Kombucha! (An ode to healthy microbiota)

Have you tried kombucha? Was it from a store, or did a friend share their homebrew with you? Both are delicious, though you won’t be surprised to read that I love my homebrew for the flavour, very low residual sugar, super-low waste and costs, and happy guts. Allow me to introduce you to this particular joy.

Freshly-bottled kombucha and freshly-fed SCOBYs. Yum!

There are hundreds (thousands?) of books, articles, and knowledgeable humans who can tell you about the benefits of drinking kombucha, kefir, and other probiotic fermented drinks. I’m not a biologist or medical professional, but I can tell you about my experience over the past few years and invite you to explore this for yourself. 🙂

For as long as I remember, I’ve had dodgy guts. I tried a handful of gut-friendly diets: they didn’t make much of a difference for me, but they were interesting experiences. I did discover that removing modern wheat from my diet greatly reduced pain and discomfort, and removing all added sugar for about a year also made a marked improvement in my physical and mental health. (From humanitarian, ecological, and personal health perspectives, massively reducing our sugar intake can be a powerful change. I’ll talk about that in another post.) However much those changes helped, though, I still couldn’t quite find my happy place.

I started to research gut biota, the complex and fascinating world of microbes living in every person’s intestines. Humans have evolved with and alongside bacteria and yeasts (and fungi): we need them to thrive so that we can thrive. We need a rich mix of microbes to support larger beings, whether that’s lovely vegetables fed by healthy colonies in the soil, or lovely humans fed by healthy colonies in our guts. There are some nutrients that we wouldn’t be able to access through our own mechanical and chemical digestion, so we rely on microbes to make those nutrients available to us through their digestion; some nutrients are only available in low amounts in food and our best source is our friendly gut colonies.

This microbiota, as the trillion-cell collective entity of microbes associated with each of us is known, digests food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, synthesizes essential nutrients so we don’t have to obtain them from food, protects us from potentially dangerous organisms, teaches our immune system how to function, and regulates many of our physiological systems in ways that we are just beginning to recognize. Not only are we dependent on microorganisms, we are their descendants: […] microorganisms are our ancestors and our allies. They keep the soil fertile and are an indispensable part of the cycle of life. Without them, there could be no other life.

Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation. (2016) See also www.wildfermentation.com

With all that in mind, we can’t just eat for our own pleasure: we must also eat with our healthy gut colonies in mind. We’re caring for them as much as they’re caring for us.

So – where does kombucha fit in? See those floaty things in the jars, in the photo above? They’re called SCOBY: Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. These lovely, rubbery, pancake-shaped colonies turn tea and sugar into kombucha, a delicious drink for humans. As the scobies digest the sugars, they leave behind nutrients for us, along with microscopic free-floating bacteria and yeast, some of which survive the journey through our stomachs to join and enhance the populations in our guts.

I first tasted kombucha from a local company, having bought it from an ordinary grocery store. I tried a few flavours over the course of three weeks, and was legitimately amazed by the positive impact this had on my gut health. I felt a marked reduction in swelling and pain; to my surprise, food started to taste more flavourful. Evidently, my gut biota appreciated the new arrivals: I wish I had known about this years ago! (See other posts in the Fermentation Festival category for more of my duh-piphanies about fermented foods and gut health.)

There were only two things that I didn’t love: buying beverages in bottles that I wasn’t likely to reuse, and injecting unnecessary sugar into my diet (I was still doing the no-added-sugar thing, and kombucha for the general public is usually sweetened after the first ferment). I started looking for recipes so I could try this at home.

The guide that made the most sense to me at the start of my fermenting adventure was this one, from Traditional Cooking School/Ask Wardee. I bought two gallon jars, two starter-SCOBY, some butter muslin, a couple of stick-on thermometers, and a dozen grolsch-style reusable bottles. Some of those items came in a kit that included ph strips, which I found helpful when starting out because I had zero experience with fermentation and it was reassuring to have a way to measure the acidity. Because we don’t heat the apartment all that often, I bought a seedling mat to warm the kombucha in the winter.

You know what? The first batch was so easy! I have to say, though, it took me a while to get up the courage to taste the kombucha that first time. “What? You want me to …put a straw in this jar with this alien pancake …and drink? Uhh…” 😉 Of course, it was delicious.

