I’m about to share a kombucha SCOBY so a friend can get started on her own journey with this amazing fermented tea drink. I thought I’d write down some steps and tips here so that they’ll be here for any future kombucha SCOBY sharing I might do, or in case anyone else is interested in my particular routine with kombucha.
What’s kombucha? There is TONS of info on the web with everything from basic explanations to troubleshooting to creative ways to use ‘extra’ SCOBYs. (Like as band-aids. SERIOUSLY.) My favorite resources and articles are on a Pinterest board I keep for fermenting/brewing/etc. Find it here: https://www.pinterest.com/manteega/yeastsourdoughbrewingfermenting/. You might have to scroll down the page. I do a lot more to harness the awesome powers and benefits of microorganisms these days than just kombucha, and am always trying to learn. The top pins will be whatever I’m most interested in at any given time. The kombucha stuff is there.
I’m not sure exactly where to start, as kombucha’s kind of a cycle. I guess it makes the most sense to start where you will when you get your SCOBY/starter! Obviously when you’re making your first batch with the SCOBY and starter tea you’ll skip the whole bottling thing. All you need to do is make tea, and pour it (the cooled tea) into your brewing container with the starter, and release the SCOBY. Cover and wait! The following is going to seem like A LOT of steps and info, but the whole thing is really easy. Don’t let my wordiness turn this into more than it is! Chances are if I gave you a SCOBY you know who I am and my propensity towards endless verbosity. It doesn’t even take me a half-hour to bottle my KT. Maybe like 15-20 minutes.
(1) Make sweetened tea in the amount you want to brew. This will likely depend on how big a jar you have. I use a gallon ‘sun tea’ jar (the one with the flowers in the picture). This makes about 6 Grolsch-bottles of ‘booch on bottling day. For my gallon of kombucha I put about 14 cups of water into a large stainless-steel pot and bring it to a boil. As soon as it boils I turn off the heat and pull the pot off the burner. I give it a minute or two while I get the tea out. I use two tablespoons of loose black tea, or 6-8 tea bags. I let it steep for 10 minutes, then add one cup of sugar — I get the bags of organic cane sugar from Costco, seems to be working great. I’ve gotten in the habit of making tea the night before I want to bottle, so that it’s TOTALLY cooled to room temp by that time. A gallon of boiling hot tea takes a LONG time to cool, and if you put your SCOBY into tea that’s too hot you might kill it.
Here’s a chart from a page on the Cultures For Health website for the ratios of water/tea/sugar for different amounts of final KT:
- 1½ teaspoon loose tea OR 2 tea bags
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2-3 cups water
- ½ cup starter tea or vinegar
- 1 tablespoon loose tea OR 4 tea bags
- ½ cup sugar
- 6-7 cups water
- 1 cup starter tea or vinegar
- 2 tablespoons loose tea OR 8 tea bags
- 1 cup sugar
- 13-14 cups water
- 2 cups starter tea or vinegar
A note on tea: Kombucha likes plain black tea the best, though I’ve heard of people doing mixes of herbal teas and or/green tea with black tea with success. I’d recommend letting your SCOBY grow another one and use one to experiment and one to keep doing the “tried-and-true” in case you kill it if you want to try different teas. (There’s a different kombucha-like culture you can make with green tea and honey called “Jun”. It requires a different SCOBY, as it’s different bacteria/yeast.) So far I have used a couple different sources of tea. One was a box of loose organic black tea from Portugal I got at that GJ Andrews place on Academy road. It worked really really well. When I ran out I needed tea like right now and got a box of T&T brand organic Chinese loose black tea at Superstore. I found the taste was kinda blah after using it a couple times and the SCOBY didn’t seem to like it as much, either. I picked up some different organic black tea bags at VitaHealth the other day. Can’t remember the brand but the box says it’s sourced from “various countries”. (I’ve now tried it and it’s GOOD!)
