Hi all, Jen Blood here. I’ve been happily buried in homesteading biz over the past several months, and thought I would take a moment here to talk about one of my favorite aspects of the Make-Your-Own lifestyle: fermentation, defined by the dictionary as “the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat.”
Yes, that’s right. It’s not just for old timers or hipsters anymore. Middle-aged white ladies have also jumped on the bandwagon. I eagerly devoured Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, and that got rid of a lot of my initial unease about the idea of rotting things on my sideboard in order to consume them later. At this point, we have homemade sauerkraut in the fridge, gallons of apple cider vinegar in the pantry, miso that’s been aging for a little over a year in the closet, homemade vanilla extract aged in an oak cask I got online for $30… Ben’s family mocked me relentlessly for that one, since my first batch of vanilla cost north of $100 between the organic vanilla beans, bottle of bourbon, and the cask. However, we’re now on our third batch of the extract and I’ll be tapping more shortly, so it’s becoming more cost effective. The extract makes a great gift, as well, and is kind of incredible in holiday baking.
My favorite fermentation project of all, however, continues to be my kombucha. Kombucha is made from something called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), which is a big slimy terrifying thing you keep on your sideboard or in a dark corner somewhere pretty much in perpetuity. Here’s my girl, or one of them anyway:
She’s not pretty, but she does pack a punch.
Here’s a quick tutorial on how to make a batch of kombucha. The first step, of course, is to get yourself a SCOBY. I got mine from my good friend Sam, who rocks. She provided a very healthy SCOBY about a year and a half ago, and that is the great grandma of the SCOBYs I have today (I have two). If you don’t have a friend who has extra SCOBY, you can find them online pretty much anywhere now relatively cheaply, or you can make your own. Or, if you’re dying to try this, just hit me up – I always have SCOBY to spare.
At any rate…
You start with your slimy, pulsing culture of bacteria and yeast.
From there, you need to brew your sweet tea. I use 1 tablespoon of green tea and 1 tablespoon of black – herbal tea doesn’t work so well at this point, but black or green tea works wonders. You’ll also need 1 cup of sugar; I use raw cane sugar, but table sugar reportedly works just as well. Then you need a 1-gallon glass jug, which you can usually find at places like Goodwill… I got several at Reny’s for about $10 each, and they’ve more than paid for themselves since that time. Glass gallon jugs are excellent for the fermentation game.
So… Making this thing.
Boil one quart of filtered water. Add the tea leaves, and let brew for 10 to 15 minutes.
Then, strain out the tea leaves and add your sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
You now have your sweet tea brew. Add this to your gallon jug, followed by about two and a half quarts (10 cups) of cool filtered water. At this point, the sweet tea should be about room temperature. You don’t want it much hotter than that, because it could kill your SCOBY. A dead SCOBY is not what you’re after.
Once your sweet tea is, in fact, room temperature, wash your hands thoroughly and then gently add your SCOBY to the jug.
Pour two cups of old SCOBY sweet tea (the stuff your SCOBY was living in, until you brewed the new) over the brew.
Cover with cheese cloth or, in the more active summer months, a lightweight, breathable cotton cloth – fruit flies love kombucha, and will invade if you don’t have a cover that adequately keeps them away.
The first ferment for your kombucha takes anywhere from three to ten days, depending on the time of year. In summer, I can usually get a good first ferment in three or four days; in winter, it usually takes about a week.
You can tell the ferment is working because you’re going to get a new SCOBY. Wahoo! Your existing SCOBY will float in the tea, usually (but not always) drifting down from the top after a couple of days. A tan or grayish film will form at the top of the liquid, gradually taking shape over the course of that first ferment. If you taste test the tea, you’ll find there’s some effervescence and it’s lost some of its sweetness in that time. This is when you move on to the second stage of the kombucha-making process.
I got a dozen swing-top glass bottles from a local brewer’s shop, which are awesome for bottling kombucha. Then, you decide what flavors you want to make. People use fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, or any combination thereof, and there are a million recipes you can follow online. My favorite this summer was from a hibiscus-berry loose-leaf tea I get at Morning Glory in Brunswick.
I add a heaping teaspoon of the loose-leaf tea to the bottom of each of glass bottles (I usually get five to six bottles of kombucha per gallon jug of sweet tea).
Then comes the fun part… Trying to get the sweet tea from the gallon jug into the glass bottles. I use a siphon; if you’re smart, you’ll just start with a gallon jug that has a spout and be done with it. I kind of like the challenge of the siphon, however, and it’s worked just fine for me over the past many months I’ve been doing this.
Leave an inch to an inch and a half of space in your glass bottle, then seal. Put in a dark corner somewhere, and leave for another five to ten days.
Then… Voila. You have kombucha. A word of warning: These little suckers can pack a punch once the fermentation is complete, so be careful uncapping them. I always do it over a sink, releasing the pressure slowly so as to avoid staining my ceiling with rogue kombucha (which has happened to me, but so far only once. Okay, maybe twice). If it’s too fizzy and you’re sure it’s going to explode, release a little bit of pressure and then put it in the fridge. The cold temps stop the fermentation process and usually take a bit of the effervescence from your brew.
If you’re interested in learning more about kombucha, I highly recommend The Big Book of Kombucha, by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory. You can find it at the Rising Tide Co-op in Damariscotta, or I’m sure you can order it pretty much anywhere. Most of what I know about kombucha, I learned from that book and online tutorials.
Do you do any home brewing of your own? I have a slew of things I still want to try, beginning with wine. Sourdough is also on my list. What about you?
Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries. You can learn more at her website, http://www.jenblood.com.