Kombucha is a refreshing, tangy, fermented beverage that is gaining popularity due to its numerous health benefits. Kombucha is reported to boost energy, immunity, liver function, and digestion, while also reducing toxins, free-radicals, bad cholesterol levels, and blood sugar spikes! Store-bought kombucha is great, but can get rather expensive – particularly if you are drinking it regularly. The good news is, kombucha is extremely easy to make at home! It is also very affordable. All you need is a few supplies and about 30 minutes of time every week or two. Read along to learn how to make your own kombucha.
This article will walk you through everything you need to know to start brewing kombucha at home.
Today, we’ll mostly focus on brewing basics – from getting started, through the primary fermentation stage, and briefly about flavoring and bottling. To div into more detail about flavoring and carbonation tips, also known as secondary fermentation, see this separate post all about it!
So, let’s lay a foundation and go over what kombucha is exactly, address a few frequently asked questions, and then we’ll dive into the “how-to”. Short videos are included at the end of this post too!
WHAT IS KOMBUCHA?
History of kombucha
Kombucha is not simply a current trend or the latest fad. It has been made as a healthful beverage for centuries!
“Kombucha originated in Northeast China around 220 B.C. and was initially prized for its healing properties. Its name is reportedly derived from Dr. Kombu, a Korean physician who brought the fermented tea to Japan as a curative for Emperor Inkyo. Eventually the tea was brought to Europe as a result of trade route expansions in the early 20th century, most notably appearing in Russia (as “Kambucha”) and Germany (as “Kombuchaschwamm”). Despite a dip in international popularity during WWII due to the shortage of tea and sugar supplies, kombucha regained popularity following a 1960s study in Switzerland comparing its health benefits to those of yogurt.”Christina Troitino via Forbes
How is Kombucha Made?
Kombucha is made through a double-fermentation process, where sugar and tea are slowly transformed into the semi-tart, semi-sweet finished beverage – with the aid of a SCOBY. The Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) interacts with sweet tea to ferment it into gluconic and acetic acid. It encourages beneficial bacterial reactions, lowers the pH, and prevents growth of harmful bacteria. Additionally, probiotics, enzymes, and antioxidants are formed. These are the things that make kombucha so good for you!
Did you know: good gut health is the key to total-body health? If you’re curious to learn more, check out this article all about the health benefits of fermented foods.
During first stage of the double-fermentation process, or primary fermentation, the sweet tea and SCOBY are in a vessel that is protected from contamination like dust and fruit flies, but not sealed. It is an aerobic fermentation process – “with air”. At the end of primary fermentation, the kombucha is technically ready to go. It can be enjoyed then if you wish! However, most people enjoy their kombucha carbonated and flavored, which is where the secondary fermentation comes in.
For secondary fermentation, also called “second ferment”, the finished kombucha is added into air-tight bottles. A couple ounces of pureed fruit, whole chunks of fruit, or fruit juice are often added at this stage as well. By enclosing the kombucha in an anaerobic environment and feeding it a little fresh sugar (in the form of fruit), yeasts convert that sugar into carbon dioxide. The sealed bottled prevents the carbon dioxide from escaping, leading to carbonation.
Continuous Brewing Method
You’ll hear me mention the “continuous brew” method a few times in this post. We have always made kombucha using the continuous brew method. Personally, this has always seemed like the easiest and quickest method. We’ve been practicing continuous brew for over 4 years now!
In contrast to the “batch method”, you never really halt the process. You do not take the SCOBY out of the crock during bottling. Instead, a vessel that has a dispenser is used. On bottling day, you simply draw off the amount you want to bottle through the dispenser, leave the rest alone, and add back the same volume of sweet tea that you took away in finished kombucha. When using the batch method, you sort of disassemble and reassemble everything each time you bottle and start a new batch instead.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What about the sugar in kombucha?
Sugar is a necessary ingredient in brewing kombucha. It is what feeds the SCOBY and keeps it healthy, in addition to caffeine.
Think of SCOBY as your strung out little friend.