(2) So, the next day when I’ve got my room-temp tea ready I gather the things I need to bottle:
6 Grolsch bottles
A 2-cup glass measuring cup
My trusty enameled metal 4-cup measure
A little plastic 2-oz measure (oops — not pictured)
A little tiny funnel
Whatever juice/syrup I’m using in my second ferment (see step 5 for more info)
The jar of kombucha that’s been brewing
Paper towels and/or a clean dish rag
Labels and a marker (optional but recommended)
(3) I take the cover off the big jar of ready-to-bottle kombucha and lay it so that I remember which side is “up” in the interest of not flipping it over and accidentally introducing dust or anything into the kombucha I don’t want. I guess if you’re the fastidious type you could use a clean fresh piece of whatever you’re using as a cover each time. Then I reach in with clean hands (soap and water is fine), fish out the SCOBY and put it on the plate. (See step 12 for what to do in the case your SCOBY has grown or seemingly duplicated itself over the brewing process.)
(4) I pour 2 cups of the kombucha tea (shortened to KT after this) into the glass measure and set it aside. This will be my starter for the next batch. Starter tea is important, as it immediately acidifies the brew so that “bad” microorganisms can’t take hold and ruin your KT. I read somewhere that pouring it off the top of the jar is best, as free yeast tends to settle in the bottom of the jug and using that can throw off the balance. I poured off the bottom of the jug for the first several months I was doing this, and it did fine, but I do notice that my SCOBYs tend to be cleaner and happier looking since starting to pour from the top for my reserved starter.
(5) Then I put my juice/syrup into the bottles using the little funnel. I do all the bottles at once, so each of the 6 bottles has a little bit in it, and the KT goes on top. Efficiency, baby. I use my little bitty 2-ounce cup with tablespoon marks for measuring juice. I’ve been finding that anywhere from one to three tablespoons of juice/syrup is perfect. 4 is too much. (Both taste-wise and carbonation-wise…. more sugar = more bubbles = explodeyness when opening bottles = KT on the ceiling = friends/family/pets that are surprised/amused/scared and/or pissed off depending on how well KT comes off the kitchen ceiling. I’m totally hypothetically speaking, though. The permanent stain on my popcorn-textured ceiling is actually from a different homebrew experiment, but I’d imagine my boyfriend would be equally less enthusiastic about a KT stain.) Anyway….. Use less of things that are sweet and/or concentrated (like syrups and fruit “juice” that’s more like a puree), and more of things like actual juice. I have used SO MANY different things for my second ferment (called ‘2F’ from now on). You can use pretty much anything, even whole pieces of fruit, though I haven’t really tried that. (Seems easier/better to use liquids from a bottle-cleaning standpoint.) So far my favorite 2F add-ins are the elderflower syrup from Ikea and cherry juice from home-canned water-packed cherries. Orange juice is quite good. I thought blueberry juice would be really awesome but I didn’t like it. I was excited about strawberry juice, but it was kinda weird. Mixed with sour rose-hip juice, though, strawberry is good! (I’m drinking that now!) Apple juice was a total fail. I think because KT tastes reminiscent of apple on its own that it conflicted in a weird way. You can use jam/jelly globs too. I used the Ikea lingonberry jam (lingonberries are kind of like little cranberries) for a couple batches — like a teaspoon or less per bottle. It was kinda good and the closest thing to whole fruit I’ve used. You end up with pretty much whole little lingonberries soaked in KT at the bottom of the bottle. It’s kind of good and gross at the same time. ANYWAY, you can get super creative, OR you can also bottle it plain. That’s good too. If you’re bottling it before all the sugar is spent in the brew it will carbonate fine. You can always add like 1/4 teaspoon of granulated sugar or honey to the bottle if you want to make sure it’ll carbonate. (Not too much — reference ceiling stain story above.)
Oh, I guess I’ll mention that the 2F juice/sugar is for added taste, but also to give the yeast a little extra snack so that they make you bubbles. The carbon dioxide the yeast make when they eat sugar can’t escape the bottle, so it’s forced back into the KT giving you a delightfully bubbly drink. It’s really easy to get awesome bubbles, and the *pop* of the bottle and sight of the poured KT is as satisfying as actually drinking it. It’s sure to impress anyone, even if they don’t actually like the taste of kombucha.
(6) Then I take whatever clean implement is closest — fork, spoon, knife, whatever — and give the big jug a stir. Doesn’t have to be thorough, all you’re doing is giving it a little mix to pull some of the yeast from the bottom and distribute it throughout the KT. Don’t worry about fully mixing it up — sediment staying at the bottom is fine.
