I’ve written about brewing your own beer at home. I followed that post up with a guide to making your own hard cider. I haven’t tried my hand at homemade wine yet, but I’m mentally working on that one as we speak.
But beer, cider, and wine aren’t the only fermented beverages you can make in the comfort of your own home. Kombucha, an increasingly popular tea-derived drink that’s lightly carbonated and contains little to no alcohol, is a great alternative to those stalwarts. And, with no boiling or rapid cooling required, it’s much easier to produce than beer.
You can buy kombucha in stores, but it’ll cost you $3 to $4 per 16-ounce bottle, in most cases. Some would say it’s worth the price, and if you have a generous budget or limit yourself to an occasional taste, that may be true. But making kombucha at home is cheaper – and probably more fun. Here’s what you need to know to be successful.
What Is Kombucha?
First things first: a crash course in kombucha.
Kombucha is a simple beverage made from fermented, sweetened tea. It’s lightly carbonated, somewhere between barrel-aged beer and craft cider on the fizzy scale.
Every batch has a slightly different flavor profile, but balanced kombucha retains the slightly bitter taste of the tea with which it’s brewed, a dull sweetness left over from the initial sugar load (which fuels fermentation and is therefore reduced as the batch ages), and an unmistakable tanginess produced during fermentation. Longer fermentation periods produce tangier kombucha, so if you’re not a fan of that flavor, you’ll want to keep fermentation to a minimum.
To ferment, kombucha relies on a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY. A SCOBY is a gelatinous, irregular disk with a smooth, squishy top and a softer underside trailed by ephemeral tendrils and fibers that frequently break off and float freely in the solution. If that sounds gross, it sort of is – a squeamish friend of mine was visibly shaken when I showed him the SCOBY and thereafter referred to it ominously as “the organism.”
Although the SCOBY is transferred out of every finished kombucha batch, billions of individual microorganisms remain behind in every batch. Kombucha is therefore probiotic, like live-culture yogurt.
The SCOBY doesn’t just ferment kombucha. Like a portable immune system, it also protects the solution from harmful bacteria and fungi that would normally parachute in from the surrounding environment. As long as the SCOBY is healthy and the equipment used to ferment the batch is clean from the outset, the risk of illness from a bad batch of kombucha is low. Not nonexistent, but low.
Like beer, standard-issue kombucha is very simple. It requires only water, tea, sugar, and the SCOBY. (Beer requires only water, barley, hops, and yeast.) It’s therefore easy to make at home. However, you can do quite a bit to liven up your finished kombucha, and I’ll explain some of the more popular options below. You can get plenty of ideas in the kombucha section of your local food co-op or health store.
Pasteurization is a controversial topic among kombucha devotees. Purists argue that since pasteurization kills the beneficial microorganisms in kombucha and may degrade the micronutrients they produce, it dulls the drink’s health benefits. Food safety advocates reply that unpasteurized kombucha, like other raw food products, can contain harmful bacteria that wreak havoc on the digestive system and occasionally cause serious illness.
Most store-bought and homemade kombucha is not pasteurized, and while I’ll outline the common-sense safety measures that you can and should take to avoid contaminating your batches, I won’t go into detail about the home pasteurization process here. However, if you’re seriously worried about safety, I’d advise you to investigate further.
Pro Tip: If you’re interested in general advice on food-safe sterilization procedures in home kitchens, check out my post on canning at home.
Although kombucha is considered a soft drink and is very popular with people who avoid alcohol for reasons of health, religion, or personal preference, it’s not technically nonalcoholic. Like “nonalcoholic” beer and wine, traditionally brewed kombucha has trace amounts of alcohol – up to 1% by volume, a by-product of the fermentation process. Depending on your sensitivity, you’d have to drink quite a bit to notice the effects, but this is worth remembering if you’re a strict abstainer.
Benefits of Kombucha
Some folks swear by kombucha’s health benefits, calling it a catchall cure for a wide range of physical and psychological ills. I tend to be skeptical of sensational health claims (or dire warnings) about any food or beverage product, so I give little credence to those who crow that kombucha prevents cancer and reverses liver failure.
But I’m not one to dismiss evidence-based claims either. Kombucha does have some attributes that medical professionals and nutritionists generally regard as beneficial:
- Probiotics. Like live-culture yogurt, kombucha is probiotic – it contains live microorganisms that complement and replenish the bacteria that naturally live in your gut. Those little guys are essential to your regularity and overall digestive health, so anything that keeps them happy is good.
