The Alchemical Kitchen: Kombucha
Here’s how to brew your own cultured tea.
by Rebecca Brenner
My good friend Nala is the creator and director of the Bcollective in Washington State. The Bcollective describes itself as an “off-grid, Pacific-Northwest island homestead which aims to blend arts practice, teaching, and performance with permaculture principles in order to build a thriving, commonsense model of community.” A few years ago, I was attending one of her workshops that explored the health themes of the body as home, the expressivity of health, and the creation of a wellness curriculum. Most of my time there was spent in the studio moving, discussing and writing. However, it was my early morning moments in their outdoor kitchen that inspired my interests in how food preservation practices support personal and environmental wellness.
Each morning I would wander out of my yurt, through a thick patch of evergreens, to the outdoor kitchen. I’d start some hot water for coffee and tea and wait for the other participants to gather. While waiting, I began to notice how much of the food was stored without any refrigeration: In cool, dry nooks I found canned, pickled and cultured vegetables.
One morning early on in the visit, Nala asked me if I’d like a glass of her home-brewed kombucha. Being an adventurous food spirit I said sure, even though I had no idea what it was. I followed her to the indoor kitchen. From under the counter, she pulled out a large glass container draped with a thin, white cloth. She removed the cloth, revealing a mushroom-like thing floating on top of a light brown liquid.
Nala explained it was not a mushroom, but a “SCOBY”-symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. I’ve come to learn that the SCOBY or kombucha culture feeds on tea and sugar, creating a beverage full of acetic, lactic, and glucuronic acid.
These natural acids, along with the active enzymes, amino acids and polyhenols, may aid in detoxifying the body, as well as boosting digestive and immune health.
As Nala mixed a small glass of kombucha with a bit of cranberry juice, she explained how she had learned about fermented tea in a workshop with Sandor Katz (author of “Wild Fermentation” and “The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved”). While mixing my drink Nala said we as a culture have become bacteriaphobic, and how a more symbiotic relationships between us and bacteria may actually support health.
She handed me the red, bubbly drink, assuring me it would taste delicious. I gave my glass a swirl, sniff and sip-and it was delicious! I could feel it fizz down my throat and into my belly. It was naturally effervescent and slightly sour smelling. I noticed how it had a sharp, almost acidic taste-even as Nala was explaining how kombucha created a more alkaline inner environment.
Over the next week, each glass of kombucha brought new information: It may have originated in the Tsin-Dynasty in China around 221 B.C.; cultured teas can be found throughout Asia, France and Russia; these teas are thought to have been used as health and longevity elixirs.
Nala would excitedly rattle off the numerous purported health benefits -metabolic balance, aids in cleansing the blood, stimulates liver function, creates digestive regularity, strengthens hair, and tones and clears skin. But what most excited me was the possibility that Nala’s SCOBY, if treated well, could be passed on to generations of friends and families.
Soon after my return home I began to research and practice food preservation techniques. I could see huge changes in my own digestive health, as well as my clients’. A year after my stay at the Bcollective I started to notice bottled kombucha popping up in health food stores. I was thrilled, till I saw the pricetags. I called Nala and asked how I could get started with brewing my own fermented tea. She said to keep an eye on the mail she’d send what I needed to get started.
A week later a box arrived from Washington with her writing and doodles. I opened the box to find one of the big mushroom-like kombucha cultures floating in a bit of tea. On top was a note…
Hiya Becca! Here is the kombucha mama! Who knows how old she is, perhaps 1000’s of years old. I can tell you who I got mine from…my permaculture friend Jenny. For Kombucha use black tea and local honey or sugar. I usually use less honey than sugar, just like baking. So maybe 2/3 or 3/4 cup of honey or 1 cup sugar. Let me know how it goes. It’s all about surrender to the microorganism flow, huh? Happy Culturing. XOXO Nala.
The following day, I used the recipe below, and got to kombucha culturing. Some of the things I’ve learned, read, researched along the way: Make sure you create and store the kombucha in a very clean environment; Only use stainless steel or glass to brew tea. And once you’ve placed your kombucha in chosen container, put in a clean, warm place where it won’t be moved or disturbed until done. Happy culturing!
1 gallon brewing container (glass, lead-free ceramic, lead-free porcelain, or FDA food-grade plastic bucket; a “sun tea” jar with a spigot works very well)
Breathable cloth to place on top of container (such as lint-free cotton towel; cheesecloth is too porous)
3 quarts of good-quality water
1 cup organic sugar or ¾ cup local honey
5 organic black or green tea bags, or equvalent loose tea (not decaffeinated)
½ cup of kombucha tea from previous batch or store (if from store, do not use flavored tea)
1 kombucha culture (I recommend getting one from a friend or family member. Learn about its lineage by asking who they got it from.)
1. Thoroughly clean all utensils, pots, brewing container, and surface area. Do not use harsh chemicals, but a natural/organic cleaning agent. Rise well.
2. Bring water to boil.
3. Add sugar/honey and dissolve.
4. Add tea bags and steep until water has cooled completely-may take up to eight hours. Keep pot lidded to prevent contaminants.
5. Pour tea into brewing container, adding ½ cup kombucha tea and place kombucha culture on top.
6. Cover brewing container with breathable cloth and secure with elastic or yarn.
7. Move covered brewing container to warm place, and leave undisturbed for about 10 days. You’ll notice a “daughter,” a new SCOBY, forming on top.
8. How fast your brew develops depends on the weather and the SCOBY itself. Sample the tea and if it is still slightly sweet, it is not done fermenting. Finished kombucha should be slightly sour, acidic, and may be effervescent.
9. When finished, place liquid in a large glass container or small individual containers and refrigerate. Kombucha may become even more effervescent during second storing in glass jar.
10. Use kombucha culture to start a new batch. Kombucha starters will multiply. Simply remove and share with family and friends. If done right, your starter may proliferate for generations and generations.
CATALYST editor Greta grows kombucha too, and is a big fan of the sun tea jars with spigots. Each time she draws off a quart of brew, she replaces it with a quart of sweetened tea; this is much easier than starting “from scratch” each time, she says. Also, some say certain beneficial organisms in the liquid require longer than 10 days to develop; this gives them a chance to grow, and supposedly enhances the health benefits of the brew.
Standard disclaimer: If starter blackens or grows mold, it has been contaminated and should be thrown away. Bit neither Greta noe I have ever sen a SCOBY go bad. I recommend trying a small sample and get mindful and present to how your body feels. If your digestive system likes it, add more kombucha into your diet. If your system feels upset – there are lots of other cultured foods and probiotics that may be better for you.
Rebecca Brenner, Ph.D. is a nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health. For more healthy recipes, visit www.parkcityholistichealth.com. To learn more about Nala and the Bcollective: www.bcollective.org.