DIY Recipes: Double Brewed Kombucha
For those of you that have never heard of kombucha, let me just say … you're welcome. 😊
Whether you like black tea or herbal tea or green tea or even if you don't like tea at all; whether you like it unsweetened, lightly sweetened, or drowning in southern sugar – none of that matters. The biggest mistake that people make with kombucha is looking at the list of ingredients (not a long list, I assure you) and using that to determine whether or not they think they're going to like it. However, by the time it's double brewed it tastes nothing like the sum of its ingredients and, for this reason, I've known tea-haters and tea-lovers alike who utterly adore it.
NOTE: Kombucha is not alcoholic.
You can buy kombucha premade and bottled in many chain grocery stores such as Whole Foods and the like, but dollar-to-ounce it's remarkable how much money you can save by making it yourself and, in my opinion, homemade kombucha always tastes better because you can adjust the recipe here and there to suit your own personal tastes. Delicious though it is, kombucha is much more than just a hydrating beverage. Hailing from the area now known as Manchuria, this nearly two-thousand year old recipe is naturally fermented (yes, it's fermented but no, it's still not alcoholic) with a living colony of bacteria and yeast, making it a probiotic beverage. It is widely known to aid in digestion with reports of it improving the symptoms of many conditions including biliary dyskinesia, celiacs disease, diabetes, and even PCOS (just to name a few).
That said, for disclaimer purposes, I feel it necessary to note that while casually consuming kombucha as a beverage is not likely to be that different from consuming a cup of tea, coffee, or soda – if you plan to add daily kombucha to your diet in the interest of aiding any health conditions it would be prudent to consult with your doctor first because I am not a medical professional nor do I pretend to be one. I am, however, an avid daily kombucha drinker with biliary dyskinesia that has found significant improvement in my digestive health and quality of life, for me personally, since I've started making and drinking it.
The initial list of items needed to make this recipe may seem daunting but know that most of these items are things you'll only need to buy once and can then reuse over and over again. Also note that I brew 3-5 gallons of kombucha per week but you can certainly downsize as needed. All of the directions below are for making 1 gallon + a little extra batch of kombucha using black tea (the directions are the same for larger batches, just double the ingredients and don't forget to buy bigger or multiple jars as well – also if you prefer something other than black tea, follow the same directions using the tea of your choice).
Let us begin with a list of supplies:
- 1 One-gallon glass heritage jar or similar glass vessel
- 1 New/Unused Elastic Headband or a long piece of yarn/string
- 1 large kettle/pot or you can use a standard coffee maker (percolation) and a large pitcher
- 1-cup measuring cup
- 1 food-grade funnel
- 6-8 canning/bottling jars with lids and collars
Now for the list of ingredients:
- 6-10 bags of your favorite black, green, or herbal tea (black seems to be best for beginners) + a few extra if you'll be growing your own SCOBY
- 1 cup granulated white sugar + a little extra if you'll be growing your own SCOBY
- 12 Cups distilled, purified or bottled water plus a little extra if you'll be growing your own SCOBY
- OPTIONAL: 6-8 Cups clear fruit juice of your choice (clear meaning non-pulpy: grape, cranberry and apple juice are all good for this whereas grapefruit, orange, and pineapple tend not to work as well – you can also use some vegetables such as strained beet juice)
Brace yourself because this is the part that either intrigues people into trying kombucha or scares them away from it. The fermentation process of the black tea is conducted using a 'Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria & Yeast' aka SCOBY. There are a plethora of websites that will offer to sell you a SCOBY but, depending on the size and age, these can be quite expensive and since SCOBY's can be somewhat temperamental and fragile, I prefer to simply grow my own. This will take a bit longer before you'll be able to drink some home brewed kombucha but I personally find it well worth the wait and once you've grown a SCOBY you can reuse it many times and it will bear you children so if you take good care of it you should only have to endure the growing process once. By the way, if it seems like I'm talking about SCOBY as if it's a living thing, that's because it is. It looks like a giant mushroom cap, feels like a wet squid, smells like light beer (still not alcoholic though) and for the serious kombucha brewers like myself, becomes a very odd member of the family. I even give all of my SCOBY's different names.
To grow a SCOBY you do need a bottle of ready-made kombucha. I know, it seems like the whole point of this article is to make kombucha rather than buying it but actually the point is to save money and have the freedom and peace of mind that comes from enjoying it home made, but it still begins with buying one initial bottle of kombucha. Some bottles of kombucha actually include a tiny piece of SCOBY floating around almost transparent in the bottom, most don't, but it's not required because all kombucha contains the bacteria and yeast that can grow into a SCOBY even if it's not visibly colonized.
Growing A SCOBY
- Begin by washing your heritage jar very well with extremely hot or even boiling water (be careful, of course, not to burn yourself) but no soap! You never want to use soap on your jars and this is extremely important as residual soap on the jar can kill the SCOBY. If you plan on using jars you already have, and have previously washed with soap, that's fine but wash them again in hot water without soap and allow them to air dry before using them for kombucha.