- Low Calorie Load. Because it has little added sugar, store-bought kombucha is a relatively low-calorie beverage. According to WebMD, a 16-ounce serving of kombucha has about 60 calories – less than 50% of the caloric load of an equivalent serving of full-sugar Coke and less than a third of what your typical Starbucks latte contains. When modified to include less added sugar, homemade kombucha can be even lighter.
- Moderate Caffeine Levels. Kombucha has about as much caffeine as the tea with which it’s brewed. If you brew with green tea, you’ll have a very low caffeine drink on your hands. Black tea has more caffeine, but still half as much (give or take) as a regular-strength cup of drip coffee. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, this is a point in kombucha’s favor. Be wary of claims that kombucha has less caffeine than comparable teas – that’s not supported by available evidence.
- Low Alcohol Content. The above notwithstanding, kombucha’s low alcohol content makes it a favorable, enjoyable alternative to beer, cider, wine, and spirit cocktails – though it’s not nearly as financially beneficial as investment-grade wine, which can actually make you money if you refrain from drinking it.
- Beneficial Vitamins. Kombucha is generally regarded as a good source of key micronutrients, including B-complex vitamins, such as niacin, biotin, and folic acid. However, there’s a lot of conflicting information (and misinformation) about the availability and impact of these nutrients. Moreover, every batch of homemade kombucha is different, so it’s difficult to generalize or make assumptions about the precise makeup of the batch aging in your pantry or cellar right now. Don’t assume kombucha is an acceptable alternative to a varied diet of leafy greens and other vitamin-rich foods.
Make Your Own Kombucha: What You Need
This is what you’ll need to make your own kombucha* at home:
- 1 quart-sized glass jar (metal can harm the SCOBY over time and plastic is less sanitary), $1.55, assuming $19.80 for a 12-count case
- 1 SCOBY**, $3.99 to $10.99, depending on where you buy (Etsy is cheaper but may have uneven quality, while Amazon and Walmart are more expensive but likelier to pan out)
- 2 to 3 bags of the tea of your choice (or one large-batch bag, or 2 teaspoons loose-leaf tea in a metal tea ball), $0.12 to $0.19, assuming $4.99 for an 80-count box of black tea bags)
- 1/4 cup white sugar (honey contains bacteria that can harm the SCOBY), $0.07, assuming $2.39 for a 4-pound bag of white sugar
- 1 cup starter liquid (mature kombucha from a previous batch or store-bought, unflavored, unpasteurized kombucha), negligible (homemade) to $2 (store-bought)
- 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar (optional), negligible
- 1 boiling vessel (such as a tea kettle or stockpot), $8.99 for a 1.3-quart tea kettle (may vary considerably and you probably already have one at home)
- 3 to 4 tightly woven covers (such as coffee filters or paper towels – porous cheesecloth invites small bugs to feast on your solution), $0.03 to $0.04, assuming $1.29 for 150-count coffee filters
- 1 sturdy rubber band or sturdy piece of string, negligible
- 2 16-ounce swing-top bottles, $5, assuming $2.50 per bottle ($29.95 per case)
- 3 cups water, negligible
*This assumes a quart-sized batch. If you want to make a gallon or more at a time, you’ll need a larger vessel and more of each ingredient.
**See below for tips on growing your own SCOBY – a fun, if challenging, option. If your hobby turns serious and you start making lots of kombucha or even decide to go commercial, you need to know how to grow your own SCOBY.
Once you’ve made a successful first batch, you’ll need just five nonreusable ingredients for each successive batch of homemade kombucha: water, tea, sugar, starter liquid, and vessel covers. Of those, the starter liquid and water are free, and the other three items are super cheap – the grand total comes in at under $0.50 per batch.
To get started, you’ll need to spend more. If you have none of the required equipment or ingredients at home, which is unlikely, you’ll spend about $70 on the low end – possibly more. Still, with store-bought kombucha hard to find at under $3 per 16-ounce serving ($6 per quart), you’ll make that initial investment back after a dozen or so batches.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to buy everything separately, consider a kombucha starter kit. Plenty of vendors sell them, often with fancy flavorings and optional ingredients to enliven the finished product. For instance, The Kombucha Shop offers an all-organic DIY kombucha starter kit for $49. Be sure to price out your kit relative to individually purchased ingredients, as you may find yourself paying a premium for convenience.
Start From Scratch: Grow Your Own SCOBY
There are two ways to procure a SCOBY: growing your own with a SCOBY starter kit or purchasing a young, viable SCOBY online or in-store.
