So, you want to make kombucha. This practical guide will not only teach you how to brew the increasingly popular fizzy drink, but also provides all the do’s and don’ts to save you time and frustration. It really isn’t very hard, and after a few batches you’ll be in a new world of fermented goodness.
I’ve read all the How-To article on brewing kombucha so you don’t have to – yes all of them. No of course not, but I’ve searched and read enough really good articles (and some not so good) to compile this for you. Why? Because I couldn’t find one that gave clear instructions for a first timer including a list of things to buy (and why), with a clear explanation of how to add flavor in the second ferment, and also providing both metric and imperial units. Yes, I still don’t know how much a quart or pint is, even though I’m less than an hour from the US Border. And that’s what compelled me to write this guide to making kombucha.
A Brief Intro
I’m not going to go into detail on what kombucha is (it’s a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast) or explain how it will cure all of your ills (it won’t, though many claim it has many probiotics like yogurt does, which is good for your gut). But I will say that it’s refreshing and I like how I can sweeten and flavor it how I like. And as a bonus, it’s fun to make, meditative even, and is great for sharing. I find it’s even a conversation piece, as the brown yeasty disc is sure to attract attention when placed on your kitchen counter in beautiful glass jars.
It’s not for everyone, especially for the squeamish who can’t go over the sight of the SCOBY floating in a jar. And if you have acid problems, drink only in moderation (one of my favorite sayings, everything in moderation, including moderation!). There are stories of people getting really ill from kombucha. Google found one reported incident and this doctor’s warning, but it’s like those stories of backpackers getting robbed that perpetuate over and over. It happens, but it shouldn’t keep you from traveling or making kombucha! But if you’ve read this far, you’re willing to take your chances, so let’s get to it.
What to Know
- a SCOBY is the creamy white-ish brown looking disc that does all the work. It is not a mushroom, but looks like one. It’s also called a mother. SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacterial Yeast.
- It’s easier than you think, don’t be frightened.
- I produce about a batch a week at room temperature (22C). I typically have two 2L jars going and find if I drink one glass a day, I always have enough to give a bottle away a week. Perfect for a potluck!
- Unflavored and unsweetened, kombucha tastes like mild apple cider vinegar. Some people enjoy that.
- To get fruity flavors, you’ll need a second ferment. Jump to the end of the article if you’re already ready for that.
What You’ll Need / Things No One Tells You
Wide Mouth Glass Container(s)
Friends in small apartments have had success with the 1L canning jars. I like to use these IKEA jars, without the lids. I keep two going at a time, which makes about 3.5L per week (not 4L, you save some of the liquid for the next batch, this is called starter liquid). It’s also nice to have two healthy SCOBY’s going in case one goes bad. If you see mold spots, throw it away! Also over time, SCOBYs may become stagnant and are unable to be used for fermenting.
And why a wide mouth container? So you can stick your hand in it and easily remove the babies your SCOBY will make. Anything round and glass will work, but keep in mind the SCOBY will grow to the width of the container, so tapered jars make things more difficult, and I’m all about keeping things simple here.
Coffee Filters or Cheesecloths
I tried cheap $1 towels, but sometimes lint would fall into the jar, and the size of the holes were inconsistent. Coffee filters work great and don’t produce much waste. Dollar stores have them by the 100’s. Do not use the lid your container came with, it needs air flow.
Snap-Top Glass Bottles
Clear snap tops work very well and give a very satisfying carbonation pop when you open them. I go for clear glass again, this isn’t beer, there is no advantage to darker bottles and you will drink it quickly anyways.
Whole Foods sells these gorgeous snap top glass bottles of Efferve Sparkling Lemonade, that I only buy for the bottle. They’re steep at $7/per, but look swanky and can be re-used for life. Plus you get bubbly lemonade.
Mason jars will work as well, and have the benefit of being servable right from the same container, but the metal lids aren’t meant to be re-used. If I’m giving away kombucha, I’ll make some in emptied liquor bottles with sealed caps instead. Ketel One Vodka and wine bottles with screw caps look and work great.
