if you live on a farm or small homestead, you probably know that winter is not necessarily a time to relax from home chores and practices. you probably have loads of planning, preparations, maintenance, and cleaning to be done during these months where everything rests outside. but if you’re like me, just a wanna be homesteader with no land or farm to your name, you may be at a loss for winter homesteading practices. i have loads of self-reliant and homey ideas to get you through the wintertime, and i will be sharing them over the next couple months. today i’m going to share one of my mainstays – the kombucha ritual.
i became interested in making kombucha four years ago when i was gifted a “scoby” by a friend. however, my first attempts were quite unsuccessful and my scoby was dead in no time. luckily just a bit later, a different friend gave me another scoby and my partner bought me a proper book on making kombucha. i was off running and haven’t looked back! we both drink 6-8 oz of kombucha at least a few times a week, and i believe it helps with our overall health.
what is kombucha
kombucha is a fermented tea drink that originated somewhere in asia/ russia. it is now very popular in the united states for it’s supposed health benefits, and you can find it in virtually any supermarket here. the drink is made by brewing a sweet green/ black tea (Camellia sinensis – not herbal tea) concentrate, and then letting this concentrate ferment with a kombucha mother or scoby. scoby means “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” and what it looks like is a rubbery patty made up of layers. the scoby contains all the microorganisms that ferment the tea concentrate. the essential ingredients in kombucha are the tea and the sugar – it cannot be made without both.
finished kombucha is typically carbonated and slightly sweet, with sour/ vinegary flavors. plain kombucha tastes a bit like apple cider vinegar to me. however, kombucha is almost always flavored with herbs, fruits, vegetables, and spices, and these are the foremost flavors in the drink.
why drink kombucha
kombucha has loads of supposed health benefits, with people and companies making claims that it is a panacea of sorts. for certain, kombucha contains probiotic microorganisms that provide your gut with healthy bacteria. it is also rich in anti-oxidants. but don’t believe all the claims folks make about this drink – i’ve seen people state it cures cancer and makes you live longer, and these claims are usually unsubstantiated.
we drink kombucha for the probiotics, but also as a nearly caffeine-free (there are trace amounts from the tea) and low sugar drink. it’s tasty and refreshing, and i often will reach for a glass of kombucha instead of a beer. it would also be a great substitute for pop, as it contains much, much less sugar. we love our sparkling water too but can’t make that at home, so kombucha is a great homemade alternative to our rabid la croix habit.
why make your own kombucha
sure, you can buy bottled kombucha at nearly all grocery stores these days, but at a high cost! a single 16 oz bottle can cost $2.50-4, which is a pretty luxuriant indulgence. my weekly batch makes three 16 oz bottles, and it probably costs less than $.50 per batch, most of which is the flavoring material. it is very cheap to make your own kombucha once you have an established scoby.
another reason to make your own is it’s much fresher than that coming from the grocery store. but personally, i enjoy making my own because i have a relationship with my scoby culture. for me, making kombucha is a self-care ritual that connects me to a living thing. i provide for my culture and help it grow and multiply, and in return it provides me with a healthful drink that i share with family and friends. it’s a magickal exchange, and i further amplify the plant magick with my choices of herbs, fruits, veggies, and spices added to the brew.
kombucha is wonderful because it can be made year round, and it’s flavorings can be reflective of the seasons!
to start your own kombucha ritual, you will need a few things. i recommend starting small by brewing half-gallon batches. these are convenient because you can use a mason jar instead of having to buy a special glass vessel for fermentation. a half-gallon produces three-ish 16oz bottles a week. i only drink 8 oz at a time, so this is about 6 servings a week, which is plenty for 1-2 people.
most of the equipment can be found in your kitchen, or sourced second-hand from a thrift store. you will need:
- a half gallon glass mason jar or other glass vessel
- a wooden spoon
- a metal sieve/ strainer
- paper towel or even better, a circular piece of cloth/ muslin cut about twice the size of your jar opening – you can use an old, clean t-shirt
- (4) 16 oz flip top glass bottles – these are easily obtained by buying a four-pack of a beer called grolsch, that comes in green glass flip top bottles (bonus is you also get 4 beers to drink) – we have also found many flip top bottles at thrift stores
- small plastic funnel that fits in bottles
- a kettle or way to boil water
as for ingredients, i mentioned above the two “musts” are tea and sugar. i used a blend of 50% plain green tea and 50% plain black tea, but you can also just use plain black tea. i don’t recommend just green tea because it’s not as strong in constituents that the culture needs to thrive. do not use flavored tea, like earl grey or peppermint green. these flavorings contain essential oils that can be detrimental to the culture during the first fermentation. as for sugar, use plain sugar. you can use white, my preference is to use evaporated cane juice which is looks like raw sugar. don’t use brown sugar, and don’t use honey – it contains anti-microbial constituents that are awesome for preservation but bad for your kombucha culture.
you will also need, most importantly, the scoby. i believe these can be bought online/ etsy, but the best way to get one is to ask around. kombucha brewers often have tons of extra scobys sitting around and are happy to share. you might even ask a local coffeeshop – i’ve seen many that make their own kombucha.
brewing kombucha is a two-step process that takes 7-10 days depending on the time of year/ temperature in your home. in the summer kombucha ferments faster and in the winter slower.