If you’re someone who likes to do things the hard way, opt for the former. The process is pretty straightforward; it’s basically like making kombucha, minus a pre-existing SCOBY. The problem is, the SCOBY doesn’t always grow as you expect. And the growing solution is more acidic than regular kombucha – well past the point of unpalatability. Unless you’re a real trooper, you won’t want to drink it afterward.
The good news: It’s marginally cheaper to make your own SCOBY from scratch, though of course you have to wait for the SCOBY to grow, and your time is surely worth something.
To make your own SCOBY, follow this recipe. You can make more than one SCOBY at a time by doubling or tripling each ingredient:
- Clean a medium saucepan or stockpot with vinegar and bring 4 cups of water to boil.
- Add 2 black tea bags and air-cool. (Use an ice bath to cool faster.)
- Once the tea is at or close to room temperature, add 1/4 cup granulated white sugar and dissolve.
- Transfer the solution to a vinegar-cleaned glass jar (half-gallon or larger).
- Add 1/2 cup store-bought kombucha (unpasteurized, unflavored) to the solution. Be sure to include all the sediment and gelatinous material settled on the bottom of the kombucha bottle – that’s the microbial mother lode.
- Cover with several layers of coffee filters or paper towels and tie tightly with a rubber band or sturdy string.
- Leave in a dark, warm, dry place with decent airflow. An upper pantry or entryway shelf should work fine.
- After a week, check the jar periodically. You should be able to make out a thin, pancake-like layer of film somewhere in the solution – most often floating near the top, but sometimes in the middle or even toward the bottom. It can take a couple more weeks to produce a viable SCOBY, but if you cross the one-month mark without seeing clear evidence of a microbial disk, you may need to start over. Once your SCOBY’s diameter exceeds 1/4 inch, you’ve got yourself a stable organism.
- Leave the jar undisturbed until you’re ready to brew your first batch of real kombucha.
- Don’t use the original solution as your first batch’s starter liquid unless you want a bitter, vinegary brew. Instead, use another load of unpasteurized store-bought kombucha or distilled vinegar.
Skip the Hard Part: Buy an Existing SCOBY
Not willing to invest the time, energy, and emotional bandwidth (particularly if it doesn’t pan out) in growing your own SCOBY? No problem – you can buy one online in a few minutes. Options include a live culture sample or a full kombucha starter kit.
Before you buy, make sure the seller is well-reviewed, and be aware that your SCOBY may only tenuously resemble the stock photo in the product listing. Part of the fun of making your own kombucha is learning that every SCOBY truly is unique – and that SCOBYs grow and change from week to week.
Once your SCOBY arrives, follow the seller’s instructions regarding storage. Most come in small pouches that aren’t suitable for long-term storage, so you’ll probably need to make a batch of sweetened tea to temporarily store the SCOBY until you’re ready to make your kombucha.
Some kombucha enthusiasts advise against storing your SCOBY in the refrigerator, but it’s totally fine to do so for weeks on end. If you plan to wait a while, this is the way to go – in cold conditions, the SCOBY enters a state of quasi-suspended animation and basically stops growing, so all you’ll have to do to keep it happy is check its fluid levels from time to time and add new sweetened tea as needed.
Make Your Own Kombucha: Step by Step Process
Ready to make your first batch of kombucha? Using the equipment and ingredients listed above, follow this sequence:
- Boil water in a clean kettle or saucepan and add your tea. Add sugar and dissolve by stirring vigorously.
- Let the solution cool to room temperature. If you’re using a tea ball, remove it before you add the SCOBY.
- Strain the liquid with a vinegar-cleaned strainer. Add the store-bought kombucha (or, if you’re working off a previous kombucha batch, your starter liquid).
- Transfer to a vinegar-cleaned glass jar. Add the SCOBY with thoroughly cleaned hands or sterile gloves.
- Cover with coffee filters, paper towels, or other tightly woven fibers and secure with a rubber band or piece of string.
- Store in a dry, room-temperature environment with good airflow and little to no light exposure. Avoid basement storage – I tried this early in my kombucha-brewing career and was devastated when my SCOBY fell victim to a virulent mold.
- After three or four days, check the batch for signs of distress. SCOBYs normally float near the top of the jar, but it’s fine to see them sagging along the sides or hanging out near the bottom. More concerning is serious discoloration: dark brown or black layers, or white spots that appear to grow over time. Watch for signs that the SCOBY’s structure is deteriorating too – natural shedding is fine, but the disk should basically stay together. Mold is a deal-breaker. Any visible mold in the solution or on the SCOBY is unacceptable and calls for the entire batch (and SCOBY) to be discarded. When this happened to me, I felt a surprisingly potent sense of loss, and you might too – but know that there’s always another SCOBY waiting when you’re ready to try again.