Funnel & Strainer
To get the kombucha from the fermenting jar into the above glass bottles. The strainer isn’t required, but I find the finished product looks better without the curly yeast tails, and is easier for new drinkers to stomach. It’s all about presentation! 🙂
The normal, refined, white stuff that everyone is demonizing lately (and rightfully so, but that’s another subject). I know what you’re thinking, but this is no time to get healthy with your fancy sweeteners. Put away the organic stuff, coconut sugars and honey for later. Save the money for organic fruit. The fermentation process requires regular white sugar (Rogers brand for you Canadians is fine) that the SCOBY eats and turns into alcohol and other goodies, so don’t worry too much about the health concerns. Yes, your kombucha will be slightly alcoholic, about 0.5%-1% depending how long you ferment for.
Orange Pekoe, English Breakfast and Ceylon have worked great for me, bagged and loose leaf. Earl Grey does not, it contains bergamot. Again, don’t get fancy here. No Rooibos, fruit teas or anything flavored, only 100% pure black tea. Oolong and Darjeeling should also work. I love green tea as much as you and rarely drink black, but now is not the time. After your first few successful batches, you have earned the right to play with different mixes, but you haven’t earned that right yet. I’ve gone up to half black / half green with success, but SCOBY’s really like plain black tea, so stick with that for your first few batches. And when going full on green or white tea, try to alternate batches of black to keep the SCOBY happy.
How to get a SCOBY
Depending where you live, you might have to buy one. Luckily I live in Vancouver where we have a wonderful Facebook group Vancouver SCOBY Exchange. If you live in the area, request to join the closed group and I’ll add you. Craigslist is pretty lively as well, though people tend to charge $5-$20 for SCOBY’s with starter. In the spirit of community, I don’t believe in this, but hey if people are offering a product to make things easy and people are willing to buy, have at’er. I’m still waiting for that aspiring entrepreneur to sell a turnkey Kombucha kit!
If you’re not so lucky, you may need to head to your local health food store and find one. I’ve read articles about people buying kombucha from Whole Foods as starter. Sounds crazy expensive to me, and those all are flavored, but if that’s all you can do, try it. It’ll also take a lot longer for the SCOBY to grow to a reasonable size.
Do I Have a Healthy SCOBY?
A healthy SCOBY is creamy white / light brown in colour, and has a smooth looking surface with some small holes / bubbles. Those little stringy brown bits are normal, they’re harmless yeast tails and can be filtered out every once in a while if you don’t like the look.
You should also get starter liquid with yours. About a cup for a medium-sized SCOBY. Make an “O” shape with your two hands like you’re holding a burger, and that’s the scientific size I will call medium.
Golden Rules for Brewing Kombucha
You swear by the following rules:
I shall handle the SCOBY only with clean hands.
This may sound obvious, but really give your hands a good rinse. You’re putting this in your body, do you really want soap in your drink?
Thy SCOBY shall never touch a leeching material.
Glass is best, the commercial producers use stainless steel, but never, never aluminum. And plastic is kind of gross for food, why take that chance? Chemical reactions are happening here!
Thy SCOBY shall never touch anything except sweetened tea.
No fruit. No honey. No fancy sugars from the organic store. Those can come later in the second ferment.
Thy SCOBY shall be kept away from direct sun.
I put it on my kitchen counter next to a big bread cabinet. Sun probably hits it for 15 minutes a day and it’s been healthy as ever.
The Kombucha Recipe (in Metric!)
Here’s my recipe that’s a culmination of much research, advice from friends (thanks Vimi!) and trial and error.
1/2 cup sugar
4 black tea bags (or 7 teaspoons loose tea)
1 cup starter liquid
These measurements assume you are making one 2L batch, since it might be hard to procure two SCOBY’s when you’re starting. If you’re like me and have two 2L containers and two SCOBY’s, double these measurements.
