Saturday, April 7, 2012

the booch

Up until a few months ago, I had never tried this mysterious concoction called kombucha.  When I heard it tasted a bit like fizzy vinegar, I knew I would like it.  I love vinegar.  Sometimes I even just drink a little vinegar by itself (is that weird?  Oh well). 

The health benefits of this ancient beverage are often cited as reason to begin consuming it.  People get a little fanatical (can it really cure cancer?), and most of it is not verifiable by any large empirical research studies.  I'm all for a good liver detoxification, but the real reason I started brewing my own 'boocha was because I wanted to quit drinking diet soda.  I'd had a mild diet-Coke-a-day addiction for many years, and I was ready to kick artificial sweeteners out of my life. 

I went to the Merc while I was in Lawrence for playgroup one Thursday and picked up a few bottles.  I got unflavored raw kombucha made in Lawrence and I got a ginger-flavored one from GT's, which is a very popular purveyor of these beverages.  They each cost me about five bucks, making it nearly ten times as expensive as my cans of diet soda.  After a taste test in which I confirmed that I did indeed love the flavor, I quickly decided I needed to start brewing my own because of the exorbitant cost of store-bought kombucha. 

After downing a bottle that Thursday afternoon, I made an important discovery:  large doses of kombucha make me crazy!  Far more so than caffeine.  And they made my breastfed baby even crazier.  We were both up until midnight with insane amounts of energy.  All I can figure out is that those B-vitamins are mad powerful.  Lesson learned:  I restrict myself to less than 8 oz, and drink it at lunchtime or before. 

I did a little research and found out I had some options.  I could locate a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast - the thing that does the good stuff in the kombucha) from someone locally, order one from an online company, or take some time and grow my own.  I went the grow my own route.  It's easy, but it took about a month.  Here's how I did it.

Take a bottle of raw, unflavored storebought kombucha and pour it into a quart-size mason jar (glass is really the best medium for doing all things kombucha.  It's so acidic that it can leach from metal or plastic).  Brew up a cup of black tea using filtered water (chlorine in tap water can kill the microorganisms that you want) and add one tablespoon of sugar while it's hot.  Once it cools to room temperature, add it to the mason jar.  Cover with a tea towel or cheesecloth and secure the top with a rubber band.  Put it in a dark cabinet or corner and leave it alone.  Over time, you will notice a thin layer start to build up at the top.  That's good!  When the layer gets to about a third of an inch thick, you have a SCOBY ready to go.

I can hear your thoughts:  but Emily, aren't you worried about botulism?  Aren't you worried about making yourself sick doing this stuff in your own kitchen?  Are you crazy?  No, no, and yes.  The only thing you really need to watch for is mold on your SCOBY.  I've never had this happen, but I've seen pictures and it literally just looks like the mold on old bread.  You can't miss it.  If that happens, throw everything out and start over.  And have a little faith in the history of humankind:  people have been brewing beverages at home for tens of thousands of years.  I don't know figures on death from this, but surely it's in the freak accident range.

Okay, so you have your SCOBY ready to go.  Here's how you make your first batch.  I make just a quart at a time, since I'm the only one drinking it.  You can really make as much as you want, it will just take longer.  Or, you can grow more than one SCOBY at a time and have multiple jars going. 

Bring a quart of filtered water to a boil.  Add four tea bags and a quarter-cup of white sugar.  Stir to dissolve and let it come to room temperature.

Remove the tea bags.  Funnel it into a quart-size mason jar, leaving some room at the top (you may have a little extra sweetened tea - enjoy a cup!).  Transfer over your SCOBY from the other jar (chopsticks are helpful.  If you use your hands, make sure they are very clean).  Pour in enough of the liquid leftover from growing your SCOBY to fill the jar.  Cover loosely with a tea towel or cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band.  Put it in a dark cabinet or corner.  In the winter, it takes me about ten days to get a good fermentation.  In the summer, more like five.  How can I tell when it's done?  I take a clean spoon and get a little of the brew from beneath the SCOBY and taste it.  If it's mostly sour and fizzy, I know it's done.

After the initial fermentation, you have some choices.  First, remove the SCOBY and transfer it to another batch of sweetened black tea (thus starting the whole process over).  Also, remove about 25% of your finished kombucha and use it in the next batch.  This insures consistency in the brew.  Then, you can just cap your finished kombucha and refrigerate.  Or, you can add some fruit juice or ginger for flavor and cap it, then put it back into your dark corner for a secondary fermentation.  Leave it for two days, then refrigerate and enjoy.

I've heard that you can let your SCOBY go dormant after you're done with it, and then bring it back to life like a sourdough starter.  I've never done this, so I won't tell you how.  Over time, your SCOBY will have babies!  They are so cute!  Just kidding - in general a SCOBY is really scary looking and I use it to threaten my husband.  Jeff!  Take out the garbage or I'll put the SCOBY on you while you're sleeping!  You can just leave it all together, or you can separate off the babies and share them with people who need SCOBYs.  Or just take them off and throw them away.

When you open your finished and refrigerated kombucha, watch out.  There can be a good deal of pressure built up behind the seal. 

It is a beautiful, light, fizzy contribution to my beverages.  I haven't bought a single soda since I started brewing my own.  The cost is negligible:  the initial investment in a bottle of store-bought kombucha, some sugar, water, and black tea bags.  And jars.  And it has opened the door to a world of other home-fermenting projects.  What's next?  Ginger bugSourdoughKefir?  I will keep you posted!

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