• Posted by Kyle Forester on September 22nd, 2008, 3:39 PM

    Photos by Califia Suntree.

    I should start by emphasizing that I am not an expert on kombucha. I have been drinking it pretty regularly for a couple of years, and for the last six months or so have had two big Mason jars in my kitchen filled with the stuff. Every week to ten days, I harvest six bottles worth out of those jars and start brewing (“brewing”? “growing”? “cultivating”?) another batch.

    The first time I encountered kombucha must have been sometime in 2005, when I saw my friend Kevin with a bottle of “G.T. Dave’s Kombucha.” I asked Kevin what he was drinking, to which he replied, “It’s, like, a LIVING CULTURE, man! After you open the bottle, you gotta drink it within, like, TWO HOURS…or it could become LETHAL!”

    Pretty soon after that, I started seeing those G.T. Dave’s bottles all over the place. Most health food stores, and Whole Foods, were carrying them, usually charging between four and five bucks a bottle. A few people I knew had developed expensive kombucha habits, claiming all sorts of health benefits and mood-altering side effects. I was skeptical, and suspected that these people just figured any non-alcoholic beverage that costs that much must be something special.

    Kombucha is tea that’s been fermented by a “culture,” actually a fungus consisting of bacteria and yeast, also known as a SCOBY, for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. It is, as Kevin said, a living thing. The form it takes is a slimy disc, which is actually kind of beautiful.

    Kombucha originated in China around 250 B.C., and spread sometime after to Korea and Japan. (The name apparently comes from a Korean doctor named Kombu who was brought to Japan to treat the emperor.) It reached the West via fermentation-friendly Russia and Eastern Europe around the turn of the 19th century, and spread from there to health-conscious Germany.

    Click any image for slideshow.

    In the U.S., kombucha had a small burst of popularity with the hippie movement, but this latest renaissance came out of 1990s L.A., where HIV patients starting using it. This is also where Beverly Hills High School dropout (he DID get his G.E.D.) G.T. Dave started Millennium Products, now the most popular brand of kombucha. His mother, Laraine Dave (so, yeah, their last name is Dave; I don’t know what the G.T. stands for) was maybe some kind of ex-hippie (G.T. says his parents were “very spiritual”) and had already been making and drinking kombucha when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She successfully fought the cancer, and gives part of the credit to kombucha. The experience inspired G.T. to start making and bottling kombucha in his kitchen, driving around L.A. selling it to health food stores. A few years later, he scored Whole Foods as a client. (Have a look at this recent picture of G.T. and Laraine Dave, they do look really healthy.)

    I don’t really remember how I ended up getting on the bandwagon. Well, for one thing, kombucha started going on sale more often. I think I probably bought my first bottle of G.T. Dave’s because of a two-for-five-dollar deal. I’m always looking for a good beverage to help with that part of the late afternoon when I get sleepy and grumpy.

    The G.T. Dave’s bottle claims that it “supports digestion, metabolism, immune system, appetite control, weight control, liver function, body alkalinity, anti-aging, cell integrity, healthy skin and hair.” But I think of it as something like ginger ale with a kick. And it keeps me from drinking too much coffee. Oh, and when I was struggling with constipation recently, I found that waking up in the morning and drinking a couple big glasses of water and 16 ounces of kombucha really did the trick. I was probably just experiencing the benefits of drinking a bunch of any clear liquid, but I enjoy the additional effect I get from the kombucha, even if it’s just a placebo.

    There have been a bunch of brands riding G.T.’s coattails, including Kombucha Wonder Drink, started by a co-founder of Stash and Tazo Tea in 2001; a bunch of smaller operations, like Katalyst Kombucha in Western Massachusetts; and a company in the U.K. called Gaia’s Organic Kombucha that sells it in wine bottles.

    But, if you enjoy kombucha and want to drink it regularly, there’s no reason not to make it yourself. (Unless you don’t want your kitchen to smell like vinegar, which is a pretty good reason.) Making your own is really very easy—all you need is a starter culture, which you can get from anyone who’s already making it. (If you don’t know anybody, you can contact me through Spooning.)

    The biggest challenge, I find, is the problem of suitable containers. But maybe I just don’t have as many containers in my kitchen as most people. First, you need some big glass jars. My friend Sam recommends getting those extra large jars of pickles, seeing how fast you can eat all the pickles, and then using the jar for kombucha. I just use a couple of three-liter Mason jars that I bought at a home supply type store.