Really though. She’s an addict. But she’s not an enabler! On the contrary, the SCOBY is greedy and wants all of “the good stuff” (her words) for herself. The resulting kombucha she provides you is vastly different from the raw ingredients she is fed.
The SCOBY converts the majority of the sugar to healthy acids during the fermentation process. Meaning, the final beverage you will consume is pretty dang low in sugar. If you read the nutrition label on bottled kombucha, most of them range from 5 to 12 carbs per 16 ounce bottle. Plus, those usually have fruit juice added for flavor. Because you’re making your own, you have ultimate control over your own brew. You can choose to not flavor yours at all during second fermentation, or run the primary ferment even longer. Both of which would further reduce sugar content.
Kombucha’s Effect on Blood Sugar
Hey there! Type 1 Diabetic here! And guess what? Despite the initial sugar content, kombucha does not noticeably raise my blood sugar. Instead, it can actually have the opposite impact, and help keep it more level! The gluconic and acetic acid that are formed in kombucha during the fermentation process are known blood sugar stabilizers. Moreover, the fermentation process cleaves sucrose (polysaccharide) into fructose and glucose – both of which are utilized by the fermentation process thereby reducing the glycemic load.
Note: I have heard of some people brewing successfully with honey, though I believe it can take a toll on SCOBY health over time. Avoid using other sugar substitutes.
Is there alcohol in kombucha?
The short answer is yes. But just a tiny bit, depending on how it is made. The chemical reactions between bacteria, yeast, and sugar result in the formation of a small amount of alcohol during the fermentation process. That very reaction is part of what keeps it safe and healthy to consume. Commercial kombucha that you’ll find in the store is marketed as “non-alcoholic”. To be called so, it is limited to contain less than 0.5% alcohol. Miniscule. In contrast, home-brewed kombucha may contain slightly higher amounts. Various sources say that homemade “booch” can range from .5% up to around 2-3% alcohol content.
Most people will not feel any type of intoxicating effects from consuming kombucha. However, pregnant or breastfeeding women should probably avoid it. You may experience a short-term invigorating buzz when drinking kombucha, but that doesn’t mean it is from alcohol! Even drinking store-bought kombucha gives me a little rush sometimes, but remember, those are extremely limited in their alcohol content. I accredit it to the acetic acid and antioxidants.
How much caffeine is in kombucha?
It’s up for debate, but most resources say that SCOBY needs some caffeine to thrive. Herbal or decaf brews may still taste good, and I’ve heard of people successfully doing this, but many experts say the beneficial cultures will weaken and die off with time. The most popular tea is a combination of green and black. This is what we use. It produces a great balanced flavor and healthy brew. We tried to go all green once, but found our brew seemed weaker and less carbonated. We’ll talk more about tea choices below!
If you’re concerned about caffeine levels, you could try something on the lower end of the spectrum, for example mostly white tea mixed with green tea. Keep in mind that properly fermented, finished kombucha should contain less than 1/3 of the caffeine concentration than when initially started! The fermentation process vastly reduces it. I am pretty caffeine-sensitive. I cannot drink tea or coffee past 3 pm without being wired all night. On the other hand, I can easily drink kombucha in the evening with no noticeable impact on sleep!
In my humble opinion, the benefits of consuming kombucha greatly outweigh the very little residual sugar, caffeine, or alcohol content.
Do you agree? Let’s get you brewing then!
HOW TO MAKE KOMBUCHA
It’s time to gather your kombucha supplies! In case you missed it, I shared a pretty detailed kombucha brewing supply list a few weeks back. I will still provide a brief rundown here, but if you have any questions about these things, go check out that post for more information.
- SCOBY – You can either obtain a “baby” SCOBY from a friend who brews, buy one from a reputable source, or attempt to grow your own. We tried to grow one recently, twice… and it didn’t go all that well. I am not sure if it was actually mold, but they sure looked funky. We got our original SCOBY from Fermentaholics years ago, and decided to pick up another one for this demonstration. They’re one of the few certified organic providers, and very affordable!