(7) When you’ve got your bottles each with the 2F juice in them, you’re ready to pour in the KT from the brewing jug. I pour from the big jug into the 4-cup measure first and pour from that into the bottles — it’s a lot easier to manage. The KT will tend to foam up in the bottle as you’re pouring unless you’re better with the little funnel than I am. Be careful not to lose precious KT to overflowing. You want to fill the bottles to about 1-inch from the top. With the actual Grolsch bottles that’s easy because that collar at the top of the bottle-neck is about an inch. If you fill it to less than an inch it might not carbonate properly. If you fill too much you’re in ceiling-stain territory, or, worse, bottle explosion. I have yet to experience that, and hope I never will.
(8) When the bottles are full, wipe the top with a paper towel or cloth and clamp down the top. Use a dampened towel to wipe the bottles and clean off any drips. (Unless you want ants… because that’s how you get ants.) Labeling is a good idea unless you like surprises or your memory is a lot better than mine. You can get these awesome dissolving labels at Canadian Tire in the canning section made by Bernardin. They wash completely off in warm water, but actually last as long as the bottle’s dry.
(9) You can then put the bottles anywhere to do their 2F thing — I put them in my large pantry space that’s above a set of stairs in my kitchen. I’d recommend keeping them at ‘room temp’, not anywhere too cold or too hot. Too hot and it’ll work too fast (KT on the ceiling), too cold and it won’t work fast enough (weak bubblyness).
(10) Then you’re ready to set up your next batch. I just give the big brewing jar a thorough rinse with warm water. I don’t use soap. You could, but if you do MAKE SURE to rinse it really really well. Anything like soap or cleansers that can leave residue could kill or really inhibit your brew. The jar comes nice and clean with just a rinse. If there’s any hanger-onner bits just use your finger to loosen them. If you’re squidgy about not really cleaning the jar each time you could swish some white vinegar around in there. Vinegar will clean, but is just an acid and any remnants won’t negatively affect the brew, which is acidic anyway.
(11) Add your reserved starter tea to the jug, then pour the sweetened tea that’s been sitting overnight (or is at least cooled to room temp) to the jug. (Be careful. I’ve found I can maneuver my pot pretty well, but I’ve poured tea all over the counter once or twice!) I used to fill it damn near the top of the brewing jar, but recently I had a SCOBY that tried to escape! It was kinda cool, but messy. The jar was so full that the SCOBY was able to ‘grab on’ to the cloth cover, and from there it grew and oozed up over the side, and presumably it pulled liquid with it that gathered in the bottom of the plastic basket thing I use under the jar in the pantry (good thing it was there!) It actually created a thin SCOBY film on the entire bottom of the basket that peeled off like a fruit roll-up. Like I said — cool, but kinda messy. Now I leave it about 2 or 3 inches of room from the very top. No travelling SCOBYs since!
(12) After you fill your jug with the starter and the sweet tea, you can return the SCOBY that you took out of the jar at the beginning. Just slip it back into the jar. It might float right away, it might sink, might go sideways. Healthy SCOBYs will usually level out on top eventually. If for some reason it doesn’t, another one will probably form. (If neither happens that might be a sign of trouble, as in your SCOBY community is out of whack and not thriving.) SCOBYs will last a LONG time, but they’ll grow in size by either adding layers onto the surface, or sometimes if the SCOBY was in the jar crooked you’ll have a brand new independent SCOBY on the top of the brewing vessel. The bigger the SCOBY the faster the fermenting happens. In order to keep a nice balance, you’ll want to just use one ‘layer’ of the SCOBY — whatever part strikes your fancy. Any ‘extras’ — be it the new or old — you can do whatever you want with. You can start a “SCOBY hotel” in another jar to keep extra SCOBYs alive and working so that you can give them to friends or do something neat with them. I just made SCOBY ‘candy’ that’s like mildly KT flavored gummy-bears — really freakin’ good! I’ve dried some just for kicks — it’s kinda like leather. I have some ideas but haven’t used my kombucha leather pieces for anything yet. I’ve read about making savory ‘jerky’ out of SCOBY — might try that next. Some people feed their extra SCOBYs to their dogs or chickens. You can compost them, or even throw them out if you get over-run.
