Kombucha at home

DIY brewing instructions

August 18, 2010

I first tasted kombucha on a wet summer evening three years ago, during a road trip from the Canadian Prairies to New York. Standing in the kitchen of a friend’s home in Indiana, listening to the rain that had followed me across the Midwest, I was startled when she burst in, exclaiming, “Have you heard of kombucha?”

Actually, I had; I’d noticed it a few months before at my local food co-op. But the $4 price per bottle had deterred me from trying it.

Kombucha is a simple education in fermentation.

My friend, however, brewed her own kombucha. She poured me a glass and I tipped it back, letting the earthy tea-beer-champagne hybrid bubble down my throat. Funky and fizzy, the drink was also strangely compelling. This, I decided, was something to pursue.

Plenty of other folks are lapping up kombucha, too. A fermented tea with origins in East Asia, kombucha became popular in Russia during the 19th century. Now the drink is being poured regularly in North America, where it’s available in gourmet grocery chains and fancy coffee shops as well as natural-food co-ops. Earlier this year, the New York Times caught up with the growing kombucha movement, calling the drink a “functional juice” that could become a “gold mine” for the beverage industry.

Aficionados tout kombucha, which is rich in probiotics, as a wonder drink, claiming that it aids in digestion, improves immune function, and prevents hair loss, among other medicinal boosts. Little scientific research into these claims, however, has been done, and kombucha’s healthy halo was tarnished recently with the revelation that bottled kombucha could become nearly as alcoholic as beer if left too long on store shelves.

But that glass of kombucha was soothing on that rainy night. So once I’d finished my road trip, I started investigating brewing my own. I could’ve bought everything I needed online, but like sourdough starter or Amish friendship bread, the idea of face-to-face commerce seemed integral to the experience. Eventually I acquired a two-gallon glass jar, a few cups of finished kombucha to use as a starter, a healthy, rubbery-looking SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, aka the kombucha “mother”), and brewing instructions.

Kombucha, like beer, wine, and bread, is a fascinating and simple education in fermentation. You simply brew a strong, sweet tea, then add the starter and the SCOBY. The bacteria and yeasts in the SCOBY start munching away on the sugars, producing carbon dioxide in the process. This gas carbonates the finished product to a degree that depends on the sugar content, fermentation time, and bottling procedure. Details of flavor, acidity, and even color are open to the individual brewer’s creativity.

As the Times noted, “small-batch kombucha brewing has become something of a cottage industry.” I’ve joined that industry, and on hot summer nights, my home-brewed kombucha is intensely refreshing.

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Here’s my step-by-step guide to brewing your own kombucha.

1. Get your gear. Acquire a two-gallon glass jar (available at stores such as Target) as well as a healthy SCOBY (try Craigslist and community bulletin boards, or online vendors such as Get Kombucha). Your SCOBY should come in a bath of starter (i.e., already fermented) tea.

2. Prep your water. Fill a large stock pot with 6 quarts of water and place it on the counter to de-chlorinate for 24 hours. The chlorine will evaporate off. Alternatively, use your favorite brand of mineral water.

3. Make your tea. Using about a third of your de-chlorinated water — exact measurements are never required when it comes to kombucha — make a strong, sweet tea. Boil the water, then turn off the burner. Add 1/3 cup flavored or unflavored black tea and green tea, in any proportion you like.

Tips on tea selection: Black tea makes the final product much more flavorful, and I have found fruit flavors to work better than flavors like hazelnut or Earl Grey.

I usually throw in some dried hibiscus flowers as well, which give the tea a nice rosy tint. You can also steep dried berries or sliced ginger in the tea mixture.

Add 2 1/2 to 3 cups of white sugar (sorry, agave and honey will not work) and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Let the tea steep for at least 30 minutes. Strain it, then allow it to come to room temperature. Add the strained tea to the rest of the de-chlorinated water.

4. Add the SCOBY and the starter. Gently, and always with clean hands, place the SCOBY into the jar of sweet tea. Pour the starter (the already-fermented kombucha) into the jar as well. (The starter must account for about 10 percent of the final amount in order to get the correct pH level.) Sometimes the SCOBY mother sinks, and sometimes it floats; either is OK.

5. Ferment your brew. Cover the jar with a double layer of fine cheesecloth to protect against dust and fruit flies. Set the jar in a location with good air flow and medium light. (Direct sunlight can damage the tea, and closets won’t allow the tea enough air.) Wait two to three weeks.

