So firstly what is Kombucha? Well to explain it in simple terms it is a living culture like substance, that ferments a sweetened tea into a health giving drink rich in organic acids, vitamins, enzymes and probiotics (beneficial bacteria). Some people called Kombucha a mushroom or fungus, which it is not. To be precise it is a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts living in a cellulose like substance (this is where the term SCOBY comes from when referring to the culture).
Kombucha dates back many centuries with the earliest reference being 221BC in Taiwan. There was also a tradition among Japanese warriors to carry it in their flasks to give them greater energy and some say the name derives from the Japanese word ‘kombu’ for seaweed. Historically Kombucha has been used as an every day medicine, and is woven into the past of Russia and Germany where medical thinking was more flexible than most, also becoming fashionable among high society in 1950’s Italy.
I’ve been brewing Kombucha continuously for a few months now. When we were kids my mum went through a stage of brewing it, I remember using a mix of black and fruit teas then, and when I first moved into my own place I started again but as the flat was so cold I was using a heat pad to get the correct temperature, and when that broke I lost momentum with it.
Whilst studying for my Nutrition qualification I came across it again, remembered like an old friend, and couldn’t wait to start again. Last time I’d got my culture from a friend of a friend, which is the traditional way Kombucha is shared with new offspring passed on from each batch like a sourdough starter. I love that about it. However I didn’t know anyone brewing this time, so I contacted the Kombucha Tea Network who put me in touch with someone. I waited patiently for my first brew to ferment but my first batch didn’t really get ‘strong’ enough, staying at the sweeter stage without the fizz and sharp but fruity tang typical of correctly brewed Kombucha tea. Considering the culture is a living thing, after being portioned up, transported and introduced to an unfamiliar environment different to its usual brewing conditions, it’s understandable that it can often take three or four batches to ‘settle in’ and get up to full brewing strength again.
It also helped that I moved the brewing jar into a dark cupboard as to start with I had it out on the side. I was worried that because I live on a boat the motion would disturb the fermentation process, but it hasn’t seemed affected by it, and when we are actually sailing I wedge it into a locker at the most central part of the boat, low down, which is most stable.
I use green tea to make my Kombucha, with organic sugar. Green tea has anti carcinogenic properties and is rich in polyphenols which are powerful antioxidants, it also provides nitrogen, minerals and vitamins that promote the growth of the Kombucha culture. The micro organisms in the culture use the sugar as a food source, it activates the yeasts and starts the fermentation process. The sugar is completely broken down by the yeast and bacteria into organic acids, ethanol and carbon dioxide. Each time you brew a batch the culture grows a new layer (or a baby scoby as I call it) which you can use to start the next batch if it’s strong enough, giving away the old one and carrying on the tradition. I usually leave my scoby’s to build up into a thicker layer to ensure its potency, separating the oldest bottom one every few batches. You can also eat the culture but it’s a bit tough and as I’ve come to think of it as something of a pet (weird I know but try brewing and you’ll see!) I don’t tend to. Fermentation can take anything between three days and two weeks, depending on temperature, amount of sugar etc and is ready when it’s lost its sweetness and has developed a fruity scent, with a slight vinegary tang. It may be slightly fizzy at this stage already but don’t worry if not. Once bottled the fermentation continues and the tea should become nice and sparkling (using a pop top bottle as pictured below means you can ‘burp’ the bottle and prevent it from exploding!).
Kombucha is rich in beneficial bacteria which help to inhibit the bad bacteria from multiplying in your gut. Over 60% of our immune system is found in our gut so encouraging a healthy internal environment benefits our whole body. Kombucha works as an adaptogen helping to regulate the metabolism, bringing your body back into harmony, and also helps to improve the acid/alkaline balance which is important for bone and muscle health and reducing inflammation which is the root cause of many illnesses.
If left to brew for a longer time you can make Kombucha vinegar which can be used around the home as a natural cleaner and in natural skincare recipes.
If you are thinking of starting to brew this amazing age old drink I’d wholeheartedly recommend buying the Kombucha Tea book written by the founders of the Kombucha Tea Network, and reading it before you get your first culture, as it’s imperative you brew with the right conditions and equipment to ensure an active health promoting brew, and that you don’t produce any mould spores or similar.