- Starter liquid – Two things get your sweet tea kickin’. The SCOBY, and some finished kombucha – also referred to as the starter culture, or starter liquid. Some experts say this part is even more important than the SCOBY! It essentially inoculates your brew. You’ll need 1 to 2 cups of mature stater culture per one gallon of sweet tea. Purchased SCOBY will often come with some included. Fermentaholics says their SCOBY package contains enough starter liquid to add to a one-gallon batch. Another option is to pick up a bottle of kombucha from the store. Choose plain, not flavored!
- A Brewing Vessel : If you intend to follow the continuous brew method like we do, choose a vessel that has a spigot. You probably want to replace that spigot with a better, safer option – as I discussed in the supply post. It is best to start your first batch of kombucha using only one gallon of sweet tea. A new small SCOBY can’t handle fermenting much more than one gallon at first. Yet once it is strong and developed, we prefer using a 2-gallon crock for our regular brewing needs. Therefore, we are starting this batch in a 2-gallon vessel, but only half full. Other folks may start with a one gallon container and never upgrade to larger one. It all depends on how much you want to drink! In the height of our kombucha-drinking days, we ran two 2-gallon crocks at once!
- Tea: For this recipe, you’ll need either 2 tablespoons of loose leaf tea, or 4-6 teabags. We prefer to use organic bulk loose leaf tea, and steep it in this stainless steel infuser. Once we have a healthy brew going, we use a combination of jasmine or gunpowder green tea with half black tea. However, to give the new scoby a good kick start, we opted to use black only for now! I hate to sound like a broken record here, but check out the supply post to read more about tea options, including what types to avoid.
- Sugar: This recipe will use 1 cup of regular cane sugar. Organic is definitely preferable!
- Water: Use filtered, de-chlorinated water if possible. We don’t want the chlorine slowing down the good bacteria.
1) Clean your supplies
You want to make sure all of your supplies are clean, but they don’t need to be “sterile”. Avoid using bleach, or even soap on your kombucha supplies! The residual soap could stick around and really make things “off”. We spray or rinse our supplies with plain white vinegar, let it sit a few minutes, and then rinse well with hot water. That’s it. I also wash my hands very well and then rinse with vinegar before handling a SCOBY. If you chose to get a replacement spigot for your crock, give it a good cleaning and install it now.
2) Prepare the sweet tea
- Heat one gallon of water.
- Steep either 2 tbsp of loose leaf tea in an infuser or 4-6 teabags of your choice.
- Add one 1 cup of sugar, and stir until dissolved.
- We find this easiest to do all of this on the stovetop in a large pot.
Here’s the deal though… You want to allow the sweet tea to cool down slightly before adding it to the brewing vessel with the SCOBY. Warmish (75-85°F) to room temperature is good. Too hot of temperatures can kill the good cultures! Cold conditions will greatly slow down your ferment, and will also cause the SCOBY to sink. A sunken SCOBY isn’t a huge deal though – it should float again once it warms up.
To save time, we often only heat half the called-for water, add the full ratio of tea and sugar, then pour in the second half of water cold, rapidly cooling it down to the perfect temperature. You may find it helpful to use a probe thermometer to determine the temperature of your tea.
3) Assemble the brew
- Once your sweet tea is at the ideal lukewarm temperature, add it to your brewing vessel.
- Next, add 1 to 2 cups of starter liquid – see notes below.
- Last but certainly not least, plop that SCOBY in there! As I said, it is okay (and fairly normal) if it sinks or floats sideways.
There are varying recommendations for how much starter liquid to add to one gallon of sweet tea, usually ranging around 1-2 cups. We go on the generous end of the spectrum. The SCOBY we got from Fermentaholics came with around a cup of liquid. For a little extra oomph, we added a half bottle of GT Dave’s Synergy plain kombucha as well. It makes for a great inoculant on its own!
Store your brew crock somewhere warm, but not necessarily hot. You may find the need to change its location depending on the season. (We’ll talk more about temperature momentarily.) Contrary to popular myth, the crock doesn’t need to be in complete darkness. Ambient room light is fine! However, do avoid direct sun rays, such as keeping it in a bright window.