- Brew up two-to-three cups of black tea using tea bags and distilled water and mix in 1/8 cup of sugar per cup of tea, stirring well until the sugar is dissolved well. Allow the tea to cool to room temperature and then pour it into the heritage jar along with the bottle of Kombucha.
- Cover the opening of the heritage jar with cheesecloth 3-4 layers thick to prevent any bugs from getting inside and secure it over the rim of the jar with the piece of yarn, string, or the headband (my personal favorite method is the elastic headband because it's easy and faster than tying and untying knots every week).
- Place the jar in a dark, out of the way, room temperature location such as the top shelf of a pantry or you can leave it on your counter but you'll want to wrap a large towel or thick sheet of paper around it to block out the light (but don't cover the cheesecloth because SCOBY needs to breathe). Wait 2 weeks and check on your jar, you should find a large, flat, disc-shaped growth has formed atop the liquid. It will most likely be very thin and delicate so when you make your first few batches of kombucha be very gentle with it. The more batches you make with it, the thicker it will become and eventually it will give birth (see below for extended SCOBY care on how you can tell if your SCOBY is giving birth and what to do about it).
Making Kombucha: The First Brew
Now that you have your SCOBY, whether you bought one or grew it yourself, the first step is to give it a name. Obviously this is optional but it makes the whole process a lot of fun, in my opinion. I named my first SCOBY Becky and the first time she gave birth I named her sun Bert, bought a second heritage jar, and doubled my weekly batch.
- In all seriousness, begin by brewing up a full 12-cups of strong tea. My method for this is to put the tea bags directly into the filter basket of my coffee percolator (the exact same one I use for coffee), pour the water into the basin and turn it on but my sister prefers to make her tea on the stove using a pot. How you brew the tea is really up to you as I haven't noticed a significant difference in the flavor of the end result, personally.
- Once the tea is brewed, add 1 full cup of granulated white sugar while the tea is still hot and stir it well until all the sugar is dissolved, then set the tea aside to cool to room temperature.
- Once the tea is cooled to room temperature, remove your heritage jar and SCOBY carefully from the dark place where it lives, remove the covering and set aside for later use.
- If you haven't already done so, wash and rinse your hands very well before proceeding to handle your SCOBY, again, she's very delicate and her health can be affected by external contaminates from your hands so cleanliness is very important. Before touching her, be sure to have a large dinner plate on hand beside your jar. Very carefully lift the SCOBY out of the heritage jar and place her on the plate. Try to keep her as flat as possible but if she does get a little folded on herself it's not the end of the world. It happens to us all.
- Spoon a touch of the liquid still in the heritage jar over your SCOBY to keep her moist and set her aside. Some people advise covering her with a towel or piece of cheese cloth while you work but I don't like doing this because she can stick to it and that will be the end of the world for her so I prefer to leave her uncovered and just work the following steps very quickly.
- Using a second, smaller piece of cheese cloth (again 3-4 layers thick) strain the liquid from the bottom of the heritage jar into a separate cup or bowl and set aside. Rinse the heritage jar well with very hot water but do not use soap (see Growing a SCOBY for why soap is SCOBY Kryptonite). Do not dry out the inside of the jar with a towel, not even a clean one (lint is also SCOBY Kryptonite). You can use a paper towel if you must but I usually just tip it upside down, let most of the water drip out and move on to the next step.
- Pour the sweetened room-temperature tea into the heritage jar, add the previously strained SCOBY juice from step 6 to the tea and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the swirling stops.
- Gently remove your SCOBY from the plate and lay her atop the liquid inside the jar. NOTE: If your SCOBY is obedient and floats happily atop the liquid … MAZEL TOV! But that probably won't happen and that's okay! If you're SCOBY sinks to the bottom, that's okay. If half of her floats and the other half sinks, that's okay. If she folds like a bad poker hand … less okay but still not the end of the world. Let her be whatever she wants to be and move on. She'll become easier to work with as she gets older.
- Replace the cheesecloth covering removed in step 3 and fasten with your preferred method (see Growing a SCOBY for why I love the elastic headband method)
- Return your heritage jar and its contents to the dark, out of the way, room temperature location from whence it came and forget out it for 1 week.
Making Kombucha: The Second Brew
This is where many kombucha recipes will tell you to strain the kombucha and enjoy but that's the single brewing method and I personally prefer the flavor and richness of a double brew (still not alcoholic, though). For the second brew, be sure to prepare your bottling jars, their lids, and their collars in advance by washing them in hot water (no soap!) and allowing them to air dry.
- If you plan on starting a new batch of kombucha, repeat steps 1-4 from the first brew. If you plan on letting your SCOBY die, go ahead and throw her unceremoniously into the trash can and skip to the next step.
