Monday, February 27, 2012

All hail our kombucha overlords!

Kombucha is pretty easy and inexpensive to make, and is supposedly pretty dang healthy. I prefer my homemade kombucha to any of the commercial examples that I have tasted -- it just seems much more flavorful and tart. There are a lot of different recipes and ratios out there in internet land to match different preferences in intensity and balance of flavor. I like mine with a nice acidic tang, and slight carbonation to add a bit of a bittering sensation to the sweeter backdrop of sugars. It can certainly put a pep in my step, even when coffee won't do the trick.

The procedure is rather easy -- all you need is a large stockpot and some sort of fermenting vessel. I've heard that because of the acidity you should not let kombucha or culture touch any type of metal, including spoons, but I cannot speak to this. One thing to note is that the local co-op sells kombucha on draft in corny kegs. Although I don't really like this kombucha, it doesn't taste particularly metallic. An easy way to avoid all these concerns is to ferment in a large glass jug or 2-quart mason jars.

Raise the temperature of a gallon of water to near boiling in the stockpot. Stir in 2 cups of cane sugar, until dissolved. After sugar is dissolved, steep 10 tea bags (Black or green) in water for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the bags (or else the tea will be tannic and bitter). Let the mixture cool until room temperature (5-7 hours). This is your base.

To get a culture, buy a bottle of unflavored kombucha at a local heath store or healthy deli. Be sure it is not pasteurized -- as long as it says something like "contains live cultures" you're good. Let it warm to room temperature and mix with your room-temp base tea.
Our suntea kombucha jug.
Aesthetics are important, and
definitely impact flavor. 

We ferment our kombucha in a sun-tea jar, but really any large glass container with a wide lid would work -- we've used the large mason jars in the past. You want to put a piece of cloth or a loose lid over the opening to keep out any airborne spores or bacteria, but you do need a bit of oxygen exchange for the ferment, so don't seal it off entirely. Because of the PH of the kombucha, it is relatively more resistant to bacterial or wild yeast infection than wort or beer, so while cleanliness and sanitation is important, you don't need to autoclave anything.

To ferment, place your fermenter in a warmish place for about a week. We put ours in a cabinet above our fridge -- the heat from the back of the fridge keeps the cabinet between 75-80 degrees, which is ideal. Another option is a water-heater closet, or even on top of  radiator in a cardboard box. You want it to be warm, not hot -- don't let the temp get above 85 degrees or it will be really acidic and vinegary. As it ferments it will develop a nice slimy pellicle on top of the liquid (see photo). This pellicle is called a "scoby" (symbiotic culture of bacterias and yeasts).

An early stage of scoby formation. This is the second batch
after culturing this from the dregs of a commercial kombucha.
Then ferment to taste. Ours takes about a week, but it might take a little longer with your first batch (b/c you are culturing from a bottle), or if you ferment at a lower temperature. It will be more flavorful than commercial kombuchas. Pour off 3 quarts of the liquid into bottles, retaining the final quart and the scoby. Seal the bottles and put them in the fridge -- they'll develop a bit of carbonation over the next few days. When you make your next batch, pour your chilled base tea onto the retained liquid and scoby.

I heard this great rumor that they--"they" being the powers of science--have never found a naturally occuring kombucha culture. This is a bit creepy, and can keep you up at night if you think about it (especially while drinking a lot of kombucha). It is my personal belief that these scobys are extraterrestrial beings colonizing us parasitically through our tastebuds and stomachs. I've certainly propagated my share. They are probably in cahoots with saccharomyces and brettanomyces as well. Where does this conspiracy end?!? Our appetites will be our downfall! Makes me feel rather compassionate for these guys...

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