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We Try It: Kombucha

If something is described to me as something that grows, requires regular attention, is edible, and is kind of gross, I am the sort of person who will always want to get my hands on one. So when my friend A. sent a message around saying “Anyone want a kombucha?” I immediately (after googling what exactly it was) responded “Yes! It looks so gross!”

Kombucha is sort of like a sourdough tea. You start with an initial culture from someone who already has one going, keep a little bit of the tea, and feed it more tea and sugar to keep it going. The culture is called a scoby, which is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. The scoby feeds on the sugar, and will divide roughly every week or so. As it eats the sugar, it ferments the tea, and you pour the kombucha off when you feed it (I’ll give complete instructions on how to care for a scoby at the end).

Kombucha brewing in a glass jar.
Apologies for the lack of clarity -- the pickle label was stuck on with an astonishing amount of glue that refused to come off the jar.

When I went to A.’s to get the scoby, she gave me some to try from a few that she had or was scobysitting, and it’s a bit of an acquired taste. It’s kind of like a cross between tea, wine, and pop, and it varies significantly from batch to batch. There’s a lot of factors that go into the taste, including what kind of tea you feed it, how acidic it is, how long it’s been brewing, and how much sugar you fed it. A. insisted that all the ones that currently needed feeding were less than stellar, and so the ones she gave me were not necessarily representative of how it tastes. I got my scoby a week ago, and so I’m decanting and feeding it for the first time tonight. The decanted stuff is actually pretty mild — not too sugary, not too vinegary. It’s got the same bite as kefir, if you’ve had that (apparently I like trying unusual fermented beverages), but mine tastes almost like carbonated apple juice. I’ve fed it black tea this week, though, so the next batch may taste differently (this one was with green tea). Kombucha is supposedly really good for your general well-being, though there’s no definitive evidence of that one way or another that I could find. I’m doing this purely for novelty value, so don’t drink this as a panacea on my account.

The scoby itself has a really unusual texture. It’s like a very firm jelly, but with more structure than a jelly typically has. It holds together very well, and when it divides it divides into sheets. Here’s the two I’ve got in my jar:

Side by side picture of two scobies being held above the jar.
The two scobies. The one on the left is the new one, and the one on the right is the original. Clearly I missed my calling as a hand model.

The scoby can also be used as a rudimentary vegetable leather. There’s still a lot of work to be done on developing the material, because it disintegrates in water, but there’s people who’re trying to find the right combination of ingredients to make it a viable industrial material. This TED talk by Suzanne Lee is well worth the seven minutes or so, and she describes her work in developing vegetable leather.

As promised, here’s how to look after a scoby. The proportions I used are for a scoby in a 500 mL pickle jar — if you’re using a larger or smaller jar, scale accordingly. I promise I’ve over explained — it’s not as complicated as it looks!

1.) Acquire a new scoby from somewhere. Since it grows exponentially, someone who has one will have LOTS up for grabs.
2.) When you’ve got a new scoby, put it in a clean jar, and retain some of the original kombucha. This will help keep the acidity at a consistent level, which is good for your scoby’s health. (Too sharp of a jump in acidity or alkalinity can kill it.)
3.) Brew a pot of tea with a healthy dose of sugar. A. made a pitcher of strong tea that looked like it’d hold around a litre of fluid, and used about five used tea bags and one new one, and half a cup of sugar. I made a large much with two tea bags and around 1/4 cup of sugar. Old tea bags are fine, though there should be at least one new one in there. Black tea apparently works better than green, though green is fine (the kombucha green tea makes is a little more acidic than black tea kombucha). Avoid herbal tea or anything with essential oils, because these may mess with the balance of the scoby.
4.) Let the tea come to room temperature. Depending on how strong it is, you may need to water it down by up to 50% before feeding the scoby — this depends on how many tea bags you used and how long you left the tea bags in to brew.
5.) Decant the brewed liquid from the jar, leaving about a knuckle’s depth of liquid in the bottom for the new batch. (Adjust according to the aspect ratio of your jar.) Kombucha can be kept in the cupboard (out of direct sunlight) or the fridge.
6.) Divide your scoby, if you’d like. You can keep multiple scobies in one jar, but you’ll probably want to divide it periodically to keep it fresh and new. If you divide it, be sure to keep some of the original kombucha with each scoby.
7.) Once it’s reached room temperature, pour the tea and sugar combination into the jar(s). Cover the top with cheesecloth or some other material with fine holes in it so that the scoby can breathe, but bugs and dust stay out. Keep the scoby in a dark, cool cupboard, and keep an eye on it. After a week, check the flavour — it should taste like a fermented fizzy tea. If you’d like it less sweet, leave it a bit longer.
8.) If it grows mold on the top, obviously toss the whole thing and start over. The brown tendrils that hang down are yeast filaments, and are fine, and the little brown bits that look like seeds are too. The mold that grows on them is usually green, which stands out and is unmistakeable.

So, do any of you Persephoneers make kombucha? Anyone want a scoby? Weigh in in the comments!

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

3 replies on “We Try It: Kombucha”

Fyi, I’m not especially knowledgeable about kombucha, but my boyfriend makes a hobby of it, and I know it’s also possible to grow a scoby from packaged kombucha drinks. So if you don’t have a kombucha-brewing friend, that’s a good option. It takes a little longer, but it works just as well.

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