Cover your brew crock with a breathable but tight-knit material. The kombucha needs to breathe, but we don’t want to allow contamination like dust, mold spores, or fruit flies inside. Use something like a lint-free dish or tea towel, part of an old clean pillowcase, or even a coffee filter, for smaller crocks. Secure it with a large rubber band or similar. We learned the hard way that cheese cloth is not effective at keeping fruit flies out. Its holes are too large.
The time your brew takes to convert from sweet tea to a spunky finished kombucha depends on a number of factors, which we’ll discuss below. Expect the very first batch or two to take far longer than they will thereafter. A brand new kombucha brew may take up to 21 days to ferment, while a mature brew can take as little as 7 days – especially utilizing the continuous brew method.
The temperature of your brew is the largest dictator of ferment time. Warmer temperatures accelerate fermentation, and cooler temperatures slow it down. Too cold of temperatures can slow SCOBY activity and fermentation down so much that there is a risk for mold to develop. This is particularly true for a new not-so-strong brew. The ideal temperature range for kombucha fermentation is between 75-85°F. We feel okay with around 70-ish too, but much lower than that will result in a sluggish brew.
“Why do you have lights around your kombucha crocks?”
I can’t tell you how often this question comes up! One word: Heat. To provide the warmth that kombucha loves so much, we wrap our crocks in holiday lights. The traditional style lights give off the perfect amount of heat. New LED styles will not. We turn ours on in the winter months, or overnight during the spring and summer. During our warmest season (fall), we don’t need them at all. Other ways to provide warmth include using a seedling heat mat, or keeping the crock on top of a warm appliance.
To monitor temperature, you may want to use a thermometer. Some folks check the actual temperature of the liquid with a probe thermometer. The easiest option is to keep one on the outside of the crock, like one of these adhesive strip thermometers. By checking the temperature, you’ll feel confident that you’re in the ideal range, or see that adjustments are needed.
Age of Brew
Other factors that influence the time your brew will take to finish fermenting include: the size of the SCOBY, how strong your brew is, and how much “starter liquid” you leave behind to jump start the next batch.
SCOBY Size: Did you know that with every batch of kombucha, your mother SCOBY will produce a new layer? This is lovingly referred to as its baby. You do not need to remove the new layer. A lot of homebrewers allow their SCOBY to get really fat before thinning it down. The fatter the SCOBY, the quicker the brew will ferment. Sometimes ours are 3 to 4 inches thick before we peel away a few layers! Extras can be added to a SCOBY hotel, chopped up and fed to the chickens, composted, or even turned into SCOBY “fruit leather”.
Starter Culture: As you’ll read more about below, when it is time to bottle finished kombucha, always leave some finished brew behind to get the next batch started. Unlike this recipe to start your very first batch, you can be really flexible in how much you leave behind in the subsequent brews. Using the continuous brew method, we draw off about 2/3 to 3/4 of the volume of finished kombucha to bottle and leave the rest behind. That means we could be leaving up to half a gallon of finished kombucha in the crock for the next batch. The more starter liquid in the brew, the faster it will ferment.
The last factor that influences your kombucha brew time is your personal flavor preference.
The longer kombucha ferments, the more tart and vinegar-like it will become. A shorter brew time will result in a sweeter finished product. Do keep in mind that we want to ferment off a good amount of that sugar and caffeine though! Kombucha is supposed to be tart. If you bottle your brew too prematurely, you are not getting all of the true benefits of a properly fermented kombucha. You’d be drinking semi-fermented uber-sweet tea instead.
On the other hand, if it ferments way too long, you’ll end up with “kombucha vinegar”. It may be too strong to enjoy by that point, but it can still be used for many things – including as the starter liquid for a fresh batch, to make fire cider, or even as a natural hair rinse! Read 7 Clever Ways to Use Sour Kombucha Vinegar here.
