room temperature. So if you introduce a bit more sugar, either in the form of fruit or juice usually, and your bottles are properly airtight, the tea will become delightfully carbonated! It's exactly how Champagne is carbonated. However, many home brewers struggle to get a really good carbonation at home - this happens for a number of reasons. In my case, I suspect that some of my bottles and jars could be better, that I've been too impatient to drink my supply, and that I wasn't adding enough new sugar at bottling. One website recommends about a week for the second fermentation (while cautioning about exploding bottles!!), while another says 3 days. I've had better luck with recycled bottles, a longer fermentation (nearly a week) and sweeter fruits or a bit of juice. When you're happy with the second fermentation, store in the fridge. For flavourings, I've tried citrus, ginger, nectarine, cherry and strawberry. Got a nice fizz on the latter three. I just tend to use whatever I have on hand, but I also like it plain. 

Batch or Continuous? 
By this I mean, do you want to brew by the batch, as and when, or keep a continuous supply going? This will be largely down to the container you use, either an ordinary jar for batches, or a larger container with a spout for continuous. I actually do both: I keep a jar batch as a 'Scoby Hotel', in case something goes wrong with my main brew, and I keep a big Kilner for the bulk of my continuous brew. 

Don't Feed After Midnight - Rules and Tips:
Ok, you can feed after midnight, it's just that the rules remind me of keeping a Mogwai. Rules!
Room temperature means over 18C. This is where I went wrong with my first attempt. In the winter, it may be worth investing in a heating pad if your house is cold, like mine.
Use Real Tea. I know I'm being redundant, but you can kill your Scoby using wacky teas.
Use Sugar. Even if you generally avoid refined sugar, like I do, you need to use it in this case. It's not food for you, it's food for your Scoby. I like to use Fairtrade  'unrefined' (it's still pretty refined...) cane sugar - same as I use in baking when I do use real sugar. Just Sainsbury's own, usually. There are actually a few exceptions to the tea and sugar rules, but I think beginners like us are better off keeping it simple.
Don't let it come in contact with metal. This is where is gets a bit Gremlins - no metal spoons, no metal funnels, nothing. They even advise taking your rings off. 
Keep away from other cultures.
If you make other cultured or fermented foods, like kimchee, sauerkraut, yogurt, etc., keep them far away from your Kombucha, preferably in another room. Apparently cross-contamination can mess things up, but then if you're that serious a home-fermenter, you probably already know this!

Some useful links:
Happy Kombucha - UK suppliers of all things ferment-y. They also carry kefir grains, veggie fermenting equipment, yogurt stuff - you name it. Very helpful people.
Kombucha Brooklyn - I keep coming across their website for advice. I found this article on the second fermentation especially helpful.
Kombucha Kamp - Again, seems to be a useful resource if you're based in the US.
Happy fermenting!
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