(13) Replace the cover. A note on covers: Kombucha is one of the very very few ferments that actually requires an aerobic environment to work. It actually likes a fair amount of air-flow. This is why you want to use a wide-mouth vessel and not a juice jug or anything with a narrow neck. The cover should allow air flow, but keep out dust, pet hair, fruit flies, and other floaties. I have used an old clean cut-up T-shirt, and now I’m using some porous organza-type fabric. The holes in cheesecloth are too big, and I think tea-towels are too thick. Coffee filters don’t last long enough. Whatever the top, I just secure it with rubber bands.
(14) Return (or put) the jug wherever it’s going to ‘live’ and let it work ’til the next time you bottle. Timing will be a personal thing based on a few factors — mainly how you like your KT to taste and how warm or cold the area is where you’re keeping your KT brew going. This, of course, may change seasonally. Here in my house in Winnipeg I have a large pantry thing in my kitchen that is the space above the basement stairs, so it’s high-ceilinged in there and presumably there’s quite a bit of air-flow. I’ve read that closets, cupboards, and smaller enclosed spaces aren’t great for kombucha because of their air-flow needs. Mine are in the dark in that pantry, but you can supposedly keep them in the light or the dark. (I’d imagine direct sunlight probably isn’t so good.) Keeping the KT in close proximity to stored vegetables is supposedly also not good given potential yeast and bacteria and mold-spores they might have on the surface, but I keep potatoes, onions, and garlic in the same general space as my KT and so far so good. My pantry stays between 20 and 22 degrees (Celsius) all year given heat and A/C use, BUT I’ve noticed that despite barely fluctuating temp that the brew has been working faster in the summer. I like my KT fairly strong, and given work and stuff time is a factor. I tend to let my brews go anywhere from one week to two, often somewhere in between. I think about a week-and-a-half is actually my taste ideal. You can sample the KT to get a taste for how it progresses with time, or — what I do — just do it when time allows and learn from there. The worst that happens is that it turns really vinegary due to a long brew time. If you have a batch that goes too long it won’t hurt the SCOBY. You can actually use the resulting vinegary tea as you would apple cider vinegar, either in cooking or other household stuff. I’ve started using the super-strong tea from my SCOBY hotel as a conditioning hair-rinse (diluted with water at the time of use). You can also use the yeasty dregs and strong KT as a sort of faux sourdough starter to make bread or pancakes (see my Pinterest board for recipes and techniques). The possibilities are seriously endless.
The bottled KT I let sit for 3-5 days depending on the sugariness of my 2F juice and the season, and if I remember that it’s time to move it. (I’ve let batches go a full week, and without total disaster.) After the 3-5 days I move it all into the fridge and then it’s time to actually DRINK it!!!! Since carbonation is building in the bottles, if you let it go too long it will be too fizzy and overflow when you open the bottle. If it doesn’t go long enough it won’t be fizzy enough. Of course desired fizz is personal. Maybe you’ll like yours a bit less fizzy. I’ve noticed that most online directions for making KT say only to let the 2F go at room temp for 24-48 hours with horror stories about exploding bottles, but I can only imagine that they’re in warmer climates or something. That amount of time has never resulted in fizzy enough KT for me, and I’ve talked to other Canadians online who concur.
(15) Drink your bottles of kombucha and enjoy, then in a week or two do it all AGAIN! I’ll mention that it’s totally normal for a little tiny baby SCOBY to form in the bottle. It’ll plop out of the bottle into your glass when you pour. You can just drink it down or fish it out and do whatever with it.
A note about my current SCOBY (the one you’re getting a version of): I got my first one from a lady on an online culture sharing group online who lives in Steinbach. I drove down there in January 2016 in a snow storm and met her in a gas-station parking lot. Unfortunately the transaction was quick and I didn’t get to ask where she got her original from. I’ve been brewing with the generations of microorganisms from that original SCOBY since — it’s August 2016 now.
If you get all into this and want to talk about it or ask questions (of people besides me) or get into other fermented drinks and foods there’s a couple awesome forums on Facebook you might want to join:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/WlidFermentation/ — This is an AWESOME group about all things fermenting. It’s big and active and there are some really amazing people who use it. Before joining the group I had NO IDEA what all was possible!
https://www.facebook.com/groups/181445115312844 — This is mostly a group for people who are looking to get or give different cultures, but they talk about using the cultures too.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/fermenterskitchen/ — This is a slightly smaller (at like 28,000 members!) and more loose group than ‘Wild Fermentation’ and totally awesome in its own right.