Do a taste test! That is another beauty of using crocks with spigots. If you suspect your brew may be about ready, pull a little off and give it a try! For those using a crock without a spigot, I have seen people sticking a straw right in the top to take a sip.
According to experts, the proper pH level of finished kombucha is between 2.5 and 3.5. We honestly don’t check very often because we like a pretty tart booch anyways. But if you’re curious to see exactly where it’s at, get some pH test strips to see!
Notes During Fermentation: “My SCOBY Looks Ugly”
As your kombucha begins to ferment, you’ll notice it going through some changes. If your SCOBY doesn’t already take up the entire surface area of your crock, a film will start to develop on the top of the liquid. That is a new layer of SCOBY forming. Sometimes, SCOBY can get pretty damn ugly. It can get lumpy and even have white spots that look alarmingly like mold. Unless they’re fuzzy and raised, it is very unlikely that it is mold.
As a brew matures, the color will usually lighten. It may also develop brown stringy lumps hanging from the SCOBY. There may also be a brown film on the bottom of the crock, particularly if you’re using continuous brew. That is yeast, and is totally normal! Excessive yeast build-up should be removed every few months. I will tell you all about crock maintenance and cleaning soon!
Once your kombucha has fermented to your ideal tartness, it is time to get it bottled!
The topic of secondary fermentation, flavoring, and carbonation is so vast that I needed to save it for another post. In short, you’ll add the finished kombucha to air-tight bottles. If you wish, you can also add a couple ounces of fruit puree or juice, but the volume should be mostly kombucha. The bottles then sit at room temperature for anywhere from 2-10 more days, depending on the temperature and flavor. Next, move them to the refrigerator to chill before enjoying.
There are SO many tips and factors that come into play with carbonation. We get killer carbonation – click here to learn how! But please note that it can also be dangerous when done incorrectly. The most essential part when it comes to safety is using high-quality bottles; those that are made to withstand the high pressure of brewing and carbonation. Literal explosions may occur with bottles that can’t handle it. I will write the secondary fermentation post in the coming weeks and link it here!
Following a traditional “batch” method (in a crock without a spigot): Pull out your SCOBY, set it on a clean plate, carefully pour most of the finished kombucha into bottles, and leave behind the appropriate amount of starter liquid for the next batch. See the chart below for how much liquid to keep behind, depending on your size vessel. Continuous brew kombucha is a little more free-flowing. Pull off as much as you want to bottle, but leave at least a few cups of finished booch behind. The SCOBY can stay in place during bottling.
6) Add fresh sweet tea
After bottling a batch of kombucha, you’ll need to add fresh sweet tea back to the crock. Make a batch of sweet tea just as we did in the instructions above, trying to create the same volume as you removed in bottling. Allow to cool slightly, and pour it in! We simply pour the replacement tea right on top of the SCOBY, who rights itself with time.
For a visual recap of these steps, check out my extensive kombucha 101 tutorial from Instagram below! Swipe/click though the slides to the right to see all 9 videos.
And then the whole process starts over. And over…
Note: If you started a one-gallon batch in a 2-gallon container as we did here, I would wait a couple of rounds until you add more volume to it. Once your SCOBY is looking larger and strong, slowly increase the amount of replacement tea you make, using the chart below.
Benefits of Making your Own Kombucha
Aside from being easy, there are many reasons why you may want to consider making your own kombucha.
By making your own at home, you have the utmost control over the end product! You can choose the quality of ingredients, get creative with adding fruit and flavors, and adjust how sweet or tart you prefer the end product to be. We have come to favor the flavor of our homebrew. It’s delicious!
Let’s not forget the cost savings! Because they’re significant. The cost of bulk sugar and tea is peanuts compared to routinely buying bottled kombucha. Making our own kombucha at home greatly increases its availability., and our ability to drink it more often. That means we get exponentially more exposure to the health benefits.
Last but not least, brewing is fun!
I hope you found this post informative and empowering, so you feel excited to start brewing kombucha at home too. Let me know if you have any questions, and please spread the booch love by passing this post on!