- Using a fresh piece of cheesecloth, carefully strain your Kombucha into the bottling jars, filling each jar about 3/4 and strain the remaining kombucha into a separate cup or bowl to be set aside (unless you're not making a new batch and then you can put the extra kombucha in another jar, drink it, or throw it out).
- NOTE: I like to strain the kombucha into a large pitcher to begin with, using a ladle to gradually empty the heritage jar as it can be very difficult to pick up and pour when it's full. I also like to use the funnel to transfer the liquid into the bottling jars to avoid making messes.
- Add 1 cup of your preferred fruit juice to each jar
- Tightly seal the lids on the jars and place them in a dark, room temperature location for 1 week.
- If you're making a new batch of kombucha in your heritage jar, repeat steps 7-10 from the first brew.
The Finished Product
Once your kombucha jars have sat in their dark home for a week you may see tiny globular translucent SCOBY's growing on top of each one. That's okay. You can simply sift these out with your fingertips and discard them or give them (with a touch of their kombucha mixture to keep them moist) to a friend that wants to grow their own SCOBY but doesn't want to wait for yours to give birth.
Strain the Kombucha from the jars one final time to ensure nice, clear, bubbly, and delicious kombucha. You can either strain the kombucha directly from the jar into your cup or what I like to do is save my fruit juice jugs, strain the twice-brewed kombucha into them, and place them in the fridge (because cold kombucha is refreshing) for pour-and-go kombucha any time I want it. This is especially handy if you're making a new batch every week as it frees up your jars for the next batch.
Long Term SCOBY Care
I've mentioned several times now that your SCOBY will eventually give birth if you take care of her. The first thing to note is that she will get a bit thicker every time you give her a new batch of sweet tea to thrive on. Eventually she will get thick enough that you'll see her start to separate around the edges like those flaky buttery biscuits we all love around this time of year. This is a sign that she's pregnant but don't get overzealous and try to force her to reproduce too soon or you could end up damaging both her and the baby SCOBY. It's best to wait until the baby starts to visibly thicken and separate as well, until there is a clear separation around most of the edges. When this happens, very gently peel the momma and baby SCOBY's apart.
Once a SCOBY has given birth you can give one away in its own heritage jar to a friend, start doubling your batch production, or throw one of the SCOBY's out. If you're aiming toward the last option, it really doesn't matter which one you throw away. Some kombucha makers develop an attachment to their momma SCOBY and keep using her while discarding the babies, others find the idea of using the same SCOBY for months or years off-putting. Some will keep at least one baby as a backup and continue to feed her fresh sweet tea to keep her alive without actually increasing their kombucha production (she only needs 1-2 cups of sweet tea per week to stay alive and happy). They do this because SCOBY's can and do get sick for a variety of reasons.
Signs your SCOBY is sick or dying begin with the presence of mold. If you ever see or smell mold on your SCOBY, throw her out along with the batch of kombucha that she was making. Mold is not the objective of kombucha. Some people, however, misidentify natural signs of aging as a dying SCOBY. A SCOBY that starts out floating but has sunk to the bottom by the end of the week is not necessarily a dead SCOBY – sometimes they just do that. Bubbles or color changes don't always mean a dying SCOBY either but sometimes they do. Knowing the difference between age and mold depends a lot on the type of tea you're using and whether or not you've changed tea types with the same SCOBY (something I don't recommend doing anyway – once a black tea SCOBY always a black tea SCOBY and so on, and so forth). There are a plethora of websites, with pictures, that will show you what natural aging looks like versus molding SCOBYs.
To prevent ever needing to use those websites, here are some essential tips for long-term SCOBY care:
• Always wash your hands before handling your SCOBY
• Always wash your heritage jar in the hottest water you can safely manage between batches
• NEVER USE SOAP on your heritage jar (soap is SCOBY kryptonite)
• Never dry your heritage jar with a towel (lint is SCOBY kryptonite)
• Never put your SCOBY in hot tea – it should always be room temperature first
• Never put your SCOBY in swirling tea, give it time to stop moving to prevent folding
• Always put your SCOBY on a CLEAN plate (or transfer directly to a fresh batch of tea in a second heritage jar) when changing batches
• Always give your SCOBY a touch of her own mixture to keep her moist when she's on the plate
• Always use sweet tea, she needs the sugar to thrive so don't try to go "diet" and starve her – by the time you drink double brew your SCOBY has already consumed most of the sugar for you
• Never try to force a SCOBY to give birth and most importantly …
• NEVER EVER USE A CONTAMINATED SCOBY – if you accidentally drop her or forget to wash your hands before touching her or you turn your back for a second and turn back around to find the cat giving her kisses – throw her away. A moldy SCOBY is not a pretty SCOBY
I hope you enjoy your kombucha making experience as well as the refreshing, bubbly delight of consuming it. Please let me know how your kombucha making went and feel free to ask questions or share your pictures in the comments below!