Hey Laura, tell me about kombucha

Ashley writes:

There’s a lot of information on the internet promoting and warning against kombucha. This summer I began making my own and love it and wonder if you can condense for me some of the pros and cons of drinking (regularly) this yummy fermented tea!

And Seth asked,

I recently discovered that I can no longer find kombucha on the shelves of my local grocery store. (Aparently the Feds are shutting down this hippie party because of concerns about alcohol content.) So I’ve decide to finally take the plunge and start brewing my own kombucha. Where do I start? Growing bacterial beverages at home sounds complicated. I need the Idiot’s Guide to Kombucha. (Oh, and pictures please…)

What the heck is kombucha?
Some of you may have no idea what Ashley and Seth are even talking about, so here’s a very quick kombucha primer, taken from Wikipedia:

Kombucha is a fermented tea that is often drunk for medicinal purposes. There is limited scientific information supporting any health benefit and few studies are being conducted, although there are several centuries of anecdotal accounts supporting some of the health benefits attributed to the tea. Kombucha is available commercially and can be made at home by fermenting tea using a visible, solid mass of yeast and bacteria which forms the kombucha culture which is often referred to as the “mushroom” or the “mother”.

The culture itself looks somewhat like a large pancake, and though often called a “mushroom,” a “mother of vinegar” or by the acronym SCOBY (for “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast”), it is scientifically classified as a zoogleal mat.

Anyway, it’s tart and tangy and slightly fizzy. Some people feel that it’s too vinegary, but I find it totally refreshing!

Is it safe?
Kombucha has been brewed and enjoyed for hundreds (possibly even thousands) of years. It is touted as a health elixir - sometimes to the extreme. I’m always skeptical of panacea claims, but the anecdotal evidence for the basic qualities of healthiness are fairly consistent.

  • balancing the metabolism
  • cleansing the blood and regulating pH levels
  • improving liver, gall bladder, and digestive function
  • detoxifying the body and enhancing the immune system
  • raising overall energy level

You can read more about kombucha’s purported health benefits here.

When you’re home brewing, it is recommended that you use pH strips to test the pH of your kombucha. Ideally “The pH of the kombucha batch should be between 2.5 and 4.6. A pH of less than 2.5 makes the drink too acidic for normal human consumption, while a pH greater than 4.6 increases the risk of contamination.”* I’ve actually never tested mine, but I’m considering it, just out of curiosity. I had one really “off” batch this summer that we simply threw out. It would have been nice to know what was going on with it!

You might have heard some scare stories about people dying from drinking kombucha. It’s totally insubstantiated. You can read the CDC report here and a total refutation here. I will let you peruse at your leisure; that kind of thing gives me a headache to summarize.

Since kombucha does have a detoxifying effect, you should not start drinking it when you are pregnant or nursing. Too much of those toxins will get to your baby, either through your bloodstream or your milk. But if you have been drinking it all along and are maintaining a reasonably clean lifestyle (ie: not too much to detoxify from), then it seems reasonable to continue drinking it.

The Happy Herbalist has probably the most stringent warnings against the use of kombucha for pregnant and nursing mamas, and very young children.

Personally, I have enjoyed small amounts of kombucha throughout pregnancy, and larger amounts while nursing. My nearly-4 year old has been drinking small amounts of kombucha since she was about 1 year old.

Gunther Frank, a renowned kombucha guru, has a suggested dosage table for different age groups here. He doesn’t say it on this page, unfortunately, but the average suggested “dose” of kombucha is about 4 ounces per day. Many proponents poo-poo such a small amount, and state that a liter a day is a perfectly reasonable dosage as long as you are in good health.

And that brings me to my personal soap box about kombucha - it’s not a “soda replacement” (although it will help curb your cravings!). It’s not a recreational drink. It is much more aptly described as a health tonic and should be used carefully, not quaffed irresponsibly, no matter the quantity you consume. The more kombucha you drink, the more water you ought to be drinking, to flush out the toxins that the booch is dislodging. I also think there is value in taking a break every couple of weeks while you’re waiting for your next batch to finish brewing. This discussion explains why.

What about alcohol content?
So, Seth mentioned the alcohol recall issue. Basically, the FDA discovered that while kombucha producers could guarantee that the booch was leaving their plant with an alcohol content of less than 0.5%, it was reasonable to assume that a second ferment could be occurring in the bottles on the shelves at the grocery store. Not only is that a quality control issue (many people avoid any possibly alcoholic beverage for health or religious reasons), if the alcohol content goes over 0.5%, the government gets to excise a special alcohol tax on it.