The tea’s fermentation rate depends on the ambient temperature in your home. Buy some short-range pH strips to test the pH level in your brew; most people like their tea between 2.8 and 3. You can also just scoop out some tea with a clean cup and taste it. If you want your kombucha more acidic, let it sit longer. (As time goes by, the pH of the kombucha will fall, making the brew more acidic and less sweet.) If you prefer it on the sweeter side, you’ll need to bottle your next batch at an earlier point in the process.

6. Build up the fizz. When the tea has fermented to your liking, decant it into bottles that have rubber stoppers or very strong seals. This will allow the fizziness caused by the fermentation to build up even more. Let the bottles sit for about 10 days at room temperature to acquire even more fizz, then refrigerate them.

7. Serve your drink. Kombucha is delicious simply poured over ice, but you can also mix it with wine for an interesting take on sangria, or add fruit syrups if the tea is too acidic.

8. Salvage a batch gone vinegary. If you end up with a batch that’s too acidic to drink, dilute it with water and repurpose it as a mild all-purpose cleaning product. You can also use it in the shower for extra-shiny hair.

9. Start over. If your first batch went just fine and you want to do it again, simply repeat the process, saving some fermented tea from each batch to use as a starter in the next batch.

10. Share the wealth. Each new batch will grow a “baby” SCOBY on top. Pass it along to a friend, and spread the kombucha love.

Jennifer Ward blogs at Fresh Cracked Pepper, where she chronicles her life through discoveries in food and health. A Canadian by birth, she recently relocated to San Diego to work for LAVA magazine, a new publication devoted to all things triathlon.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by Hannah Crum on Aug 18, 2010 at 3:38 PM PDT

Very nice article. Great to hear more about Kombucha. Thanks for spreading the word.

One small note, I recommend bold*NOT*bold using cheesecloth as it is too loose and allows fruit flies to get through. Always a cotton cloth cover is best.

Hannah Crum
Kombucha Kamp

2. by Jen on Aug 18, 2010 at 4:27 PM PDT

Hi Hannah, I use a very tightly-woven cheesecloth and it works great. Should’ve mentioned that in the article, so thanks!

3. by anonymous on Aug 25, 2010 at 2:45 PM PDT

Great article - I’ve been brewing and enjoying kombucha for about a year now. Nice to learn some new uses for over-brewed acidic batches!

I also use a cotton tea towel rather than a cheesecloth to cover my jar, because I haven’t been able to find any cheesecloth that’s tightly woven enough to keep out the flies. Finding fruit fly larvae crawling on your SCOBY is not fun!

4. by phishstyx on Sep 25, 2010 at 11:00 PM PDT

been brewing KTea for over a year now and still loving it. As a variation, I have a few times made “kombu-cafe” which is actually pretty delightful.
I always ferment tea at least to the point that I can’t taste any sweetness, but the coffee -- to my taste -- is best when it’s no longer sugary, but still sweet on the palate. The texture in the mouth and the flavor were very similar to kahlua.

PS. I’ve heard that citrus, like the bergamot in Earl Grey, and ginger can kill the mother so I haven’t used either of those. Whatever the case, I prefer to flavor my beverage at the drinking stage by mixing with fruit slices or juice.
Thanks for the straightforward guide; you’re helping to spread the good word about KTea.

5. by Bill on Nov 16, 2010 at 4:06 PM PST

I have made over 25 gallons of kombucha with the continuous brew method you seem to have adopted... ie take off a gallon from the 2 gallon jar and replace with a fresh gallon of sugared tea and then wait 3 days or so for the pH to reach 3 or below.

I found the following makes an incredibly delicious drink:

1/2 cold kombucha
1/4 cold pomegranate-blueberry juice
1/4 cold, fizzy 7up

And by cold I mean below 40F. Bottle this stuff in a screw-capped bottle and refrigerate. Serve by pouring over ice. Yum!!!

6. by Real Fermenting on Jul 24, 2012 at 9:56 AM PDT

Wow, kombu-cafe sounds awesome, I’m gonna try that for sure. Just wanted to let you guys know that you can culture (grow) your own SCOBY from a store-bought bottle. That is the best way to get access to a top quality professional SCOBY. Check out my guide

7. by Mark on Jul 24, 2012 at 10:23 AM PDT

I tried the bottle to make my culture ,no luck
I ordered one from www.royalkombucha.com
It was guaranteed to grow so I gave it a shot .
Worked perfect ,now I have an abundance of cultures.

8. by anonymous on Jun 20, 2013 at 6:35 PM PDT

So i used a cheese cloth before reading this excellent article and the comments following it and i have found a fruit fly in my buch. It smells fine. is it still good?

9. by anonymous on Jun 20, 2013 at 8:35 PM PDT

Thanks for the great article ,
We get our cultures from www.royalkombucha.com they have great customer support and offer a guarantee that your culture will grow .
Awesome !

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