- If the disk appears to bifurcate, make a note to separate it into two distinct SCOBYs when the batch is finished. This is a natural part of the SCOBY life cycle and a great way to create new SCOBYs without starting from scratch. You may also see a new SCOBY, or at least some translucent film, forming at the top. If it doesn’t agglomerate to the existing SCOBY, you can remove it from the finished batch and grow a new SCOBY with it.
- After a week or so, sample a small amount by submerging a clean straw and drawing some liquid up with your finger. Let your personal preference dictate your stopping point, remembering that the batch will get tangier as time goes on. I generally stop fermenting at day 10, and it’s usually pretty tangy by then.
- Remove the SCOBY, place in a vinegar-cleaned container, and add a cup or two of starter liquid. Store in a dark, dry place or the refrigerator until you’re ready to make your next batch. If the SCOBY is bifurcating or getting too thick, separate it or remove the bottom-most layer to create a new SCOBY. Check on your SCOBY(s) periodically to ensure nothing is amiss.
- Using a clean funnel and strainer, strain the kombucha into your flip-top bottles (or whichever receptacle you want to use). Close the bottles and place in the refrigerator.
- If you plan to add flavorings, such as mint, citrus juice, or herbs, this is when you’d do it.
- Let the bottles sit for another two to three days before drinking. This completes fermentation and adds natural carbonation.
- If you’ve followed common-sense sanitation guidelines during the brewing process, your kombucha should have a fairly long shelf life – at least a couple of weeks, depending on your comfort level. But keep in mind that, like any unpasteurized product, it’s not stable enough to sit indefinitely.
Get More Out of the Final Product: Optional Flavorings and Out-of-the-Box Uses
- Cocktail Mixer. Kombucha makes a great cocktail mixer. Depending on your batch’s acidity, it can replace anything from ginger ale and lemon-lime soda to sour mix. You can also use kombucha in complex nonalcoholic drinks, such as shrubs – sour, fruity drinks normally made with vinegar.
- Marinade. High-acidity kombucha makes a great meat marinade, as the acid helps denature animal proteins and tenderize tough cuts over time. If your latest batch is too acidic to drink and you’re planning a grill session soon, you know what to do.
- Salad Dressing Base. Kombucha can replace apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar in salad dressing bases. Just make sure to add enough thickening agents and flavorings to make the dressing palatable.
- Mustard Base. Kombucha is a great alternative to vinegar in mustard bases. Just add mustard seeds and anything else you’d like to include, homogenize in a blender, and serve.
- Citrus Peel. Add citrus peel – lemon, orange, grapefruit – after you remove the SCOBY to infuse your batch with a different dimension of tartness. Leave the peel in for as long as you need to achieve the desired flavor.
- Ginger. Add ginger after removing the SCOBY to deliver some playful spice to your batch. Ginger does wonders to mask the harsh flavor of acidic kombucha, so if your brew has gone on too long, it could be your ticket to a palatable product.
- Peppermint. Kombucha is light and refreshing – in a word, summery. Adding some peppermint after the initial fermentation is a great way to keep it relevant around the holidays.
- Laundry Detergent. If your kombucha is over-brewed to the point of unpalatability, use it in your next load of laundry as a natural alternative to detergent. Most advocates recommend mixing one part kombucha with one part water. For tough stains, you may need to supplement with another natural cleaner or with traditional laundry detergent.
- Natural Spray Cleaner. The same logic applies here – when mixed with equal parts water, super-sour kombucha’s cleaning power is comparable to white vinegar’s. To avoid sticky residue, you’ll want to use batches with little to no residual sugar content.
Kombucha has gone mainstream in recent years, but it still has a bit of an “alternative” vibe. While researching this piece, I came across plenty of questionable websites extolling the magical healing properties of kombucha, quasi-worshipping the SCOBY (it’s just a microbiotic mat, people!), and making all sorts of tangential claims not supported by any available evidence (for instance, that fluoridated water is bad for the SCOBY).
If any of that turns you off of kombucha, I can sympathize. But you don’t have to believe the wilder claims about kombucha to appreciate its distinct taste and legitimate health benefits (at least, compared with sugary soda and alcoholic beverages). Anyone with a stovetop, a spare shelf, and a modest budget can brew and enjoy their own kombucha at home. Give it a try – and do your small part to bring this worthy beverage further into the mainstream.
Have you ever made your own kombucha?