the first step is to make the unflavored fermented tea. first your prepare the concentrate, then you add your scoby and let it ferment for 7-10 days. this is called primary fermentation. the second step is to bottle the finished kombucha and add flavorings. the bottles are left at room temperature for 2-3 days, during which time they become carbonated and flavored. this is called secondary fermentation. then the kombucha is ready to chill and drink.
for some reason i like making kombucha on sundays. the process takes roughly a week, and sunday is a good day for me because i am generally resting/ not working. if you keep up with your ritual, it will only take about 30 minutes of active time per week to make your kombucha.
begin by boiling 2 cups of water. in the beginning while your scoby is growing in strength, i recommend using only filtered water that is chlorine free. we have a fancy filter for this, but you could also buy distilled water from the grocery. alternatively, you can let water sit out in the open over night and the chlorine will dissipate, or you can boil and then cool water. the chlorine will inhibit fermentation, but i’ve found that if my scoby is strong and large, it doesn’t seem to matter much.
pour boiling water in a bowl or jar and add 1 TB tea and 1/2 cup sugar. stir well with a wodden spoon (not metal!) to dissolve sugar. cover and let this sit for one hour or until lukewarm.
strain this mixture into your half gallon jar. add 5 more cups filtered water. finally, carefully place your scoby into the jar. you should always make sure your hands are very clean when handling your scoby. on top of the scoby, pour either 1/2 cup of leftover kombucha (see below), the liquid you recieved your scoby in, or raw acv if you don’t have either yet. it’s important to our acidic liquid over the scoby to give it a jump start on fermentation.
cover the jar with either a paper towel or a piece of muslin/ cloth and secure with a rubber band.
set this in a warm spot out of direct sunlight – the top of the fridge is a good place. now all you have to do is wait! start tasting the kombucha after about 5 days. once it tastes the correct balance of sweet and tart to your liking, it is ready to bottle. the longer it sits the more tart/ vinegary it will become. it’s really a matter of personal preference – i like mine quite tart.
to bottle – clean your flip top bottles well and let them dry. remove your scoby from the jar and set aside in a bowl. pour about 1/2 cup of finished kombucha over the scoby, cover with a cloth, and set aside. add flavorings to each bottle (see below). using your funnel, fill each bottle with kombucha, leaving an inch or two of headspace. cap and set in a dark place for 2-3 days to carbonate. refrigerate and drink!
the yeast strands produced by the scoby will look like gritty, stringy black threads. these are normal. but – if you start to see black, green, blue spots – discard both your scoby and tea batch and wash all equipment thoroughly. you have mold. as with all fermentation projects, it is essential to keep your equipment very clean.
once you get going and decide you want to have a kombucha practice, it is best to keep what’s called a scoby hotel to make sure you don’t lose your culture. every time you brew kombucha, your “mother” will produce another scoby. typically these stack togetehr to make the culture very large. however, once you have a substantial culture you can peel layers off your mother and set them in a quart sized mason jar. cover them with finished, unflavored kombucha. cap the jar with fabric and secure with a rubber band. keep these jar our of sunlight, and check it periodically, adding liquid when needed to keep the scoby’s submerged. i add new scobys every couple months to my hotel. that way, if you lose a batch to mold, you have a bunch of back up scoby’s! and now you have scoby’s to share with friends who want to start a kombucha practice of their own.
the time it takes for primary fermentation, as well as for your bottles to carbonate, depends heavily on your home. it’s best to test the carbonating bottles because if they get left too long, they will explode from excess carbonation! this happened to us only once – it was in the middle of the night and it sounded like a gunshot going off.
if you leave your kombucha in primary for too long – it will become very tart. no worries! you can actually let it sit for 6 weeks and you will have kombucha vinegar, which is very useful. it’s a low acidity vinegar (generally <2%) that can be used for cleaning, as hair rinse, and as a mild cooking vinegar. i let my batch go to vinegar if i’m travelling a lot, or life is simply too busy to keep up with my practice.
you can use just about anything edible to flavor kombucha! this is the most fun part of the ritual for me. when it comes time to bottle, i first look in my fridge/ garden/ foraging spot for what’s available. then i ask myself what kind of kombucha i need this week. some weeks i need something cooling so i go for mint or citrus. some weeks i need something stress relieving, so i use chamomile or lavender. like i said above, i like to keep my flavorings seasonal. the options really are endless, and i encourage you to make good use of google in trying to find various flavor combos. experiment, and keep a journal so you know which recipes worked best!
here are some ideas for seasonal brews:
winter – pine needles. star anise. cinnamon. clove. orange. grapefruit. allspice/ spicebush. medicinal polypore mushrooms.
spring – spring greens like chickweed & nettle. violet, dandelion, and clover flowers. strawberries. chamomile buds. mint. thyme. sassafrass. rhubarb. maple sap.
summer – stone fruits. blueberries, blackberries, raspberries. cucumber, watermelon. edible flowers – roses, calendula, nasturium. tarragon, sage, and any other herb from your garden.
fall – apple, pear, pumpkin. lavender. ginger. rosemary. honey. edible mushrooms. beets, fennel.
as always, check your local library system and buy second hand!
- the big book of kombucha by hannah crum and alex lagory – this is my personal bible
- the art of fermentation by sandor elix katz – another fermentation must-have
- kombucha revolution by stephen lee
- wild drinks by emily han