Boil 1.75L of water. It’s not 2L because you have the starter liquid from the previous batch. You don’t need to be exact here. Add tea bags and steep to the directions on the package. Don’t over boil, it’s usually 5 minutes for black tea. Some swear by the purity that distilled water brings as it also removes fluoride, but I continue to use our quality tap water here in BC, which when boiled, removes the chlorine.
Some articles refer to “family sized” tea bags. I don’t even know what that is. Show me a family of 4 or more that all drinks the same tea.
To help remember, a rule of thumb is one regular tea bag per 1/2 litre of kombucha. That works out to 4 bags for a single 2L batch, 8 bags for 4L (gallon) of kombucha.
Remove the tea bags and add 1/2 cup of white, refined sugar per 2L (~2 quarts or a half gallon). This may seem like a lot, but Nestea has 34g and Coke has 39g!!
Stir and leave this sugar tea mixture for a few hours until it reaches room temperature. I make mine in a large pot on the stove and cover it out of habit, so it will take longer to cool, but the fruit flies seem to only be attracted to the fermenting jars.
When it’s at room temperature a few hours later, stir it again to fully dissolve. Don’t fret if you forgot it overnight, I’ve done this many times. It’s sweetened tea, it’s still good.
Combine Tea with your SCOBY
Pour the sweetened tea into your 2L jar containing at least 1 cup of starter liquid. Stop before the glass jar starts tapering as it will grow to the diameter. Place the SCOBY gently on top. Note: I used to remove my SCOBY before pouring, but now I pour gently to avoid the SCOBY from flipping over or to agitate it to much and it’s fine so far. It depends how solid your SCOBY is. If it’s very new and thin it may break if you pour fast, hence placing it on top.
Wipe off any tea from the rim. Cover with a coffee filter or cheese cloth and attach with big elastic bands. Place the jars somewhere in the shade with decent airflow (don’t put it in an enclosed drawer). Some people put it on top of their fridge. It’s warmer there so you’ll get faster ferments.
And Now We Wait
Let it ferment. Don’t move it much. It will bubble and attract fruit flies. The SCOBY sometimes tilts sideways or parts of it raise above the liquid, so sometimes I will push it back down so it floats nicely flat at the top.
Taste, Taste, Taste!
At room temperature, after 5 days dip a plastic spoon in, pushing the SCOBY down a bit and sipping the results. It turns slightly more acidic everyday, until it becomes a lot like apple cider vinegar and hits you with that sour sharpness. My first few batches I started in the summer were so vinegary that I nearly gagged. That’s OK. You can always dilute it later with soda water (cheater!) or throw half of it out and make more sweetened tea. But that’s a waste, so put the excess in the fridge and keep it as starter liquid for when your SCOBY starts multiplying to give away to friends.
On each subsequent batch, play with the timing to get the right acidity for you. I have some friends who love the vinegary taste. My first 5 batches some people couldn’t handle, as it was definitely more acidic than store-bought kombucha. Then again, they didn’t like that stuff either.
If you live in a warm climate (over 25C), which we only get for a couple weeks in BC and the Pacific Northwest, your ferment time will drop to 4-5 days. That’s a lot of kombucha you’re thinking. Great, give it to friends..
Strain and Transfer
When you’re happy with the acidity, bring out your funnel and optional strainer (to remove those stringy yeast tails). If you like this straight kombucha taste and don’t care for carbonation, pour it into your snap top bottles, leaving about an inch at the top for breathing room. Leave at least a cup of liquid in the original jar with the SCOBY, this will be for your next batch. Stick your bottles in the fridge to stop the fermentation process, and start the process over again from the top to make another batch. You’ve mastered the art of kombucha making!
However if you’re like me, you like the fizz and flavor, which requires a second ferment, so hold off on pouring.
The Fun Part, Second Fermentation
This is where the mad scientist in you comes in, and why air tight glass containers are necessary. We’re going to feed the kombucha a little more sugar and fresh fruit (which also contains much needed sugar), then seal it and let it sit and ferment again.