    Whenever you make kombucha, you should start with a little bit of already-fermented liquid. Whoever’s given you the starter culture should have given it to you in some kombucha liquid, so pour that into your large jar for your first batch.

    Then you need some room-temperature black tea. There’s conflicting information out there about what kind of tea you should use. Most people seem to insist that it has to be caffeinated black or green tea. But I’ve read that herbal tea works, too. I use regular black tea. Right now, I have one of those family-size boxes of Tetley. It was maybe two bucks at the supermarket. Everyone seems to recommend brewing the tea a little stronger than you might normally, so I usually leave the tea bags in for 15 or 20 minutes.

    After the tea, you need to add sugar. The proportion I use is a quarter cup of ordinary white sugar to one quart of tea. I stir up that tea and sugar in the Mason jar and then drop the culture in there. I read somewhere that you should rinse the culture off before putting it in the liquid, so I do that now. It’s a good excuse to play with it.

    Once this is all done, you should cover the jar with something breathable that will keep things like fruit flies out. I use coffee filters attached with rubber bands.

    Now you have to put it somewhere where it won’t be disturbed. And the warmer that place is, the faster the fermentation will take place. I’ve read that 74 to 85 degrees is ideal, and I must say that in the summer months, in my non-air-conditioned apartment, my kombucha did seem to ferment a little quicker. Obviously, the fridge is no good.

    Now the magic happens. Somewhere between a few days and a week after you’ve prepared your kombucha, a kind of film will start to develop in or on the liquid, which gradually turns into a new culture. The new culture will take on the shape of the jar it is growing in. Sometimes the new culture will be fused with the old culture or cultures, sometimes it will be separate.

    The most important variable in how your kombucha comes out, I find, is how long you leave it fermenting. I like the batches best that I’ve left for something like ten days. Any more than that and it starts getting a little too tart.

    Now all you have to do is bottle the kombucha you’ve made, and start the process over again. I solicited as many bottles of G.T. Dave’s as I could get from people and mostly use those. They’re really nice bottles, with wide mouths and everything, but I’ve also used pickle jars and other kinds of jars and bottles with reusable lids.

    I used to pour the liquid straight from the Mason jar into the bottles, but now I strain it first. If you don’t use a strainer, you end up with little bits of culture in your bottles, which sometimes grow and can be a slightly unpleasant surprise slithering down your throat as you drink your kombucha.

    The yeast continues to work after you’ve bottled the liquid, so it gets more effervescent. After you bottle the kombucha, I recommend writing the date on all the bottles, so you can compare how each batch comes out, and how they taste after different amounts of time.

    Now you’ve got to put all these bottles somewhere. I keep them in a kitchen cabinet, and rotate two or three into the fridge every couple of days, starting with the oldest ones. So I’m usually drinking kombucha that I bottled a few weeks prior, which I find tastes the best.

    Sam, the one with the excellent pickle jar idea, turned me on to the practice of putting little pieces of fruit and things (apples, raisins, ginger) in the kombucha after you bottle it. The remaining yeast will feed off the sugar in the fruit, and it will change the flavor of the kombucha a bit.

    Because a new culture grows every time you make a batch, the potential number of batches you could have going at once grows exponentially. I’m fine with my two 3L jars. I leave a couple of the old cultures in with the new one every time (I imagine the older ones teaching the young ones how to properly be a fungus), throwing them out when they start to look a little old and worn out. (You can also compost them.) Or, if I know somebody who wants to start making kombucha, I take one of the cultures, put it in a container with some kombucha liquid, and start somebody else on their kombucha journey!

    Note: There are lots of kombucha resources on the web (see related links), but my favorite by far is the truly excellent Kombucha Journal, maintained by Germany’s Günther W. Frank, obviously a tireless advocate for kombucha. The website, available in 30 languages, is a goldmine of information and kombucha-related anecdotes. (It contains, for instance, a section about Ronald Reagan’s rumored kombucha habit.)

    Kyle Forester is a New York-based music educator and fearer of bacteria in his colon.

Comments

  1. January 28th, 2010 at 9:31 am
    doris kornish

    Hi Kyle,

    Thank you for the article and the culture!! I am a bit nervous to try it, but I think that you relieved some fear with this well written article.

    I hope this makes me a better drummer!! lol

    lovelove,
    doris

  2. February 24th, 2011 at 5:05 pm
    Esther K Smith

    wow kyle- you wrote that!!! thanks for the starter!

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