The kombucha recall was voluntary, but in order to compete (and not be gouged by an extra tax), most producers are working on ways to guarantee the non-alcoholic status of their product.

As for your home brew, The Happy Herbalist cites some kombucha analyses here. Most have found that the alcohol content is highest around day 8 of brewing and tapers off significantly the longer your brew sits.

Alcohol content depends upon length of brewing and averages (8 days) less than 1/2 of 1% (about the same as fresh squeezed orange juice). A longer brew time (14 days) reduces the sugar content and alcohol content considerably although the taste moves from sweet to semi-sweet to sour to vinegar. Michael Roussin suggested an 8 day ferment at 80F (26-27C) and Cornell University Food Study indicated 9 days at 79F (26C) for the optimum blend of taste and health.

KombuchaKamp.com interviewed GT Dave - one of the first-to-market (and my favorite commercial) producers of kombucha - about the recall. The dude drinks 1-2 gallons of kombucha a day!


How do you make it?
So you’ve gotten this far and you’re not scared off by the booch. Plus, you also don’t want to pay an arm and a leg to support your kombucha love. It’s really easy to make at home!

Here are the exact instructions I learned from when I bought my first kombucha SCOBY from Cultures for Health.

Since I just started a new batch last night, I thought I’d bring you along a pictorial journey of kombucha brewing! Here’s how I do it.

Here are my basic ingredients:
kombucha ingredients
Black tea, sugar, the SCOBY with starter tea from a previous batch, and water of course (not shown).

I mainly use Lipton tea, but as long as you have about 70% real caffeinated tea, you can mess around with herbals, etc. The batch I just bottled had about 2 cups of very concentrated hibiscus infusion (that’s why my starter here is so pink!). Prior to that, I was adding some really wonderful Yunnan Gold, which made a delicious, mellow kombucha.

Here’s a closeup of the SCOBY; I’m sure you wanted to see!
Kombucha scoby

There are actually several layers; I really need to give a couple away - anyone local want to take one off my hands?

Anyway, I don’t boil my water because it takes way too long to cool. I don’t use filtered water, either! I just use hot water straight from the tap (granted, my water is very pristine here in Central Oregon!), dump in the correct amount of sugar, then hang a few tea bags over the side of my 2 gallon glas brew jar.

After the tea is brewed and cooled, I add the SCOBY and starter tea. If my tea is still too warm for the SCOBY and I’m in a hurry, I’ll just gently add the starter tea on top to cool the top layer down enough to make it safe to lay the SCOBY gently on top (apparently getting it too warm can kill the culture).

Then I cover with a kitchen towel, tie with a ribbon, and cozy it up in an old beach towel. Then I scootch it into the pantry where it lives on the floor for the next 10 days (in summer heat) to 3 weeks (in winter chill).

Once it’s brewed (your first time will be trial and error - you can just stick a straw under the SCOBY to suck up a sample on day 10), you bottle it. I use old screw-top commercial kombucha bottles for mine, but you could use mason jars or mayonnaise jars…anything that seals tightly. I like to infuse mine with fruit bits (many people use fruit juice, but I never have any on hand). I’ve made a delicious ginger-peach one (ginger really increases the fizziness of your booch!), and currently have a lemon and lavender batch going in my fridge. Strawberry is an old standby.

Everyone who makes kombucha has their own little twists to the basic method. Some people brew with honey instead of sugar; use white tea instead of black; do a continuous brew; or start a secondary ferment after bottling. KombuchaKamp.com has an interview with The Happy Herbalist that discusses some variations. Here is a great list of add-ins and flavorings.

KombuchaKamp.com has some helpful brewing tips and Cultures for Health has an excellent kombucha FAQ. The kombucha tea forum at Tribe.net will surely give you hours of informative reading.

Get started now!
I’m excited to offer an exclusive HeyLauraWhat reader discount from CulturesforHealth.com! I bought my first kombucha culture from them two years ago, and it it still going strong.

Use the code HLW2010 to receive 15% off kombucha cultures and starter kits. Offer expires September 30, 2010. If you “Like” Cultures for Health on Facebook, you’ll be privy to some other special offers (hint hint: free shipping this weekend!). :)

Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, tell me about kombucha

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