First, add 2 teaspoons of white sugar to each empty 750mL bottle. The more sugar, obviously the sweeter, but also the more fizz you will get as the liquid will have more to work with. Play with this amount on your next batches.
Add about 10-15% of your glass container worth of thawed or fresh fruit, preferably organic. To start, try raspberries or strawberries. Mash it with a fork like you’re making coulis (who doesn’t make coulis?). Use the funnel and a chopstick or other poking device (behave) to get the fruit bits to the bottom of the bottle.
Grab your funnel and strainer and pour one cup of starter liquid into your bottle, leaving at least cup in the original jar with the SCOBY for the next batch.
Although there is no SCOBY in your bottle, there is enough active culture mixed in the liquid that it will feed on the sugars and will even create it’s own little baby SCOBY, a thin mucous like layer. It looks gross so I usually filter it out, though you can even eat it. Some people even make SCOBY candy! I don’t, but to each their own.
Leave this flavored kombucha at room temperature for at least 2 days. The longer you leave it, the fizzier it gets. Now this is where you have to be really careful – too long and your bottle could explode. My friend had this happen in her fridge! The fermentation doesn’t stop immediately in the fridge, it slows down but can even continue to ferment weeks later, so “burp” the bottles once a week if you haven’t drank it already to let some air out.
When to Stop the Fermentation Process
I’ve yet to do a second ferment longer than 3 days without burping because I like my glass containers too much, and have been getting a good level of carbonation. After three days, put it in the fridge to stop fermentation. It will still ferment, albeit at a much slower rate in your fridge. Note: I haven’t burped it yet, and won’t burp it unless it sits in the fridge a while.
And that’s it! Congratulations, you’ve made flavored kombucha! It’s ready to drink right away, but I like it cold. It goes well with a few ice cubes.
The flavored kombucha will keep for weeks, but remember to burp once in a while, particularly if leaving it in the door of your fridge (not recommended but sometimes you have no choice). It’s like a coke bottle that keeps getting fizzier.
Pick Your Flavour
Now that you’ve successfully made your first batch of kombucha, you can make it your own and experiment with different combinations of flavours!
Ginger, berries, mangoes, grapefruit, citrus, hibiscus, anything you can imagine! I find tart fruits work best. There are no rules anymore! Play with the sugar levels. You can lessen the white sugar on the second ferment and add honey to sweeten (local honey from the farmer’s market, of course). 🙂
My favorites so far (you’ll see I really like ginger):
Raspberry Lemon Ginger
Grapefruit Lemon Ginger
Strawberry Lemon Ginger
Some flavors to try:
Cardamom / Chai
Mango / Papaya if you’re in the tropics
Lazy Tip: it takes time to mash berries and juice fruit, so sometimes I use organic juice like Trader’s Joe’s Organic Grapefruit which creates an end product similar to Grapefruit beer, or Santa Cruz Organic Mango Lemonade which seems to always be on sale somewhere.
I add about a 1/2 cup per 750mL in lieu, or sometimes in addition to, fresh fruit.
Because of the acidity and alcohol, kombucha will keep in your fridge for weeks, but because I’m constantly making more and don’t want to risk it exploding, I usually finish mine before the next batch is done, or give it away.
My Mother Had Babies
After about two batches, you will notice your SCOBY getting thicker, possibly forming layers. Sometimes these will detach on their own, creating a second disc. Congrats, you’ve just had your first baby!
Leaving these in your jar does no harm except speed up the fermenting process slightly. The beauty of kombucha is that it keeps on giving! Give these extra SCOBY’s to friends or randoms on Craigslist/FB. If it gets too thick and there are no takers, you can safely store them in the fridge. I also do this when I go on a trip longer than three weeks, so I’ll have a healthy SCOBY when I get home and can start brewing again right away. SCOBY’s are quite versatile, they can even be cut to size as they will grow to the diameter of your container.
I hope you enjoyed this guide! Always remember the Golden Rules of Kombucha making, and please share your favorite recipes and tips in the comments!
Updated March 26, 2017 after a conversation with the owner of Hoochy Booch Kombucha.