Since then, my recipe has evolved. I keep two jars going all the time, using a mix of green and black teas for flavour. I use honey, but far less than most recipes call for: I want to feed the colony but I don’t want leftover sugars to feed me. I prefer that it not be fizzy, so I don’t add sugar/juice/dried fruit for a second ferment or to flavour the final product. Lastly, I delight in leaving each batch to continue the first ferment until it develops a lovely vinegary tang.

Kombucha, Diane-style:

  1. In two 4-cup (one-litre) vessels, brew tea. I use about four teaspoons of loose-leaf organic fair-trade green and black teas in each vessel, about half green and half black. Sometimes I’ll use a flavoured tea, like chai, earl grey, or green with dried blueberries.
  2. Leave the tea to steep longer than usual. Let’s be honest, I often forget about it for a couple of hours. I’m certain that I’m offending tea-drinkers the world over by admitting to that, but it makes for an epic kombucha flavour.
  1. Pour the tea through a strainer to catch all of those tea leaves – we only want the liquid. Compost the leaves.
  2. Pour the tea liquid into the fermenting jars (one vessel of tea into each jar). There should also be about 2cups (500ml) of leftover kombucha from the last batch in those jars.
  3. Fill the vessels (the ones you used for tea) with 3cups-4cups (750ml-1L) of warm water (not hot). Stir in 1/2 cup (125ml) of honey, locally-produced and organic if you have access to it, until it dissolves. Take a moment to consider what type of honey you want to use: a clover-type honey won’t alter the flavour much, but a buckwheat-type honey will add that deep, rich flavour as an undertone to your kombucha. Experiment; have fun!
  1. Add the honey-water to each jar.
  2. Fill the jar at least to the shoulder with more warm water. Some of the water will be lost to evaporation as this ferments. Give it a stir.
  3. Cover the top of the jar with a cloth and fasten it with a piece of string or an elastic band. This keeps flies and dust out of your kombucha, and lets the SCOBY breath. It’ll be outgassing a bit, but the aroma isn’t very strong.
  4. Put the jars in a warm place where they can ferment. Various people recommend 22-32oC, which my thermometers say is 72-90oF. My scobies have shown me that they like 28oC internal-jar temperature, so like I wrote earlier I put a seedling mat under them in the cooler months, and wrap them in a snuggly towel in the shoulder season. In the summer, they’re quite happy on top of the freezer, away from breezes and making use of that bit of heat exhaust from the appliance.
  5. Lastly, leave the jars to ferment for anywhere between 5-15 days, very much depending on your goals and environment and colonies. Mine have settled into a happy 7-10 day cycle: at 7 days, the kombucha is ready to drink, and at 10 days it has a lovely vinegar tang.

When it’s time to bottle the kombucha, I like to use a siphon. That way, I don’t have to juggle gallon jars, floating SCOBY, funnels, and bottles. You can use any food-grade tube to achieve the same goal.

Clean each bottle and rinse with boiling water; when they cool a bit, fill them to the start of the neck with your epic kombucha.

Leave about 2cups (500ml) of kombucha in each jar, along with the SCOBY, to start the next batch.

Some people like to add sugar, juice, or dried fruit at this point and leave the bottles in a warm spot to complete a second ferment, so their kombucha is fizzy and sweet. That’s not my preference, so at this point I call it done.

I’ll add three more considerations:

  • I like to drink the kombucha first thing in the morning. It can be a little intense, though, so I tend to mix it with equal parts water. With that extra water, it’s an entirely pleasant first flavour of the day.
  • Fermentation doesn’t stop in the bottle until all of the sugar has been digested. That also means that the microscopic bacteria and yeast that are floating around in the bottle continue to find each other and form a colony. So …. be aware that sometimes, you’ll have a gelatinous blob in the bottle – a baby colony. Because I’m not a fan of surprise goo, I pour my kombucha through a strainer into a glass before I drink it.
  • With every batch, you’ll get two bonus products: more colonies, and yeast poo. Neither of those will harm you, but they clutter up the jar. Filter out the yeast poo occasionally (it’s the cloudy brown stuff at the bottom of the jar), and ask around for ideas about what to do with the old SCOBY alien-pancake when you have a lovely new one ready to take over the jar. I hear that goats like to eat them? <shrug>

Happy fermenting! May you become best friends with your symbiotic microbiota, and thoroughly enjoy every flavourful adventure along the way.

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